I ran into an article several months ago, written by amateur theologian and parenting adviser Kirk Cameron, in which he told us that parenting by explanation was neither Biblical nor healthy (you can find the article at the link http://kirkcameron.com/problem-explanations/, but be prepared for a smoldering picture of Mr. Cameron’s face right next to the article.)
I find myself at odds with Mr. Cameron’s parenting advice a great deal of the time, but rather than write an entire blog post on what is wrong with what he has to say, I decided to write one about the parenting that I have found most effective in my house. It’s an answer, not only to Mr. Cameron, but to many of the current “Biblical” models of parenting that are popular in extremely conservative Christian circles. I will present in list mode, but the points are not placed in order of importance.
1) Your child is never “bad”.
When we talk to our kids, we never, ever tell them that they are bad, or naughty, or mean. We always preface those words with the word “acting.” “You are acting mean.” “You are acting badly.” “You are behaving poorly.”
This might seem like simple semantics, but I have discovered through a lifetime of being really effective with my words that the words we use are sometimes more important than the sentiment behind them. I cannot tell you how many times I have been involved in arguments in which someone said, “That’s not what I meant.” To which I often respond, “But that is what you said.”
The words that we say to our children become the voice in their heads. If the things that we say sound like character judgements, rather than behavioral judgements, then we set them up for a lifetime of believing that the way they act is the way that they are. We must, rather, encourage our children to be their best selves, and we must help them understand that people can be good, yet act poorly at times. This actually sets up my next point, which is…
2) We must always forgive bad behavior.
This is not to say that we must tolerate bad behavior, or that we let people who behave badly towards us continue to behave badly towards us. What this means is that we allow people to sometimes be their worst selves, while still believing that they are capable of being better. We always see the possibility for redemption in people, no matter how awful or unlovable their behavior might be. We tell our kids this all the time, “Even when you act badly, I still love you. You are still good.” If we are to really teach this to our children, if we are to make them believe that they can still be inherently good while misbehaving, then we need to teach them to model that grace and forgiveness towards those around them.
3) We are not afraid to be wrong.
This is the biggest problem that I had with Mr. Cameron’s article. Explanations are how children learn. It’s true that you can’t use the same logic with your young child that you would with a teenager, but that doesn’t mean that you just use the old standby “Because I said so.” That frustrates children, because even a young child can become offended when you insult their intelligence. Kids need internal motivators for good behavior even more than they need external motivators to avoid bad behavior. If the only motivator that you give your children to behave well is your own authority, then you will not only create a climate of fear in your household, you will ensure that your children will behave poorly the minute that you’re not around to “crack the whip.”
Additionally, if you can’t find a logical, reasonable explanation for why you are not allowing something for your child, then you probably need to reconsider your position. Admitting that you’re wrong about something, or that you don’t have a good explanation, isn’t a sign of weakness or insecurity. On the contrary, it teaches your kids at an early age that you don’t have all the answers, and that even the smartest and strongest people are sometimes wrong. That’s an important lesson, and it softens that awful moment that most children have when they realize that their parents aren’t infallible. Ease them into the idea at an early age, so that the ground doesn’t completely cave under them in their teenage years.
4) We do not spank. Ever.
I have run into so much controversy over this one, and yet I stand firmer than ever on it. There have been scientific studies on this (http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/23/health/effects-spanking-brain/), and yet I continue having this conversation with otherwise good people.
“There’s a difference between spanking and abuse.”
Allow me to be very, very blunt: no there isn’t. If there is a difference, it is only matter of degree, rather than a difference of kind. The only line between socially acceptable spanking and physical abuse is where you hit the child, how much you hit the child, and how hard you hit the child. Notice that every phrase in that sentence has you hitting your child.
There is a story that I read several years ago. A woman was getting ready to discipline her young son (I believe the child was 4 or 5). According to the story, this was the first time he had ever been spanked, and the mother was simply using the same method that had been used for generations in her family. She told the child to go outside and pick a “switch” from the tree, so that he could be spanked for his misdeeds. The child went outside, was gone for a few moments, and then came back in with a rock. He said, “I couldn’t find a stick, Mommy, but you can hit me with this.”
She never even thought of spanking her child again.
Hitting is hitting is hitting. You cannot hit your child in love. You cannot hit your child and justify it with a good reason. If you hit your child across the bottom, you are still hitting your child.
This is not to say that every person who spanks is a bad person. Spanking is a learned behavior, and most of us in my generation were spanked as kids, far less severely than our parents were. Perhaps the reason we were punished less severely was because our parents saw something wrong with the way that they were spanked. Well, I recommend that our generation break the cycle entirely. Let’s just acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea of hitting children in order to educate them.
5) We teach empathy as the highest value.
I have said this before on social media, but it really bears repeating. Empathy is the most important thing that you can ever teach your children. Empathy is that value that the Golden Rule embodies: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When a child learns that the kid across the playground is just like them, they learn to treat that child with respect and kindness. Mean words said to another child become just like means words said to them.
Whenever one of my sons does something that directly harms another person (normally that other person is whichever son I’m not correcting), I always ask the question, “How would it feel if that person did/said the same thing to you?” That forces our child into an emotional exercise, in which they can find a reason for treating people better. It’s that internal motivation for positive behavior. We might say to a 2-year-old simply, “We don’t hit!” But, to a child as young as 4, a much better response is, “How would you feel if he/she hit you?” Internal motivation always works better than external motivation. We teach our sons to be internal motivators.
6) We feed their wonder.
My younger son is 4, and he is absolutely obsessed with all things related to outer space. To him, the universe is a huge, massive, gigantic place, and he wants all of his questions answered. So, we set out to give him the biggest collection of space-related books that any 4-year-old could ever ask for. And it has only increased his wonder. He can name all of the planets, and tell you something significant about them (his favorite factoid is that Venus has lots of storms.) And he never gets tired of telling you these things, with a wide, wonderful look in his eyes.
Adults live in a boring, tired, cynical world. Everything has been explained for us, everything has been reduced. We need to stop that. We need to look at the world through our children’s eyes once in a while, to see all that mystery and awesomeness of the unknown. We need to be willing to feed that wonder, that hunger for explanations, that fascination with exploration.When we do that, we create kids who see books and hikes and even walks to the parks as adventures.
That’s all that I’ve got for now. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I have never (and will never) claim to be a parenting expert. But, if Kirk Cameron can write parenting articles, then, by God, so can I.
Grace and Peace,