Saturday, January 29, 2011

Parenting and The Book of Eli

"Because I said so" only works as long as you are bigger or stronger than the person hearing it, and even then its a mixed bag.  I'm learning first-hand what it means to discipline and shape a child, and I'm acutely aware of the fact that everything I do influences my son.  He watches my reactions, sees my moods and mimics my behavior.  Things that I do now will affect him for his whole life.  The weight of this reality scares me a little bit.

As is the case with all new parents, my wife and I are magnets for unsolicited advice.  "He shouldn't be doing that" is a favorite thing to hear when my one year old throws a tantrum.  I'm tempted to say,"Really!? I had no idea that tantrums were bad.  I was going to video and auto tune his screams in order to market them as worship music."  Move over Antoine Dodson!  They seem to think that I should have absolute control of my son's moods, thoughts, actions and intentions at every moment.

This has caused me to notice two distinct categories of parenting: Control and Influence.  I know people who subscribed to both philosophies, and I've watched their kids grow up and exhibit the long-term effects of both methods.  This has led me to a few non-scientific, observational conclusions.

Influencers use discipline, but make it a point to tell their kids why their behavior is wrong.  They often ask questions like "Why did you do that?" or "How do you think Susie felt when you hit her?"  Sometimes, unknown good or bad intentions surface, changing the nature of the punishment at times.  Children of influencers aren't perfect.  Sometimes their parents even take flack for not having better behaved kids.  These are the kids that hit their stride after 18, sometimes with a few bumps in the teen and pre-teen years.  They have direction, initiative and relational grace.  This is not the case with "controlled" children.

Controller parents tend to use phrases like "because I said so" or "the Bible says..."  Their children are rigidly well behaved and in Christian circles, quote more Bible verses than Denzel Washington at the end of The Book of Eli.  There are extra rules, ones that go beyond good behavior.  To break said rules is seen as willful disobedience and is met with severe consequences.  No checking is done to ascertain the child's intents or feelings.  Perhaps the most telling mark of the controlling method is that no purpose is given for rules or punishment.

As a child, I used to look at "controlled" kids and feel intimidated.  I never knew as many Bible verses, did as well in school, or had as many measurable successes in athletics. The tables turned later in life.

As an adult, I spend significant time meeting with controller parents who want me to control their now adult children.  The story is the same every time: "He was such a smart boy, always well behaved.  He always did what he was told, because we weren't afraid to discipline in our house."  Of course, to them "discipline" meant rigid punishment with little explanation.  They can't figure out why little Johnny did a behavioral 180 at 18.  These are the young adults who graduate high school and fall apart.  They seldom finish college, often squander relationships, and never seem to have any direction.  Their parents never have any idea what happened.

Usually, these are the twenty-somethings who will sit down with me once over coffee, sometimes just to get their parents off their back.  When speaking of their upbringing, they use a lot of catch phrases like "religious oppression" and "looking for authenticity."  They have been controlled their whole lives.  Now all they want is to be out of control.  They have a hard time thinking of Jesus as a person who wants to know and love them no matter what.  These are my addict friends, my transvestite friends, my dealer friends, my agnostic friends, my heartbroken friends. After these coffee meetings, I always give some thought to calling their parents to tell them it is their fault their kids are a wreck. I always knew that would be pointless, since the deed is already done.  They can't go back 2 decades and do it over again.

Instead of attacking them, I'm taking this opportunity to tell myself what I wish I cold tell them.  So, here I am, the young adult pastor am speaking to me, the new parent:


You have great kids, but they aren't perfect.  There is nothing you can do to make them perfect.  They will make mistakes, some of them with great intentions, others with purely selfish motives.  You can't stop them from making mistakes.  You can't make them into sinless people.  You can't make them fall in love with Jesus.  You can't make them get good grades, learn piano or go to college.  

You will be tempted to control them.  You could set exasperating expectations on them and physically force them into obedience...for a while.  Eventually, they will be grown and out of your hands.  Don't waste this precious time trying to control, use it to influence.  Discipline with reason and integrity.  Tell them why you are disciplining them, what they have done wrong and how to do right next time.  Teach them how to make decisions, how to discern right from wrong.  Let them make mistakes and experience consequences while you can still catch them when they fall.  Let them know they are good kids who are going to do well.  Speak blessing.  Show them what it means to love Jesus.  Show your sons what it means to be a good man and show your daughters how a good man should treat a woman.  

Defend them, love them and influence them.  Pray for God's hand on their lives.  


1 comment:

  1. Great post. Really hits home for me being a parent to little ones. They soak everything up. I just recently heard a speaker say it's not "discipline" it's "disciple" your child. I think personally it makes more sense to say disciple. Your child is watching your every move and learns from you how to be a better person. Seeing you love your spouse, your neighbor, treating people with respect, spending time with God, and so forth. It's a tough job being a parent, but what an amazing responsibility God has trusted us with!