We live in scary times. Wars and a roller-coaster economy are enough to make many of us lose sleep. Some of us are more deeply disturbed by violence, “the wrong people” getting into office, and the obvious decline of social manners on just about every level.
But there is another, near-invisible development over the last several decades that makes the future appear an even less-inviting place for us all. That development is the continuing deterioration of loving, tough, sacrificial, intelligent parenting. Parents who understand what they are doing are rare. Parents who understand what they are doing, and what they are doing is strong, clear and based in the real world—they’re even rarer.
I’ll leave it to the psychologists and sociologists to determine the whys—perhaps we weren’t raised well ourselves, perhaps the pressures of modern life don’t seem to leave us the time to do a good job, or perhaps we all just want our children to love us more than we want them to be successful. My concern here is not the why, but what we as parents actually do, and I suggest that we not do these things if we want our children to be all God wants them to be.
There are only three categories here. I don’t pretend that they cover the spectrum of all the important issues in child training. But these three issues are interrelated, and that they involve a conglomeration of perspectives and feelings found in our minds and hearts.
The challenge here is not to our children, but to us. This small book doesn’t presents a bag of tricks or behavioral incentives that make life easier for those of us who are discovering that having children can be inconvenient. I am laying down a challenge to do some real wrestling inside. I’m asking every reader to be open to a new point of view—or several—about their children.
We need to face the fact that the best parenting comes from folks whose minds and hearts have been freed to BE parents, who have been delivered from some of the “stinkin’ thinkin’” of the age, and who are not looking to their children to fill in what’s been missing in their hearts up to the point of reproduction.
Being a good parent has more to do with slaying the dragons inside of us than with learning all the tricks of the trade. I can promise the reader that the one who wrestles with the issues surrounding the three categories here will undergo significant and fundamental transformation in parenting. Go ahead—let the headings throw you a little. That’s a good start!
Don’t believe them.
First of all, we’re talking here about day-to-day behavior. The great exception, which needs to be mentioned first off, is any kind of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Any accusation made by a child against another person in the area of abuse needs to be taken seriously and investigated. That’s another issue entirely.
When I say not to believe them, what I’m saying here is that a child’s version of an event or situation can never be the full truth. There are several reasons for that:
1) Kids lie all the time.
My favorite example of parental denial on this subject was the simple statement, “My child wouldn’t lie.” Wow. Let me say that again: Wow. Now if the person had said, “My child didn’t lie about that,” at least that might have been an informed opinion—perhaps the parent actually knew enough about the situation to make such an unequivocal statement. Even “I’ve never known my child to lie” at least provides for the possibility that the parent might be unaware of instances where their little darling might have stretched the truth beyond repair.
But “My child wouldn’t lie”? Seriously? That’s simply being naïve beyond words and demonstrates a denial of reality that doesn’t serve either the parent or the child. A parent who believes that is already in trouble. Reluctant as I am to quote anything from a Star Wars film, I have to ask you to consider the words of Darth Vader to us here: “Search your heart—you know it to be true.”
We’re a fallen race; original sin is real, and the selfishness and self-centeredness of little children is evident daily. Part of the wonder of children is their breathtaking self-centeredness. In many ways, kids are innocent and surprising and delightful. Watching them discover and grow and begin to put things together is one of the great delights of being a parent or grandparent. But at the same time, children are the center of their little universes, and often react badly to challenges to their position. It’s not a reflection on us that our young children are selfish creatures. What is a reflection on us is how we handle that fact.
According to scripture, Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8). While He remained sinless, Jesus had to learn and grow. And he was tempted in all points as we were (Heb. 4:15). He had to grow in fighting the enemy and in overcoming temptation. If our Lord and Savior had to grow into the fullness of obedience, then we must extend the same courtesy of spiritual development to our children.
Children are more instinctive than we are—we who have learned rebellion or manners, or both. Being instinctive is not the same as being innocent. Children instinctively work to survive, shift blame, create diversions, and divide-and-conquer. Due to original sin or whatever you choose to call it, children are often brilliantly able to assume an innocent posture while deviously diverting all attention from their sinful actions. They will lie, half-lie, point the finger, “forget,” and in every way do whatever it takes to temporarily NOT be the center of attention if the situation warrants.
I’m not saying that children are evil; most of the time, they are only half-aware of what they are doing. But they have an innate sense of what it takes to get them off the hook. Take a step back and watch it sometime. It’s a sight to behold.
2) Kids don’t possess anything close to adult perspectives on situations, especially when they are involved.
Great story: My son and my niece were playing together in a room when he was two, she was three. Suddenly my visit with my brother was interrupted with a loud cry. My brother went in and surveyed the situation: my son Josh was crying and my niece Katie wasn’t. My brother asked what happened, and her response was, “Josh got hit.” Now this was completely true, and while I remain impressed by the use of the passive tense to evade punishment at such a tender age, it was a truth that suggested a lie—that the hit might simply have come from outer space. Decades later, we still laugh about this, but if we’d taken my niece simply at her word, we’d still be scratching our heads to this day as to just how Josh got hit.
Parents need to develop loving, thoughtful and creative interrogation techniques. The first thing is to assume that you don’t know the real story, and that your child is capable of contributing only a portion to the full story. We need to learn how to draw out the facts—and hope that the facts may eventually lead us to the truth. Even if the child tells the full truth as he or she sees it, that can only be a small portion of the story. It’s unfair to our children to think that they can provide us with all the facts, and then go on to provide us with a full, well-rounded context in which to understand all those facts. Most adults in full possession of the facts can’t do that! In fact, we have an entire system of justice that fails to do that every day. We can’t expect a child to be aware and sensitive enough to pull all the facts together—that’s our responsibility! We need to bear that weight.
We need to ask what happened from their point of view, and then begin the real questioning. The first thing they have to share is simply the most important thing for them to say at the time; it may be pure self-defense, or it might be the biggest impression they have of the event. But once their first impression is out, we need to take a step back and draw out “the rest of the story.”
After our children give their first version of the story, we have to ask the other questions:
“Do you remember anything else that happened?”
“Who else was there?”
“How did you react?”
“Did you provoke anyone in any way?”
“Did you say anything that might have been taken wrong?”
“Was any adult involved—and how?”
“If I asked ___________ about what happened, what do you think they would say?”
The assigning of blame is always a key issue, of course, when something happens. No one likes being blamed, and especially unfairly. Most children, even those well trained in telling the truth, will struggle with any version of events that allows blame to fall on their tender shoulders. Adults struggling with this same issue occupy about 20 minutes out of every hour of TV crime drama. By instinct, most children will string together a series of observations that puts blame anywhere else.
Try questions like this:
“After such-and-such happened, what did you do that was right?”
“What did ______________ do that was wrong”?
“Did you do anything wrong?”
“Is there something else that you think you could have done?”
“What do you think should have happened?”
These are great teaching moments for our children, if done briefly and with delicacy. If we can steer their thinking just a little toward a larger perspective—without coming down hard on them—our children can learn some major life lessons from these moments. By asking the right questions the right way, we can do three things:
- We can diffuse the intensity of the situation, because we are bringing in a larger point of view that reduces the passion of the moment. That larger perspective can help diffuse the intensity that they fear is going to be aimed at them. By asking questions of our children, we are inviting them to be a part of the process of discovering the truth—and consequently, what ought to be done. We’re inviting them to be the junior partner in the search. This can, over time, transform their goal from avoiding blame to helping you get the facts.
- We affirm our love and support for our children. I am the first to roll my eyes at most self-esteem activities, but children need to be affirmed constantly, and especially in situations where they feel they might be blamed. Even if blame is rightly destined to descend upon their guilty hides, by wisely bringing them into the “search for truth” dialogue with questions, we are affirming our love and respect for them as individuals, even if the truth ends up making it hard for them to sit down for a while.
- We are teaching them the incalculable lesson that truth is not at their disposal, to be used towards their own ends, but is something to be searched for, something to be found and honored. We are letting them know early that their perspectives are wanted and respected, but are not to be confused with the overall truth of any situation. We are teaching them that their feelings are genuine and worthy of acknowledgement, but are not the final word. We are demonstrating that facts are indeed important, but they are not truth. And lastly, we are presenting them with the gift of learning at a tender age that it is something (and eventually, Someone) outside of their thoughts and feelings that is the final interpreter of an event.
Don’t feel sorry for them.
I grew up in a house of music, especially popular music from the first half of the twentieth century. My brother and I can still sing the verses to some of the great popular songs of the 20th century. My mother was a particular fan of Judy Garland, and I was familiar with her life and music, as well as revisiting her performance as Dorothy once a year at the annual television showing of The Wizard of Oz. I remember when Judy died at age 47 in 1969 (I was 16), there were articles galore extolling her talent, but also bemoaning her many mishaps and misfortunes. Judy-as-victim had been a part of her life and persona for many years, so it wasn’t unusual to see that same drum being played so loudly now at her untimely death. And even a cursory overview of her life showed hardships and struggles from an early age.
So full of understanding about this poor creature, I shared with Mom how sad her life was. Calmly but with great understanding of the challenges of life, Mom said, “It’s not what happens to you that counts—it’s how you respond to it.” I remember even now how taken aback I was upon hearing that! Where was the sympathy and hand wringing that I was seeing in print all around me? Mom had had a tough life, too—losing her father at an early age, losing the family “fortune” during the Depression and having to be raised with great struggle by a single mother, a marriage that should never have been, a separation that ended in divorce, finding herself undereducated yet having to hold our family together. How could she not understand?
Of course, she did understand—all too well. I remember particularly the apparent discrepancy between the directness and clarity of her comment, and the complete lack of resentment in her voice. She didn’t resent Judy’s personal failings; she wasn’t being judgmental. She just knew there were other choices to be made than some of the ones that Judy had made. She knew that because she had made many of those choices herself, and in some ways, chosen more wisely. Because she did, my brother and sister and I grew up with a level of security that kids from other broken homes didn’t have. She encouraged our dreams, championed our talents, and provided emotional stability to us when she had precious little of it to enjoy for herself. (Side note: That is why single moms are my heroes to this day.)
There was one area, however, where Mom’s big heart got the best of her, and we kids had to overcome it as adults. She felt bad for us because we were from a broken home, and since she worked so hard to fill in every gap, she was acutely aware of the gaps that were there. I don’t even know if she ever said it out loud, but I was somehow aware that she felt bad for us. Maybe it was a snippet of an overheard conversation with Aunt Kay or Aunt Margaret. Or maybe it was a look or tone of voice. But I remember growing up with the impression that we needed to be felt bad for. And since the separation and the financial and emotional challenges that go with that were real—well, then, the pity for us should probably be real, too.
Our situation wasn’t pleasant, and I’m grateful for those that extended love and compassion when it was needed. (Check out my brother Chris’s book The Wild Love of God for more details….) But the problem was that this kind of pity can so easily be received as self-pity, and that is nothing but an unkindness to impart to a child.
Now don’t get me wrong here. Pity is a Biblical word, but I think our culture has twisted its original meaning. Having understanding is commendable. Showing compassion on folks—bravo. Having genuine empathy—a true and rare virtue. I especially love one of the lesser definitions of the word: “A willingness to help or to forgive somebody who is in pain or who has done wrong.”
Genuine pity will always be in short supply. We will never outgrow the need for those whose hearts are full of compassion and understanding. Children with disabilities need understanding; even those whose unfortunate state is entirely their fault still deserve our compassion.
But pity and “feel sorry for” have almost become synonymous. Pity can encourage an attitude of entitlement, a feeling that someone, somehow, owes me something. It assumes that people and systems are going to make room for our weaknesses and lacks, which should in truth be a kindness granted by us at the same time that we resist presuming it for ourselves.
To make genuine allowances for another’s deficiencies is a social grace, a business imperative, and something all parents must do with little children. But feeling sorry for a child who is too short, or too tall, or not as pretty as Sally, or who is even handicapped, is not going to help as time goes on. In fact, it breeds in them an expectation that they don’t have to overcome, but that they can sit back and expect others to cater to their “situation.” Then when others don’t—inevitably the case—this kind of pity from without becomes self-pity from within, a defense mechanism that starts by pulling a person inside himself, and can end with a deadly victim mentality that can cripple a personality.
We know that we’ve fallen into this trap with our children when instead of working with them in their weak areas, we instead find ourselves consistently giving excuses to ourselves or others as to why they cannot do something we would expect most children to be able to do. Our responsibility as parents is to come alongside our children and help them discover and access the way out of their areas of insecurity, not confirm them in those areas. We need to be sensitive to where and how they hurt, of course. But when the right thing to do clashes with an initial inability to do it because there is a resistance, fear or hesitance—for whatever reason—we need to work to equip our children with the perspectives and strategies they need to work from weakness to strength. With areas that might draw the wrong kind of pity from us, it may take awhile for us to settle our own internal issues first. (Why do I feel the need to defend wrong behavior? Or why do I take even the mildest of criticism as a lack of love?) Then we can discover the best ways of training and encouraging our children to not let even their real weaknesses or limitations prevent them from being the people they should be.
Don’t defend them/take their side.
Again, we’re not talking about an issue of physical protection. Physically, we as a society are falling tragically short in this area. We let go of children far too early, often just because they begin to look like young adults and they grow taller than their parents.
My personal story again involved one of my own. There was a “particular opportunity,” I’ll call it, where I felt my child should have been chosen. (Short background: My child had the goods.) My child was not chosen. The person whose child was chosen was best buds and in tight professional relationship with the person doing the choosing. (This child had the goods, too.) Didn’t seem fair, and the whiff of favoritism still hangs about the memory of it all.
I was pretty ticked. And I was tempted, so tempted, to be angry, and to try and assuage my child’s disappointment (and my own) by coating it with resentment and offense. “That was so clearly an act of favoritism!” “My child is losing a primo opportunity here that he/she won’t get back!” When I went to bed that night, I had a temptation facing me as strong as any other sin of the flesh: I wanted to lock down on my anger and resentment, and form a protective “bubble of offense” that would block the pain. Only one problem: I would have to put a wedge between me and the people who did the choosing. And the real power broker of the two was someone I knew fairly well, and really liked. For many good reasons, I didn’t want to compromise that. I would also have had to sacrifice any integrity I might have had in teaching on the subject of offenses.
So I wrestled, pretty much all night. And when I got up the next morning, the fight was over, the pain was lessened, and I knew that I was going to survive intact. I knew the disappointment would eventually dissipate, and I’d have no offense clogging my heart and mind. It was quite the fight, but well worth it. If I hadn’t fought, I would have lost a battle to bitterness and resentment that would have done two terrible things: It would have put a small but real distance between my friend and me that would have changed the relationship forever. This person may never have noticed it, but my every thought of the person and our every face-to-face meeting would have included that negative feeling and attitude.
The other terrible thing it would have done is to instruct my child—even if only by example—that a legitimate way of handling disappointment is to get angry and stay angry, even if the anger eventually simmered down to a judgment, a bad attitude or “some distance” between me and the “offender.” The bottom line is that the people making the decision had the right to make the decision they wanted, and I had to respect that. I had to side with them, not against my child, but against my child’s temptation to fall into self-pity, or to be angry, or to form a judgment against people who had the authority to do what they did. I first had to side with their authority to make the decision, and then had to side with my child against the enemies of anger, resentment, disappointment and bitterness. Once I took that position, I could then share the weight and sting of my child’s disappointment, and I could lead my child to the process of giving that disappointment to the Lord. If I had taken my child’s disappointment as a personal offense in some sort of misguided application of advocating for my kid, it would only have produced bad fruit for everyone involved.
Over the years, I’ve often heard a variation on this theme: “If I don’t advocate for my child, who will?” Now if by advocate you mean cheer, pray for, support, encourage, help them through the difficult times of life, and be a happy, proud parent, then advocate away! But if by advocate you mean to take their side against every authority that brings disappointment to them, then stop! No authority is going to be perfect, but take another look at Romans 13:1 and remind yourself that the Lord uses authority, and that taking the side of your child against authority is just about the worst thing you can do.
How familiar are you with these statements, or their many variations?
- “It’s not fair, because…..”
- “The teacher/principal/coach/leader doesn’t like me.”
- “He/she likes so-and-so better than me.”
Agreeing with your child in any of these opinions locks them into a self-centered entitlement mode of thinking that we all hate seeing in people we’re not related to. We certainly don’t want to create little monsters that grow up to be big ones. There are going to be deep disappointments in everyone’s life, deserving people will be overlooked, and we won’t always get what we want. What we need to do is equip our children to deal with those disappointments in a healthy way that involves neither stuffing our feelings nor adopting self-pity as a cover for the pain.
In the book The Kingdom of Self by Earl Jabay, the author sets up a hypothetical scenario where little “Johnny” has been caught cheating and a note goes home to his mother. Instead of admitting to it, Johnny instinctively and brilliantly tries to deflect attention away from himself by attacking the other authority in the picture, the teacher. By setting one authority figure (Mom) against the other (the teacher), Johnny succeeds in slipping through the crack he worked to create between the two authority figures.
Jabay describes the “success” and its terrible ramifications:
The king [Johnny] won that battle effortlessly by simply turning one authority against the other and then taking the more egocentric of the two as his ally. The parent in this illustration is simply attending to his own needs to keep, even at Johnny’s expense, the affection of this child. “For, after all,” reasons the parent, “doesn’t a child need support and understanding?”
Not that kind. What Johnny really needed was a parent who would ally himself with the teacher for the sake of the child. This would mean conferring with he teacher. It would mean ascertaining the facts about Johnny’s cheating and if he did, punishing him. It would mean telling John that it is not his task to judge the qualifications of his teacher. It would mean encouraging Johnny to find some way in which he could put forth a new effort in spelling. It means letting King Johnny know that he cannot divide and conquer his authorities….”1
The presence of respected authorities besides blood relations is necessary to the healthy growth of a child. Every child needs to know that there are authorities that the parents respect—in word and in heart. Children also need to know that when one of those authorities gets drawn into their little life, that Mom and Dad are first going to work things through with those authorities—teachers, law enforcements officers of every kind, spiritual leaders–and then deal with their children. It always simultaneously amazes and saddens me when parents spend years coming between their children and the authority resting in folks outside the family, and then wonder why their children don’t respect authority (especially theirs) when they reach double digits in age.
Your child’s disappointment should be important to you, and your child should know that you understand how hard the situation is for them, and that you understand that they are hurting. It’s where you go from that point that will make all the difference. Kids are struggling to make some kind of sense of things when get into situations like this. They are inviting you into the land of All About Me, and you can’t go there. Putting blame on the authority temporarily dulls the pain, but what it ultimately does is evade the child’s ultimate responsibility to release the pain, receive God’s grace and consolation, and MOVE PAST the hurt and disappointment. Since this is something we all have to learn eventually, it’s better to learn this when you’re young, with parental assistance, than when you’re 37, when it’s a lot harder and you’ve firmly established your touchiness.
The Fairness Doctrine
This is a good time to eradicate a word from your family’s vocabulary—or at least the most common usage of it. The word is fair, and the way we most often use it is found nowhere in the Bible. In the scriptures, fair means good-looking. So if you don’t mean good-looking, it’s best to give the word a well-deserved rest.
Life isn’t fair, which is great. If things were completely fair, Jesus would never have had to bear the punishment for my sins, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to suffer at all, and we would all be on our way to hell. So I’m grateful that life isn’t fair. I’m sad that it is as sin-filled as it is, and among those sins are greed, partiality, lust, envy, and malicious speech. They are all part of this world, and will be until He comes again. The best thing we can do for our children in this area is to teach them to release their responses to these sins to the Lord, and receive back from Him the comfort He longs to give us all.
Life isn’t fair, but the defense against the pain of this truth is not to form a shell of cynicism. That’s merely a sophisticated form of pouting. As humans, we have an innate sense of justice, and that has to be reckoned with, rightly, and the earlier the better. As parents, we need to introduce our children to the God of comfort, who is also the God of forgiveness, the God of grace, and the God whose love for us is uninterrupted by circumstance. Learning to invite the Lord and His marvelous attributes into the pains and disappointments of life is the only way of actually working through them; otherwise, we are consigned to continually working around the disillusionments of life (making fear our master) or encasing our hearts in distrust and negativity (cutting ourselves off relationally from God and man). Our only survival strategy should be a Person, not a method nor a suit of armor. Our children need to see that in you as a parent, and they need to be taught that they really can survive disappointment without damage to their relationships or their own heart.
Raising kids isn’t for sissies, and kids don’t raise themselves. They come programmed with a personality, but they need training as a rose needs sun and water. I used to joke with my children when they were less than satisfied with being my offspring, that I was divinely chosen to be their parent. I was, at least in part, trying to be funny.
You are divinely chosen to be the godly parent of your offspring. Children need love and support, but they desperately need training. They especially need training in truth and grace, which is the most difficult training of all. You will need to die to yourself 100 times over to do it right. It is a heart-wrenching, gut-ripping, galling, and infuriating experience at times, but always, always worth the pain. Your children need and deserve it, the Kingdom of God deserves nothing less, and –bottom line—it is your inescapable calling as a parent.
1 Jabay, Earl. The Kingdom of Self. Plainfield, NY: Logos International, 1974. 15.
My father loved me, I think. He certainly never believed me. He certainly didn’t protect me from my mother. I was a small child when she started scaring me in various deliberate ways and threatening to kill me, appearing smug or gleeful all the while.
It only happened when the two of us were alone together.
I never dared actually tell Dad about that, of course. I know without a doubt that I wouldn’t be believed about anything like death threats.
How did I know? Because when I tried to tell Dad that Mom was lying in smaller matters, he simply said nothing, or he turned beet red and stomped away. I learned very quickly not to try telling on Mom.
I am no longer in communication with either of my parents and they don’t know where I live. Just the way I like it!