An Idealized Child

Our sorrow is often a measure of the distance between our idealized vision of reality and its actual form. So it was that in the days of the Old Testament prophet Haggai, when the foundation was laid for the new temple, that as some rejoiced, others wept. They wept when the awareness dawned that their idealized vision for the temple was not going to be matched by reality.

This is the cause of so much sorrow in marriages. A husband or wife brings an idealized vision of their spouse and of marital bliss into a relationship that cannot be matched by reality. When the distance between the reality and the dream becomes unavoidable, sorrow sets in.

So, could it be that many of our children feel an almost telepathic sense of disappointment from us, their parents, because our idealized vision of what we think they should be is unattainable for them?

So many parents are certain that everyone else has children who are more compliant/intelligent/athletic/cooperative/accomplished than their own. And the more pervasive this idea, the greater the gap between this idealized vision of their children and the reality of who those children really are. By so doing, many of us can miss the beauty that is our children.

Those who have children with Aspergers Syndrome, or know those who do, will especially appreciate the honesty and insight of this article, written by journalist Ron Fournier. His conclusion which is valid for every parent is this:

I learned that while Tyler was not my idealized son, he was the ideal one.

For our children to know such acceptance from us, their parents, should be our deep, compelling desire. When we can love the children God has given us, and not the idealized image which they can never attain, we will give them the greatest gift we could bestow.

The Kid Might Be a Good Deal After All (!)

This makes me smile. A lot. I don’t know whether his research or argument is sound. But there is something about the “just enjoy your child” spirit that resonates with this Earthworm Father:

Parents can give themselves a guilt-free break. Children cost far less than most parents pay, because parents overcharge themselves. You can have an independent life and still be an admirable parent. Before you decide against another child, then, you owe it to yourself to reconsider. If your sacrifice is only a fraction of what you originally thought, the kid might be a good deal after all.

Battle Hymn of the Earthworm Father

Perfect parents scare me. Honestly I consider nearly every parent beside myself to have far greater wisdom and judgment than I, and they scare me because next to their perfections my own weaknesses, mistakes, misjudgments, and oversights seem legion. I’m working on my sixth child, who is now ten, so I should know what I’m doing. But I don’t, and I never will. And standing next to perfect parents reminds me of that.

Yesterday I was struggling with parenthood. I was lamenting how hard it is and how lost I feel. I was feeling the weight of the myriad of irreversible decisions with life altering implications. Parenting offers so little margin for error, it seems, that each decision is magnified beyond proportion.

I would not trade any of the 136 years of parenting God has given me (that’s what it adds up to) nor any of the six children who have so deeply wedged themselves into my heart. But that does not mean that it is easy. If I were to write a book about parenting, the best I could do for a title would be Battle Hymn of the Earthworm Father for all the strength I bring to the matter. Tiger Mom and Dragon Father live in a different universe.

Consequently, when I can find them, it is refreshing to hang out with other parents willing to speak what it feels like to parent. Anne Lamott has been my companion recently thanks to my wife via a friend. She puts the weight of this into words which resonate with me.

Once her seven year-old son wanted to go paragliding, in tandem, with an expert, but still off a 1500 foot cliff. Perfect parents, of course, would have no second thoughts and no inner struggle. They’d know just what to do and when and how. The rest of us struggle with such things.

“What confused me, however, what how much freedom I was supposed to give Sam. I’m unclear about the fine line between good parenting and being overly protective. I get stumped by the easy test questions….”

I feel comfortable with someone willing to say that the easy questions stump her. They do me, too. The fine lines disappear for me. I don’t know the rules.

She was told that she needed to pray about the question. I identified with her here, too.

“Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'”

Parenting often reduces me to such simplicity.

Later, when Lamott talks about her angry response when after asking her son to go without TV for a day he turned it on anyway, I realized I’d met a parenting peer.

I wish I were a perfect parent. But if I were I guess I’d look at my children as the product of my own righteousness. As it is, God continues to remind me that they are gifts of his grace, not my own competence.

Earthworm father needs to hear that.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I Learned Dog

Clearly one of the hottest topics out there among parents priming their tots for Harvard is Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, currently #10 on the Amazon sales lists.

I heard Chua interviewed on the radio a few weeks ago and she sounded kind and charming, but I’m not going to read her book. I already have enough reasons to feel guilty about my parenting disabilities. I don’t need to add another. There have been some interesting responses to Chua’s hard nosed style, so I’ll lean on those .(And await another here.)

David Brooks takes on Chua as being insufficiently challenging as a parent. She would make her daughters practice music for two hours a day and would threaten severe discipline if they came in second to anyone in anything. And, she banished sleepovers. No time for that. Curiously, Brooks does not criticize her for being too severe, but for coddling them:

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Lane Wallace, while not addressing Chua directly, or consciously for that matter, in a post on entrepreneurial and life passion, reflects on the kinds of things in childhood which fuel the ability to imagine and create. She lists as the second factor, this:

Support and enthusiasm for trying new things. To imagine something that doesn’t yet exist and have the confidence to pursue or invest resources in that vision, a person has to believe a) that exploration and experimentation are good things and b) that [there] isn’t just one right answer. (So kids raised in regimented households tend to have a harder time coming up with highly creative visions that challenge accepted ways of doing things.)

I can’t help but wonder if the parenthesis had a target.

But the best response I’ve seen sidles up next to those of us who stumble through parenting and graciously assures us that if we are bad at this child-rearing thing, we are probably worse at dog-rearing. She notes that Amy Chua’s dog is no match for some top flight canine scholars. This author’s own dog is an accomplished teacher.

The dog who now sleeps in front of our fire is Sophie, a cross between a Labrador and a setter, who, like most of our dogs before her, has shown little interest in the niceties of human language. In fact, my ability to communicate my needs and wishes to her is quite limited.

She has, however, managed to teach me to carefully — and, I might say, correctly — interpret every bark, whine, ear twitch, needy moan and shift in posture, and to respond accordingly. She didn’t learn English. I learned Dog.

This, I encourage you to read from beginning to end.

“There Are No Bad Children; Only Bad Parents”

The title of this post should send a shiver down the spines of all honest parents. It does for some, but not for all.

A good biblical theology tells us that there are no good children, only sinful ones. But somehow, somehow, by some miracle of theological pretension, many conclude that by the application of the proper parenting techniques, Biblical parenting techniques, we are told, these no good, sinful children, will emerge as lovely specimens of godliness, gems of their parent’s faithfulness.

Which leaves parents who are as faithful as they know how whose little Johnny or Janey grows up not nice with only one possible conclusion: we were bad parents. And so, they are back to the slogan in the title, with the added guilt and shame attached to the fact that their parenting just must not have been ‘biblical’. So, the Christian version is something like this: “There are no good children, only sinful parents.”

No, we modify it still: “There are no good children, only parents who fail miserably to be the kind of parents that God would have them be.” Try living with that self-assessment for a day or two. That is what the logic of ‘Biblical technique = godly children’ leaves us with.

Call me negative if you will, but though it is clear that there are some parents who do a better job than others (I in no way want to suggest that we ought not try to be the best parents we can) yet I am convinced that each of us inject just enough parental screwiness into our parenting that the ONLY way ANY of them come out the other end as remotely godly, well adjusted kids is the grace of God.

My book on parenting, due out in, oh, well, maybe I should write it first, will be titled something like this: “Eight Ways to Totally Screw up Your Kids and How God’s Grace Can Fix the Mess“.

I clearly DON’T have parenting figured out.

I find that THERE IS ENCOURAGEMENT then, in an unlikely source, for those of us who do our best as parents and can’t therefore figure out why our children subsequently make bad choices. A psychiatrist in the NY Times pondering why bad children happen to good parents, makes this startling judgment:

Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.

Don’t we call that ‘hard-wired’ reality sin? Yes, I think that’s it.

The article is called “Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds“. Read it. Especially if you are feeling guilty.

I find the article interesting because so many of the presuppositions of the Perfect Biblical Parenting schools, and there are many out there, are the same presuppositions of the secular Baby Einstein schools. It’s called behaviorism.

Both schools not only overlook the sin that can lead to a rebellious child, but as well both fail to credit the grace that alone produces the stellar child.

Barb and I have been richly blessed by that grace. God has had to spend extra amounts to overcome our stumblings. But I think there is still enough to go around!

Parenting, with Caution

Problematic teachings often march under the banner of the Bible. Jesus gets blamed, therefore, for a lot of stuff that is not his doing.

With gentleness and grace, and yet intellectual and theological rigor, Tulip Girl and friends alerts us to one such set of teachings in which the Bible is invoked:

Ezzo Week 2010

I appreciate the care with which this is handled, and I have been convinced of the necessity of the alert.

If you or any you know are considering or using the method of child-rearing taught by Gary Ezzo, I highly encourage you to visit Tulip Girl’s site and to ponder her material.

The Economy of Kids

As I catch up on my reading, I have run across two blog posts linking kids and economics, both spawned by the same WSJ article on the subject.

Now, I’m on top of this. I note that the average cost of raising a child from 0 to 18 is something like $180,000. We’ve gotten five that far with one more to go, so I’m not surprised that I’m broke. But I also would say that I’m a very, very rich guy. (And hope to enjoy that wealth for a long time if the stress of having two very attractive and very available unwed daughters does not kill me first.)

Both blogs question whether the economics of satisfaction should control or be a factor in our child bearing decisions. Megan McCardle puts it bluntly:

And here’s where I wonder if we ought to re-examine our commitment to happiness. It seems to me that there’s possibly some merit — if we persevere and have the sense to learn from it — in the other-orientation that is (good) parenting. It’s fine to go through life happy, in other words, but I suspect we also want to go through life without becoming big fat self-absorbed jackasses. Children really help in that regard.

Mike Sacasas reacts in a similar vein:

…it seems misguided to capture the meaning of a child’s life and the experience of parenting with its tears and joys in a simple statistical survey or a budget line item. Perhaps it is the reduction of social life to economic life, that accounts for the changing patterns of childbearing; perhaps it is an almost narcissistic view of personal fulfillment.

I am not one advocating the ‘have as many children as you can’ mentality of some. (A wonderful review of this point of view here.) And I confess that there have been times when I’ve wanted to turn in my resignation as a parent, but have been unable to find the office where it was to be submitted.

That said, in the wonderfully providential way in which God has lead us, He has given to us a myriad of blessings, sometimes through pain, which could never be measured with economic instruments.

Though, it is clear, we are still broke.

For Lovers of Baseball, and Parents Everywhere

Someday, I’ll share my own experience of growing up loving baseball. It was sparked by my older brother taking me to Crosley Field to see the Cincinnati Reds play when I was not yet five.

Those of you who share a love for this game will appreciate this reflection by a man who normally is passionate about stats and the theory of the game.

When I watch games today, I obsess about game theory, managerial decisions, and advanced statistical evaluations. Today, I saw the game through the lens of my childhood once again. The Rays fell behind early, but instead of lamenting about batting average on balls in play, we cheerfully partook in chants of “Let’s Go Rays!” and “Charge”. We bought cotton candy, and cracker jacks, and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. I watched my daughter light up dancing in the aisle between innings and cheerfully doing her batter introductions. For the first time I was able to appreciate Raymond and the Rays Team through the eyes of my daughter. I witnessed how they brought the game to life for a three year-old. Balloon makers in the concourse and kiddie games made a nice mid-game break to recharge my daughter’s patience battery. Finally when the game was over after an hour’s wait, I was able to run alongside my daughter around the base path following the game as she positively was glowing. It’s been a long time since I’ve noticed so little detail about a game, yet I can’t remember having so much fun (Game 7 of the ALCS not withstanding).

It strikes me in reading this, that just about any passion we bear into adulthood was sparked by someone around us passing on that passion to us when we were young. (For a secondary witness, this.) We who are older, take note.

In the Papers

Monthly I write a column for the local Bradenton newspaper. Clergy columns tend to be evangelistic because those who write them fail to realize that those who read clergy columns are not generally going to be your unbelieving masses. I approach the column assuming that my readers will mostly be Christians. I write to these Christians knowing that our conversation will be overheard by the occasional non-Christian. This then directs what I say and how I say it.

Clearly that is the case with this month’s article. TulipGirl has sensitized me to a large Christian home-schooling subculture whose faulty hermeneutic in the hands of the wrong people has bred lasting harm. In the hopes that some might be alerted to the dangers I wrote this article.

I know that that will be available on-line for only a short time, so I’m posting it here as originally submitted:

* * * * *

In Memoriam

Last month, seven-year old Lydia Schatz was admitted to a California hospital, her body so beaten that her internal organs had shut down. She died shortly thereafter.

She had been beaten by her Christian, home-schooling parents, by all accounts good people who wanted to do the right thing with their children. Good people who did not stop to think.

They had been told that to be good Christian parents, they should home-school. So, they home-schooled. They were persuaded by the homeschool milieu they inhabited that the Christian child should be perfectly obedient. They were further told that the Christian way to get such perfect obedience was to whip their children with 1/4 inch plumbing supply line. They were told that loving Christian training required spanking children until their crying turns into a ‘wounded, submissive whimper’ or leaves them ‘without breath to complain.’

And now a child is dead.

The quotes above are lifted from a February 22 article in Salon.com and reference the child rearing teaching of Michael and Debi Pearl. The Pearls have mined gold playing upon the fears and desires that many Christian parents have for their children. The war cry is to guard, protect, and isolate our children and to eradicate from them any vestige of sinful rebellion. This plays well among good people who want to do the right thing in raising their children.

Sadly, good desire is wrapped in bad theology and worse practice. Sin can no more be beaten out of a child as it can be beaten out of you and me. The only thing which frees us is the gospel, the fresh wind of grace, the kindness and mercy of God. That is what we must show our children and embrace ourselves.

I know how powerfully fear and control can play in the mis-handling of our children. One need not be a home-schooling Christian to fall prey to such patterns. But when we add to our base emotions an apologetic for beating and call it ‘Christian Parenting’ we have created a harmful brew. Only a few will die outwardly; many will die inwardly.

All because we as Christians stupidly follow without thinking.

I am a conservative Christian. My wife and I homeschool our children. It is easy to form stereotypes when the darker side of this movement is exposed. Please don’t do that.

But my heart breaks for these children, and I am angered by the teaching that encourages it.

It is too late for Lydia. It is too late for many others emerging scarred from such environments. It may not be too late for others. Think. Follow no one blindly. Consider the kindness and grace of God. Love your imperfect children as God loves you.