A just-published story in The Atlantic by Lori Gottlieb entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” raises some helpful questions about modern parenting and how it is stimulating narcissism. There is some strong language in the piece, so I’m not linking to it. I will, however, quote a section to show the strength of the ideas in the article:
Another teacher I spoke with, a 58-year-old mother of grown children who has been teaching kindergarten for 17 years, told me she feels that parents are increasingly getting in the way of their children’s development. “I see the way their parents treat them,” she said, “and there’s a big adjustment when they get into my class. It’s good for them to realize that they aren’t the center of the world, that sometimes other people’s feelings matter more than theirs at a particular moment—but it only helps if they’re getting the same limit-setting at home. If not, they become impulsive, because they’re not thinking about anybody else.”
The point continues:
This same teacher—who asked not to be identified, for fear of losing her job—says she sees many parents who think they’re setting limits, when actually, they’re just being wishy-washy. “A kid will say, ‘Can we get ice cream on the way home?’ And the parent will say, ‘No, it’s not our day. Ice-cream day is Friday.’ Then the child will push and negotiate, and the parent, who probably thinks negotiating is ‘honoring her child’s opinion,’ will say, ‘Fine, we’ll get ice cream today, but don’t ask me tomorrow, because the answer is no!’” The teacher laughed. “Every year, parents come to me and say, ‘Why won’t my child listen to me? Why won’t she take no for an answer?’ And I say, ‘Your child won’t take no for an answer, because the answer is never no!’”
These provocative insights, of course, are really just good old-fashioned common sense. Saying no to a child–what an idea! This is the stuff of ground-breaking, cover-making wisdom at present.
I’d like to use this piece to offer a few thoughts on the current state of evangelical parenting. Many of us do focus on developing self-esteem in our children, which has a few positive and many negative effects–good because our children know we love them and are interested in what they do, bad because they can all too easily learn self-centeredness instead of God-centeredness. That, to say the very least, is a problem, as is the practice of rewarding children for mediocrity and even failure.
But there’s a parallel issue that concerns me about the “parenting style” of many of us today. It is theological: we love grace. We so exult in God’s lavish grace–and nothing is so worthy of exulting in, or exalting–that we lose sight of other important biblical-theological concepts. Like what, you say? Like the law. The law does not and cannot save. Only the gospel can. But the law is nonetheless of great value to us in forming character, understanding God’s nature, and driving us to the mercy offered us in Christ (see Galatians 3:24).
How does this apply to modern evangelical parenting? I’m concerned that many evangelicals who prize God’s sovereign goodness as I do are diminishing the importance of rules, morals, and appropriate behavior. Let’s be clear–I’m not advocating moralism. I don’t want kids to grow up with hard-and-fast ethical boundaries but no grace, no love, no affection. I guess I’m theologically greedy. I want both. I want a home that is driven by and centered in and soaked through with grace. God-rooted grace should drive the life of a family such that love, not law, is the dominant trait one picks up about a Christian family when one spends time with it. ”What was it about the Harpers? They interact with one another in such a loving way. Why?” That’s the kind of question people should ask after being around our godly families.
I don’t think that we can achieve such a culture, however, if we don’t prioritize rules, morals, and boundaries. All these should be driven by grace. But they should very much exist in the life of the Christian family. We do not advocate a formless, spineless kind of love as so many do today, after all. We teach and preach a cruciform love, Christocentric in nature, which involves conformity to God’s holy will. Love in the actual biblical sense does not mean “accepting someone no matter what,” it means “graciously caring for another in a self-sacrificial way that calls them to the kind ways of God demonstrated in the gospel.” When Jesus loves a person, he calls them to himself; when he calls them to himself, he bids them die, and leave all, and follow him (Luke 9:23). Love does not mean letting go of responsibility; it means, through the Spirit’s power, living the most passionate, holy, involved life one can lead.
In our parenting, we need to exhibit this kind of love and point our children to it. The way to do this? Hold out grace to our children. Teach them the gospel of Christ. Also, establish rules. Morals. Boundaries. Precepts. Commands. Non-negotiables. And so on, all in a grace-driven way. The gospel is not the enemy of morality, after all, but moralism.
What might a healthy evangelical home look like?
1) Orderly and controlled. Christian parents should be able to take their children to a restaurant, friend’s home, or ballgame and have them behave. Children shouldn’t terrorize their surroundings. Much bad behavior has been rebranded today as “just boys being boys” or “kids being kids” or “our children are in a wild mood today.” No, not usually. Usually, your children are just badly behaved. That is not really on them (when they’re little, especially)–that’s on you, parents, and especially you, Dad.
2) Ruled. Homes should have plenty of rules and maxims to follow. Children thrive in structure. Everybody likes a fun afternoon, an unplanned ice cream run, a day at the beach, but even fun activities need some guidance and structure. Remember, it’s not “graceless” or moralistic to have rules and guidelines. The gospel saves us from the law, but what does it make us? Slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18). The Spirit leads our obedience, a good portion of which comes in response to still-active biblical commands. You can say you’re free in Christ, but if your freedom leads you to sleep with someone else’s husband, you have fundamentally misunderstood the doctrine. Grace creates godliness; justification drives sanctification; the gospel creates holiness. Homes with rules and boundaries along with a love for the gospel reflect the ideal shape of the Christian life.
What does this mean practically? It means that when you say “Stop,” your kids should stop. When you say “Please wait,” they should wait. When you tell them to do something, they should respond immediately. This kind of behavior requires constant attention, firm discipline for disobedience, and lots of good, clear communication. It’s especially helpful and needful to plan ahead and set expectations: “We’re going to the mall, which means that you will need to walk beside Daddy and Mommy. The other children may run around shrieking, but we’ll stay together and have fun.” Are parents doing these things nowadays? Or do most of us parent without rules in place, fail to set expectations (which hugely benefits kids), and then get angry in a Zeusian manner? Then we grumble afterwards about the behavior of our children, making little jokes about them that demean them, never realizing that really, in the end, we are to blame.
3) Polite. There’s a jarring lack of attention to authority, respect and decorum today, and many of our homes display such a spirit. Now, just so you know, I’m no Victorian (though I might be better off if I was). My home is pretty modern, and we are a relaxed family. But I’m concerned that we often fail to teach our children to respect others. It’s as if we think that loving our kids and making sure they’re happy is all we’re supposed to do. But that’s not the case. We need to train our children not to slavishly serve ruling interests but to respectfully submit to them. That will mean training children to respect adults, to think of others before themselves, and to show honor to whom it is due (veterans, teachers, elders, etc). Going back to the first point, our children should be quiet in public, kind to their peers, and respectful to adults. They’re not being cute, after all, when they’re waging war with the booth next to yours at the Macaroni Grill; they’re being brats. The fact that you love them unconditionally doesn’t change that.
I’ll leave off at this point. I’ve only just scratched the surface of this topic. There’s much more to be said here. Hopefully, evangelical homes will prioritize both the law and grace, with grace winning the day by a mile. Unfortunately, I think too many evangelical homes have one without the other. May our children be well-behaved, kind, controlled, and utterly in love with the grace of God shown abroad in his gospel.