Last week I discussed rigidity in child training with two different moms I greatly respect which has gotten me thinking. My own experience, and that of the majority of moms with whom I interact regularly, has been to err on the side of pemissiveness – meaning that children are not fully brought under the authority of the parent. But it’s certainly possible to err on the other side – placing too much emphasis on parental direction and authority. This may happen for many reasons; here are three that I see. 1) A parent simply has a dictatorial style and under-values the relational aspect of parenting (or doesn’t respect their kids as individuals); 2) a parent adopts a particular “system” of authority-oriented parenting and follows it, tooth and nail, without regard to the nuances of her situation and child; 3) a well-intentioned parent striving to train her child to obey takes the paradigm too far.
God tells us explicitly that children are to obey and honor their parents; however this statement is immediately followed with the directive to parents not to “exasperate” their children. There is such a thing as overkill in child-training, and engaging in it is destructive. Exasperating a child through over-training can not just derail the whole childrearing process but also damage the kid. We need to avoid it.
There’s a thought-provoking chapter in the (1890’s) book Hints on Child-Training entitled “Letting Alone as a Means of Child Training.” In it, author H. Clay Trumbull describes a father who undermines his relationship with his daughter because he “deemed it his duty to be constantly directing or checking his child, so as to keep her within the limits of safety and duty as he saw it. In the case of this father the trouble was that he made too many direct issues with his child on questions of authority and obedience, and that thus he provoked conflicts which might have been wisely avoided… His error had been the error of a thoughtful and deliberate disciplinarian who was as yet but partially instructed.” Trumbull then speaks more broadly to the issue of overdoing in child training by saying:
“There are many parents who seem to suppose that their chief work in the training of a child is to be incessantly commanding and prohibiting; telling the child to do this or do that, and to to do this, that, or the other. But this nagging a child is not training a child; on the contrary it is destructive of all training on the part of him who is addicted to it… ‘Don’t always be don’t-ing’ is a bit of counsel to parents that can hardly be emphasized too strongly… Of course, there must be explicit commanding and explicit prohibiting in the process of child training; but there must also be a large measure of wise letting alone.”
This is good counsel, and I particularly like the closing implication that the parent needs to do prayerful and continual work to determine what and how to faithfully train, and what and how to leave alone. Godly childrearing absolutely must rest on faithful prayer on the part of the parent.
I appreciated a related passage in Grace-Based Parenting in which Tim Kimmel discusses parents’ unhelpful habit of “elevating nonmoral issues to the level of big problems.” He gives an example of his young daughter preferring to go without her shoes at home and sometimes in kindergarten. Kimmel affirmed his daughter’s teacher who “simply saw her as one of those busy little children who shed her shoes because it made her somehow feel more comfortable in her first year of school.” Kimmel cites homes in which the habit would have been looked on as a serious problem worthy of reprimand and correction, saying such kids “don’t get to experience the kind of acceptance that makes a heart feel securely loved. Instead they live with a barrage of criticism.”
I like the distinction Kimmel makes here by using the term “non-moral issues.” Yes, we are to ensure that our children obey us – but we parents need to pick our battles carefully. And we need to cultivate homes in which it’s easy for our children to obey us – because we’re kind-hearted and extend them grace at every opportunity. We need to be like God, whose demonstrable goodness and love and mercy are the primary motivators for His children’s submission and obedience.