We’ve all witnessed the over-indulgent-parent-with-the-spoiled-child syndrome in all kinds of situations. Often it’s the grocery line where the toddler wants something, the parent says no, the toddler has an enormous fit, and the parent reinforces the behavior by giving in and buying the item for the child.
We’ve also all witnessed the cold, tight atmosphere of a stern family. Children are lined up military style, solemn, staring at the ground; the parents are distant, irritated and barking out commands. There is no warmth or laughter or light-heartedness.
Sometimes I am tempted to view parenting in terms of a false continuum. You have at one end the tender-hearted, sensative, and indulgent parent who just can't stand the thought of ever disciplining or denying her precious little darling. At the other end is the hard-hearted, dictatorial, overbearing parent. Deviation from parental authority is met with swift, harsh consequences. In these over-simplified terms, parenting is successful when one finds the healthy middle ground between the two.
Now, I don’t know if I would have said I really believed in such a continuum in the past; perhaps it was subconscious. But my behavior in the past has reflected that sort of thinking. Sometimes when I have been in a situation where a parent has been over-the-top in the lack of taking charge (i.e. a kid screaming no at their mom, kicking and hitting their mom, and the mom doing absolutely nothing) I have left that situation with a renewed zeal for no-nonsense parenting. Sounds good, but, not necessarily in the right way. It took on the form more of: “Mom, can we make a fort when we get home?” A tight-lipped response of “Absolutely not! Report immediately to your bedroom upon arriving home. Thorough inspections will then ensue followed by many more hours of intensive domestic labor. If there is any disobedience it will be immediately dealt with, and don't even think of playing for the rest of the day, because we have work to do!” The kids are cowering in the back of the car thinking, “What’s wrong with her.” And I’m clenching the steering wheel saying to myself, “My kids will not turn out to be brats. And I’ll see to it. Kids these days...” Which starts to materialize in my mind as: fun produces brats.
Since it is always easier to spot sin in other people than in ourselves, this sort of continuum-thinking leads us to excuse our sin. If we have a sinful tendency towards permissiveness, we are likely to walk away from a situation where a parent is being overbearing, affirmed in our permissiveness. Their sin becomes the reason behind our false thinking. Few walk away from an encounter with a dictatorial parent with a resolve towards more consistency in our parenting. Likewise, what I was descibing in myself, is that harshness can be reenforced by observing in others the sin of permissiveness. Thus, the two sinful tendencies can push each other farther into their own sin. Ideally, Satan would like to have one indulgent parent and one heavy-handed parent, each walking farther and farther into each sin, only able to see the other's fault, and the kids taking advantage of the disunity. What would you counsel this couple to do? Do they need to meet somewhere in the middle? Do they need to find a balance between their two tendencies?
False Continuum Shattered
Here is what has amazed me the most in reading about parenting. The couple that I have read that is the most strict about discipline, the Pearls, also turns out to emphasize love and fun more than anyone else I have ever read. First, about the strict part. They are not strict in the sense of the caricature above, stern and foreboding. What they emphasize is absolute consistency, which is why I am saying strict. If something is no, it is always, always no. There is no giving in by the parents, there is no discussion, there is no whining, Period. However, not everything is no to their kids. In their March-April newsletter, No Greater Joy, they wrote an article called This is Your Box. Shalom Pearl writes:
“Are you a parent that is always saying no? “Honey don’t do that. Leave that alone. Sit down, be quiet, please be still, not now.”...Most people think of boundaries as a fence of NOs, but boundaries also prescribe liberties. What do I mean by absolutes? It’s simple; I just say, You can play with this. You can not play with that. You can never go there, but you can always go in here to play. This is your drawer in the kitchen...Jesus is the “Yes” of God.” (2 Co. 1:20)
The rest of the article goes on to encourage us to be proactive in finding activities that our kids can do, rather than always saying no. It’s a profoundly simple concept, but it is one that blows the parenting continuum apart.
In another article in this same newsletter, Tumbling Tots, they describe bringing an old mattress downstairs so everyone, parents and children, can rough and tumble and have a grand old time together. In All You Need is Love, they tell about the excitement their toddler granddaughter exhibits every time her dad is about to come home.
Now wait a second, the same couple that is all the way as far as you can go on the strict end, is also extreme in their love for their kids and the fun that they share. They are not trying to somehow meet in the middle of love and strictness.
Two New Continuums
So help me out here guys if I’m wrong, but after just bashing a continuum, I want to propose that continuums can still be helpful, if properly constructed. I want to propose the idea that there are two separate continuums with four main possible combinations.
One continuum is the strictness or consistency continuum. On one end of this one you have the parent who has absolutely no control over their child, no sense of their own God-given authority, and no consistency. On the other end you have a parent who is very consistent, has many rules that are clearly outlined and consequences that are appropriate and prompt.
The second continuum I am going to call the parental love continuum. On one end you have a very distant, irritated parent. They do not enjoy being around their children and they don’t have fun with them. They are not very involved or engaged in their lives. Their children are a nuisance to be tolerated. On the other hand you have the parent who is thoroughly engaged in every area of their child’s life. They take every opportunity to enter their world and bond and relate with them. They truly enjoy every stage of their child’s development.
I think that how the false continuum thinking can get going (and I know I’m not the only one who has ever thought like that), is that somehow the two continuums can line up like this: the parent who is on the extreme end of lack of authority could at the same time be on the good extreme of involvement and loving interaction in their child’s life. We see these two blurred together and we think that the way they are so “into” their child, is part of their problem. To further our misunderstanding, we can also see a parent who is on the right end of the consistency spectrum and at the same time a selfish, disinterested parent. The principles of consistency still work for them, it’s just that the discipline of their children is only self-serving. This parent understands that it is inconvenient in the short-run to discipline, but in the end, they are bothered less, and that is their motivation.
A third possible combination, the saddest, is the indulgent and disinterested parent. Their indulgence is not out of misguided love for their child, but laziness. It’s a lot easier on self to just give in than listen to the tantrum. But there is no real love and interest in the child.
Seeking Balance can be dangerous, We need to be extreme parents
Now finally for the combination that I believe we should all be striving for: we should be way extreme on our consistency, strictness, boundries, and way extreme in our involvement, interaction, our crazy fun times, our fort-building, our pillow fights, our laughter. Satan would have us water down both of those in order to be “balanced.” But I say, go to the extreme.
The Pearls sum it up well how we should love in their article All You Need Is Love:
“In contrast, we know a man who had a great father, yet he is a selfish, irritable dad. His children respect him because their good mother cultivates it in their heart, but you will never see them light up for their dad the way Gracie does for hers. In fact, you will never see his children light up with shiny faces on any occasion...Love wears the garment of laughter, joy, thanksgiving, delighted eyes meeting delighted eyes. Love is driving down the road singing together because the children’s joy is more important than your own tranquility. Love is hugs, cooking together, taking time to build a tent over the furniture. Love is making the children a part of your life—a part of your daily routine. Love is an irresistible delight in the developing soul of another person.”
Now remember, this paragraph is written by the strictest couple I know. There is no category in their mind for tempering their love for their children with discipline. The two are not on opposite sides of a spectrum, but intricately woven together. The Bible speaks of love and discipline being intertwined in Hebrews when it speaks of how God’s discipline of us is actual proof of his love. And also in Proverbs of how neglecting spanking is hatred to your child. I knew these verse before which is why I might not have admitted to my muddied, continuum thinking, but I have lived like withholding love and fun is a way of preventing brats.
By the way, they mention fathers not taking joy in their children, but I think this can be every bit as true for mothers. Sometimes, I wonder if it can be more true because, even though women are gifted by God with a greater instinct to nurture, we are with them all day and are prone to irritability with all those childish things they do. Dads can be excited to see them at the end of the day because they haven’t been dealing with them.
One further thought. I don’t think that the two continuums I composed are totally independent of one another. In order to be that kind of parent the Pearls describe in the above paragraph, in order to be extreme on the involvement continuum, you have to have consistency. What parent is going to get out the mattress on the living room floor for the kids to play on if they know there is going to be tantrums when it’s time to clean up? How are you going to be able to fully delight in them, fully enjoy them, if they are disrespectful and whiny all day long? But, I wonder if Satan delights when we counter-cultural couples say “amen, preacher, spank ‘em” about reigning in the whiny, bratty kids, and then we go home and neglect the duty of love to our children. We don’t need to find the right balance. We need to find the right extremes.
Comments always welcome.