Heart Pondering

The ponderings of one Christ-following mom on raising preschoolers

Thoughts on strictness November 11, 2009

Filed under: Authority & obedience,Books,Correction,Culture,Mothering role — Susan @ Christian Mothering @ 1:53 am

k0213631I recently read Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss because of the high praise the book received from one of my blogger-mentors, Andrea of the Flourishing Mother.  Written in the 1800’s by the wife of a New England pastor, it’s an imagined personal journal of a fictional woman named Katherine Mortimer – a daughter, wife, mother, Christ-follower.  Prentiss’ goal in writing the book, which spans Katherine’s life from age 16 to perhaps 50, is to illustrate “victory in Christian living” (as my copy of the book is sub-titled, through normal daily life.  I found the book inspiring, thought-provoking, and entirely relevant to my own life.

The book’s 1880 foreword is penned by the author’s husband, Gordon L. Prentiss, with whom she had six children.  One description he wrote of his wife that gave me pause was this: ” With her children she was a model disciplinarian, exceedingly strict, a wise law-maker; yet withal a tender, devoted, self-sacrificing mother.  I have never seen such exact obedience required and given, or a more idolized mother.  ‘Mamma’s’ word was indeed law, but – O happy combination! – it was also gospel.”

What struck me most was his use of the word “strict” – and not just strict but “exceedingly strict.”  I can’t imagine any person in today’s world selecting those words to describe a woman and intending them as a compliment.  Doesn’t ‘strict’ call forth a picture of a stern-faced school marm with glasses perched on the tip of her nose, looking to catch out a defenseless pupil?  It seems negative, harsh, and discouraging.

Clearly, though, Gordon Prentiss means his descriptor as a compliment since he also calls his wife a “model disciplinarian.”  Exact obedience was required by Elizabeth and given by the children – and yet they thrived in this environment because she was also tender, devoted, and self-sacrificing.  He describes her almost as one would describe God – giving children boundless love and simultaneously requiring complete obedience.  (His further stating that her words were both law and gospel to her children drives the comparison home.)  Gordon obviously found his wife’s parenting style to be extremely beneficial to his children and thus saw her strictness as a good thing. [Her style reminds me somewhat of Susanna Wesley’s, actually, who evidently shared a similar response from her children.]

I would love to have witnessed Elizabeth mothering her kids.  I’m convinced from reading her book that she was a wise, godly, prayerful woman, and her devotion and tenderness toward her children was probably just as ample as her husband says.  What do exceeding strictness and effusive tenderness look like together in parenting?  Does anyone know a woman who parents with these two traits working together in tandem? I sure don’t.

I happened upon some words written by Fenelon as I was pondering this type of strictness that were helpful.  He said: “Remember that true firmness is gentle, humble, and calm.  A sharp tongue, a proud heart, and an iron hand have no place in God’s work.”  His description of firmness (a less negative-sounding word, at least in today’s culture) seems to resonate with the strictness that Gordon Prentiss saw in his wife – high expectations and unflinching consistency marked by kindness and love. 

Thoughts on this? Are you strict as a mother? Do you want to be?

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on strictness”

  1. Molly Says:

    Thanks Susan! This is an interesting idea…strictness as negative or positive. I think I’m learning that it has been easy for me (type-A, control-freak, routine-loving) to “hide” a bit behind the idea of strictness being a good thing for me and my household. I think consistency (strictness) has proven to be beneficial for us all in regards to routines and basic behavior/expectations. I’m finding now though that strictness in the sense of “Mamma’s word being the gospel” is another story. Yes, we “require” obedience and I think that until somewhere between about ages 2-3, that is maybe all the child really needs to know (is that parent is in-charge). But with a 4 year old, something (what IS IT?!) is more complicated and I think I’m just beginning to understand where grace and relationship fit in to molding him, outside of the realm of strictness. Right now, I think I’d rather focus on training him to express himself in a respectful way than to focus on fighting the battle of the will. I know we’ll continue to fight the battle of the will regularly but I’m trying to put more time and effort into this idea of grace. (We’re reading Grace-based Parenting by Tim Kimmel) For example, something I’m working on now (again actually): when its time to leave a friend’s house where he is enjoying himself, and he gets upset (which is half the time and for reasons I can’t always understand). I have no problem conquering his will by physically removing his crying and sometimes flailing body out to the car but I’m wondering lately what that might be modeling or teaching him. We can’t always stay another 15 minutes until he is able to leave thankfully, peacefully (and can I truly force him to exhibit these fruits?) but I’m more inclined lately to listen to him a bit and let him explain how he is feeling and validate it for him so he doesn’t feel so helpless. Two years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of listening like this. I think it’s different than reasoning with a child, which I try to scoff at but still get sucked into at times! It used to be that I was embarassed and wanted the end result of leaving a friend’s house to be peaceful so that I could feel good about myself and my obedient child. But now I truly want him to feel secure enough (and thankful, gracious enough) to be able to leave feeling good about the fun experience he just had, to be able to give thanks to our host and to God for it. It’s that getting at the heart thing again, isn’t it? Such a challenge.

  2. heartpondering Says:

    I appreciate the comment Molly… I’m reading Grace-Based Parenting right now too (still near the start) and look forward to the input that will give.

    What interests me most about your comment is that your starting point was on the strict sound and now you’re moving to more conversational/discussion-oriented. I didn’t bring enough strictness into my parenting at the beginning – I didn’t internalize the important of being the authority to my son and the importance of his accepting this till he was 3. In a sense, I didn’t start out strict enough – didn’t really require obedience. The moms I see in my circles were more like me than like you – starting more on the not-strict side of things. Moving from there to strictness is, I think, much harder to do than from strict to less-strict. (Tripp, Dobson, and others advocate giving more and more authority and decision-making power to children as they age and demonstrate their capacity to submit to authority, and I can see why).

    I certainly agree that the heart is central and that rote obedience isn’t at all what we’re after. I also know what you mean about the mother’s (ungodly) emotions of wanting to display that you have an obedient child! I do that too and then have to repent…

    Look forward to more dialogue on this when I post on Grace-Based Parenting. Love your points.


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