Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Screaming Kids and the Harvest of Righteousness

I’m fairly emotionally robust, a product probably of both nature and nurture. I’d like to think I’m not completely insensitive, but it takes a fair bit to hurt my feelings, let alone do any kind of serious damage. I can’t imagine what someone would have to do to me to cause permanent harm to my worldview, self-image or confidence. (My family may, of course, wish to offer their own take on any spirit of self-congratulation that sneaks into such a self-assessment.)

But that’s not true of everyone. It wasn’t even always true of me. In Grade 5 when I first encountered bullies (or more accurately, they first encountered me), I was insecure, terrified and conflict-avoidant. Mostly I was perpetually astonished at the intensity of their venom, which as far as I could tell was directed my way for no reason at all. I walked miles out of my way to get home from school without being pummeled silly.

Nowadays, at least in Canada, bullying in school is frowned upon and a token effort, at bare minimum, is made to manage it. When I was a teen, there was not much you could do except fight back (if you were able) or run for the hills. Taking your sad tale to a teacher or principal didn't accomplish anything positive, something I learned rather quickly.

But even being bullied is merely a manageable annoyance if you have a good home and a loving family to retreat to.

The really emotionally destructive stuff happens at home. No stranger or acquaintance can hurt you like a loved one can.

One of the nastiest pieces of work who ever pushed me around was a boy named Phil, the son of an auto mechanic down the street. After this inexplicable persecution went on for some time, my father took a futile crack at approaching Phil’s dad to see if something could be done. (The persecution was inexplicable to me at the time. Turns out, looking back, it’s possible that I was the tiniest bit more annoying than I like to remember.)

Anyway, to almost nobody’s surprise Phil’s dad turned out to be just like Phil. I concluded within seconds (as did my father) that we were going to get nowhere fast with him, and we were both right. Later, when we lived in another town entirely, one of the most obnoxious neighbourhood thugs turned out to be the offspring of a father ten times worse.

Perhaps that’s why the New Testament gives instruction that, to those raised in loving families, may seem perfectly obvious. (Of course it’s only obvious because we were raised by parents who regularly read and observed these things, or had been influenced by Christian teaching, however diluted.)

Paul gives one of these very ‘obvious’ directions when he tells the Ephesian Christians, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger”. In his letter to the Colossians, he amplifies a little: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged”.

While it is interesting that both these commands to fathers are preceded by commands to children to “obey your parents”, I think we’re all mature enough to realize that when the Lord commands something of you, or of me, whether or not we should obey it does not have the slightest thing to do with whether the other person in the equation is acting in obedience to Scripture.

But just in case we take this the wrong way and assume that the command to avoid provoking and discouraging our children precludes godly discipline, the Holy Spirit through Paul is quick to clarify: “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”.

Children are not to be raised without restraint, correction and appropriate punishment. Discipline is not always pleasant; in fact, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it”. 

It’s not pleasant for those on the receiving end, and as a father, I remember not enjoying it a great deal either. I often found myself asking “Was that the best way I could’ve handled that? Was that punishment I just dished out truly in the best interest of my child, or did I maybe take just a little bit of satisfaction in dispensing it? Did I make that decision dispassionately and selflessly, or with a desire to get my own back?”

No, discipline is definitely no joy for either party; if it is, something is very, very wrong.  But Paul is not coming up with something previously unheard of here. He is, in fact, reinforcing the teaching of the Old Testament with regard to parenting: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him”.

Today I walked along for a few minutes behind a young mother as she saw her two boys home from school. The youngest tormented her ceaselessly while she recited an impotent mantra of “Johnny, stop that” until they passed out of my hearing. The elder brother trailed along behind with a “seen this before” expression, presumably in anticipation of mom telling Johnny to “stop that” another fifty times before they reached home.

One has to be careful about forming opinions about the value of other people’s parenting strategies based on a few moments of observation, but one thing was crystal clear: her technique failed spectacularly to have any effect on the child.

Now it’s quite possible the mother was cognizant of the fact that people were watching and careful not to do anything in public to demonstrate that she was actually supposed to be in charge just in case someone took offense and helpfully called Children’s Aid on her, a thing which happens today far too often, I fear.

Or maybe she was just one of these modern parents who start with the philosophy that their kids are entitled to rear themselves and equipped by nature to do so, and so endures her obligation stoically until they finally and reluctantly exit the home about the time she’s ready for a retirement facility.

A child who is characteristically disciplined by his or her parents simply does not behave that way. Of course almost every child has moments when he or she acts out of character, but the mark of a parent that is truly in control is that, with very rare exceptions, when he or she has had enough, all it takes is a word or two and the child ceases and desists.

Which, truly, is the kindest thing you can do for the child, isn’t it? That poor little boy trailing along behind his mother driving her crazy was working himself up into a frenzy. Rather than having a little fun at her expense, he was utterly miserable and speedily becoming more so. It was no kindness to let him carry on like that, for his own sake if for no other reason.

It is clear that indulgence and indifference are not good parenting techniques. But there remains a difficult balance to achieve between regular, consistent discipline and making sure not to cross the line into unnecessary provocation and frustration of one’s children. I cannot say I’ve always found the right side of the line myself.

The word “instruction”, while it can certainly include modeling correct behavior and being a good example, can only be fully understood if it includes clear, indisputable verbal direction. A message must be communicated. But one must be careful not to cross the line into nagging. It is evident that a parent is out of control when he or she has to resort to whining, shouting or screaming.

A message must be quietly and firmly delivered and reinforced as necessary.

The word “discipline” includes both physical discipline and other kinds of punishment. But it is awfully easy to be too strict, too lax, or inconsistent in applying discipline. Over-strictness can lead to discouragement. Lassitude promotes indifference and confusion. Inconsistency encourages violations of the rules, because this time, we might just get away with it.

Whatever sort of disciplinary protocol one chooses to observe, the hardest things seem to be keeping discipline consistent, and keeping anger out of it. It is awfully easy to let something that really should be dealt with slide because one is exhausted, distracted or over-worked. It is equally dangerous to over-respond to a provocation with out-of-control emotions.

My father struck a good balance by rarely pronouncing a punishment on the spot. There was always a cooling-off period during which both parent and child had time to assess what had happened, after which reasonable consequences were calmly dispensed. I hasten to add that the punishment was rarely appreciated. But you could never accuse Dad of acting in haste, biting off more than he could chew, or being unfair. At least not while keeping a straight face. What we received was most often richly deserved and well earned.

In our dealings with God, the principle applies that “whatever a man sows, that will he also reap”. That is an eternal truism. Actions have consequences. I think that’s clear in the words “that will he also”. One reaps what one has sown — which is to say, consequences of the same kind, not a crop of a different sort entirely.

It ought to be true for our children that they reap the consequences of what they sow. I once watched a father force his son to bury the squirrel he had frivolously killed with a slingshot. The tears ran down that little boy’s face as he dug the hole. But he needed to see close up what his actions had produced. It would have been no kindness on the father’s part to leave the dead squirrel where it lay, or to bury it himself.

In parenting, as in so many other things in life, we reap what we sow. Alternatively, we may choose to live so as to reap a “harvest of righteousness”.

That seems like a much better bargain to me.

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