I 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?