A couple days ago I had great consternation over my kids’ less than virtuous attitudes, tones and dispositions, wondering where it was coming from. Once again I turned inward toward my soul and inquired: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, help me understand from whence it comes, before I drop-kick them all!” And the “mirror” spoke back to me: “Aaammmm… you’re looking at it!” Ouch.
It’s true. Who we are as people is invariably proclaimed loudest through our children. I add the modifier “invariably” because, clearly, our children have been given command of their own souls. Yet for a parent who truly understands and embraces what it means to be a parent, we’ve got to look in the mirror. I’ve been around many teachers in my life, and one common, little known truth held among them is an ability to predict much about the parents based upon their children.
So if you’re like me, and you desire to more fully embrace your critical role as parent, I invite you to let down your guard and join me in a gut-honest, little tour into parental conscience and inquire of the “mirror.”
At the start, let’s recognize that we are substantially influenced by our culture. For most parents, this culture is the norm (or the non-norm, as we will discover). Unless we want to trip, let’s not set the bar there. We see what mainstream culture yields: kids without real identity, mission, moral bearing and purpose, discipline…. Let’s recognize that we live in an absentee and surrogate parent culture. As such, our faults are not so much in what we do, but in what we fail to do. Let’s consider who or what we allow to usurp our roles as parents. In my observation there are generally two different groups here.
First are the minimalists, otherwise known as the baton passers. For these, kids are a nice accessory. A good child is one who requires absolutely minimal effort. Their kids are everyone else’s responsibility. As such, they do what is minimally expected, but are all too delighted to pass along the baton to teachers, coaches, day care. Note that it’s not what they do, but their reasons for doing it: preserving their own lives with minimal intrusion from other obligations. In short, children are not really an integral “part” of their lives, just part of their obligations. There’s a big difference.
These make themselves known after their little batons are passed off on the first day of school, or day care. Sighs of relief and so many words essentially pronounce: “I did my job. They’re yours now.” Invariably even their own lap substantially involves cyber surrogates: cell phones, video games, televisions, computers, etc. Of course, such “parents” are no replacement, and their kids show it. Invariably, they’re disconnected, distracted, undisciplined, short-tempered, selfish, rude, unfocused. In short, they reveal who their parents are.
I know. How judgmental. It’s not fair. It’s insensitive. People don’t have the full story. This is the way it is. Fine. But at the end of the day, what’s the truth?
We’ve been given our children. They are the occasion for our becoming our best selves. They deliver us from a prison of self. They are our capacity for love. Flowing from this God-given design, beyond obligation, we’re responsible. And our choices reveal our acceptance of this design. They reveal our values. They reveal us to be imprisoned or free. And I’ll say it again: some people sacrifice things for their kids, others sacrifice their kids for things. And the degree to which we don’t “get” self-sacrifice is the degree to which we’ll never find real self-fulfillment. Consumer culture is all too happy to keep us spinning like tops.
The second group are quite the opposite. They are the martyrs or, as often seen by everyone else around them, the door mats. Their love for their children is pronounced in the degree of their sacrifice, in fact, a willingness to sacrifice everything… including the vision, structure, expectation, accountability, order, discipline (etc.) that are proper to love (ironically). Like the baton-passers, while their kids may be under the regime of all the same surrogate cyber parents (and reveal all the same shortcomings), these parents are beleaguered, grieved, at what this cultural scheme is doing to their children. They’re tuned in, or desperately want to be. Many are holding up a flag, looking for support and encouragement, real answers.
The rest of this article is for you.
Human development and psychology, biblical principals, success literature, biographies, and just plain experience pronounce quite emphatically that parenting involves a real terrain, a real map, real tools, and a real plan. Healthy formation of kids doesn’t “just happen.” Down to the nitty-gritty. In my experience there are too many moms who are needlessly overwhelmed with their children’s behavior. For you, here’s an idea promising a dramatic, upward change in your life: You’re the parent. God gave you this commission. You’re the captain. You pave the road. Not them. Don’t let them. Sound easy enough? It is. At least, easier than the long-and-wrong-suffering alternative.
As an example, when our six kids are too loud, we tell them to quiet down. Of course we all recognize that we have good reason to ask and expect this. The real revelation of parents though is in what follows if and when they don’t listen. In our home, if they disregard our request, they’ll hear one of us say once, “You’re on probation.” It’s an odd enough phrase, but it means they’ve lost the right to speak until further notice. We get immediate silence. Sound unrealistic? It isn’t. In fact, we’ve even had a few dinner times when no one was permitted to speak. Some have wondered what kind of great magic this is, and where they can get it. The answer, of course, is that you have it. You’re the parent. BE the parent. You’ve been given a vision and responsibility of forming your children.
If kids are not cleaning up their rooms (for instance), a novel idea: expect them. Make them. Every time. Because it’s reasonable. Because they can. Because you love them, and desire what’s best for them. Because it forms them to be their best selves. Because it’s the real world: life will expect them to fulfill similar responsibilities.
Don’t be a counting parent unless “10” means serious business. Follow through with a consequence, right away. Every time. Without exception. Why? Because that’s the real world, and you want to form them. See what happens one day when they disregard the expectation of a coach, boss, teacher, director. These will privately say, “I bet his parents could count to ten.” Why should parenthood be any different? It’s not.
In the practical example of the messy room, after giving them a warning and an appropriate amount of time, consider packing up everything not cleaned in a box (or room, or rented storage facility…). Sure, they may go without sheets on their bed for a night, or favorite shoes, clothes or toys, but privation of these things is far less grave than them going without a bearing in the real world, a sense of responsibility. That’s your job.
Some of you right now may be thinking that things have gone too far. You can’t reclaim what’s been lost. Your kids are different. Don’t hide there. Question the cultural vision that may have some of you squirming right now at the thought of, well, embracing your parenthood. From one parent to another, with the greatest respect and encouragement, I’m saying: RECOVER YOUR PARENTAL BACKBONE! You’re the parent. You’ve been called and gifted for this task. And here’s the often overlooked thing: deep down inside your kids are really wanting, hoping you will step up. Study after study demonstrates that they need appropriate boundaries, expectations, and follow through. Certainly, the “passive parent” culture (an oxymoron to be sure) may label you as domineering, but do note that the very same are constantly complaining about the domination of their own children. Take your pick. Who’s the parent? Who’s called, entrusted and equipped to pave the road?
Be anchored in truth. When you had children you became the parent. You received a call, an accountability before God. If you love, which means you desire the best for your child, you must discipline. That literally means “to make a disciple.” If you recognize parenthood is essentially the business of making disciples, you need to discipline. Certainly with love. Certainly with humility, and a solicitude for their understanding of the importance of becoming a disciple. In our home we’re constantly conveying the implications. It’s not about rules for the sake of rules. It’s about our call to help our children fully realize who they were created to be, to become their best selves. We truly are, and need to be, their greatest gift: God’s presence to them on earth, forming them, leading them back to Him.
In the case of our “probation,” we’ve explained that they’ve been given the gift of speech. As they’ve misused that gift, they need to rediscover the value of the gift, so they don’t squander it. They need to discover the implications of their actions in the environment around them (the essence of communion, and communication, which literally mean, “with union”). They need to discover the self-control that is so essential to cultivating real value. Anyone can be a grain of sand. Our children deserve the directed pressure that will make them pearls.
Missing In Action Dads). I’m going to be harshest on you, with four fingers always pointing back at myself. You know who you are, or you should. You’re a man, so I’ll lay it out straight. In general, if over the past week your wife has dominated the behavioral and formative conversations with your children, and/or if you’ve substantially chosen to do ‘your thing’ versus spending interactive time with your family (discretionary time), you’re a MIAD. If your wife has been conditioned to make excuses for your non-involvement, because she’s accepted your absence, you’re a MIAD. I get it. You work hard all day. You have pressure. You need a break. Check, check, and check for your wife. Do you really love your wife? Beyond words? Love is sacrificing self for the good of the other. That sink full of dirty dishes and the kid in need of a diaper change are there for you to demonstrate that “love” isn’t just a word.
If your job was on the line and your boss brought you in and asked: “What are you willing to do for this job? Are you willing to sacrifice? How much do you value this?” it’s quite unlikely you’d say, “Oh, whatever I need to do to get by.” Well, when God gave you children, with every little challenge, He’s asking you the same question. He’s inviting you to be a husband and father. He’s inviting you to love. What’s more important?
Of late there have been too many tragic deaths of husbands and fathers my age (30-50’s). They left behind their wives and children. In the interest of a guiding truth, put yourself in this situation. You just discovered you have a life-threatening illness. Seriously, what would be most important? How would you think differently about your wife and children? What would change? Finally, why should it take that to live it out now?
Here’s my challenge. Believe me, I’m looking in the mirror on this one every day. Think of this as the bottom of the ninth inning in the biggest game of your life. You’re down by three with two outs. You’re up to bat with two strikes, and runners on all bases. Those runners are your kids. “Home” is healthy adulthood. It’s their hope and destination for heaven. Step up to the plate. No one else can do it but you. If you’ve been living in a cloud of selfishness, now is your time to be a hero, to get in the game. Recognize it’s as much for your own transformation, joy, fulfillment, salvation as it is for your children.
You can change. You can do it. The same stuff that was in 9-11 firefighters is in us. We were created for self-sacrificing love. Heroism is in our DNA. Our wives and our children are our Twin Towers. We’re mission-minded, and equipped. Our families are our missions. Then we die. Then we’re judged. We’re responsible for far more than physical providing. From a biblical perspective we are singularly called, blessed and responsible for our family’s spiritual provision. Read Gary Smalley and John Trent’s “The Blessing.” After extensive research, Josh McDowell proclaimed emphatically: “If my back were pressed against the wall to identify the singular cause of a child’s behavior, I’d attribute it to their relationship with their father.” Dr. Meg Meeker suggests as much in her book, “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters.”
Here’s a practical “portrait” from our life. Once a year Stephanie (my wife) travels four hours to spend a dedicated weekend with my Mom, sister and four sisters-in-law. That’s opportunity for me. It’s dedicated “Dad” time with our six children. I love it. I plan and set everything else aside. Our lives open up to each other in beautiful ways. It is extraordinarily special. I bend the bedtime rules for the older ones. We stay up later and play games, read books, and watch a movie. Through the day we do many special things. I make special breakfasts and lunches. This year I took them swimming at the YMCA. We went for a hike. We went out for pizza. It’s one of their favorite weekends of the year and, believe me, we’re looking for ways to do it more often (I’ve even suggested my wife do this once a month!).
I delight in my wife having a weekly opportunity to get out every Saturday morning for coffee with a friend or two, to participate in any number of spiritual or relational events throughout a month, to regularly go shopping (or etc.) without any of the children. This “family presence” is a vision, a lifestyle.
Men- many of your wives would never even think to ask if they could have “special” time. They are sacrificial, loving, and perceive it as a burden to us. They’ve been conditioned. If that’s the case, it’s a tragedy. Hopefully you see the shame in it– that your wife doesn’t think your love, your heroism, to be sufficiently developed. Look inside. Find it within you. Recognize the gift in your self-gift to her, and your children. Step up to the plate. Don’t wait. Your days are numbered. Seize the day.
Yes, it’s difficult. But isn’t that what makes a great game? This is our great adventure. This is the contour of the road God has called us to, and precisely the potentiality for our self-transcendence, our fulfillment. And if the lives of the faithful throughout the centuries have demonstrated anything, it’s this: What God calls us to, He will provide for.