Over the past couple of weeks, I have been making my way through Paul David Tripp's book, 14 Principles of Parenting that Can Radically Change Your Family. A bold promise, you might say, but I think he just might be right. So far, the book has been tremendous, one to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.
Principles I have rediscovered with fresh power include:
Our Children don't belong to us, they belong to God, their Creator:
As such, we are God's servants, His ambassadors, called to represent His fatherly character, enforce His law, inculcate a vision for His glory, and raise His children. When we forget this, we tend to take their sin much too personally. Let me illustrate this: call to mind the last time your children really made you mad -- I mean blow the top off your head angry. Maybe it was the time you tried to explain to your teenage son why sleep-overs are a bad idea, but he just thought you were being too strict. Didn't you realize, all his friends were going?-- every single last one? 'Why can't you just lighten up, dad!" he said. Or maybe it was that time at the pastor's house when your 3-year-old daughter announced her lifelong resolution never, ever to eat peas again. In response, you calmly delivered the finest nutritional evaluation of green vegetables human ears have ever heard, but she remained resolute. Absolutely, no peas! Not now! Not ever! -- Especially the ones the pastor's wife makes,"They're yucky!"
Now replay those moments again, but imagine you are taking care of my children for the weekend, not your own. Would you respond differently? You would, wouldn't you? Why? Well, because they are not your children, they belong to someone else. As such, you don't find yourself building your identity on their behavior, and you don't take their sin quite so personally. You remember: I am here to parent somebody else's child. So, you see the moment for what it is, and you speak into their lives with gentle but firm wisdom.
The Problem with Bad Behavior is not Bad Behavior!
The hardest thing about parenting children is their distressing penchant for actually needing parenting. You have just arrived home from work late. Things are not going well in the house. Your wife is obviously up against it. She is doing 6 things at once-- including: folding the laundry, tidying the living room, rescuing the pasta from boiling over, stopping the bread from burning, and setting the table. In 15 minutes that nice new baptist family from church will walk through the door as dinner guests. Yes, the ones with the 6 perfect children. Obviously, she wants to make a good impression. Meanwhile, your children are in the living room, quietly playing Mario Kart racing on the Wii. "At least they are not fighting!" you say nervously, trying to lighten the moment with humor. Your wife glares at your incredulously, points to the living room, lifts her hands to the ceiling, and sighs -- which being translated means, "They're your children. Get them to help me now, or you are dead!" Feeling blamed for something that is clearly not your fault, you storm into the living to read the riot act...."
Press pause for a moment on the Tivo button of the universe. What are you trying to achieve? You're in drill-sergeant mode, trying to change the boys' behavior double time. There's no time to lose, you need them to help, now! Anger is obviously the quickest route to that end, or so you think.
But what's really at stake here? Your boys are 8 and 10 years of age, old enough to sense mommy's angst in the kitchen, and able enough to offer help. But they don't, why? Because at that moment, their hearts are not being ruled by love but by their own selfish desire for pleasure. They have taken their eyes of God, they are thinking only of themselves and the fun they are having on the video consol. As a result, they are deaf to the unspoken cries for help emanating from the kitchen. This is no way to treat the mother who gave them life, who carried them in her womb, whose every heartbeat throbs with kindness in their direction. Furthermore, this is no way to live in light of Christ, God's own son who left the comfort of heaven for this hellish, sin-cursed wilderness, who traded the praises of angels for the curses of men, who exchanged Himself for us, who gave His naked breast to the lake of fire and brimstone so that we might drink the Water of life forever.
This is the message our boys need to hear. They need to hear us calmly lament their lack of character, point them to Christ, and call them to repent. Granted, there is not always time for such an in-depth philosophical discussion right there and then, and I am not suggesting you attempt one. When immediate action is the need of the moment, we should simply go into the room with the firm dignity of man in full control of the principle at stake, and say, "Boys, turn off the TV at once, and go into the kitchen to help your mom. And before you go, I need to tell you, the fact you sat in here while your mom was obviously overwhelmed next door displays very poor character indeed. We will talk of this later. For now, go, please, and help her!" The proper chat can come at bedtime when everyone has both the time and the ears to listen.
This brings me to the third, painful lesson, I needed to hear from Dr. Tripp.
Responding to a lack of character with a lack of character is a poor parenting strategy:
We left you, if you remember, frozen in full fury. Let's for the sake of argument, press the Tivo button again and see how your tirade turns out. Off you go into the living room to read the riot act. Steam billows out of your ears. Abusive language belches from your mouth. The boys are up off the couch like rockets. Or perhaps they shout back, complaining that their game is nearly over, and can they not finish it first before they help mom? I am sure you can fill in the rest of the story. We have all been there, probably this week! On my part, I have to confess, I do not tend to find such a response from my offspring calming. Do you? Nope, I didn't think so.... Things pretty much tend to go downhill from there, until the guests arrive, and we all wipe the angst of our faces and smile nicely.
What's wrong with this picture? In one sense, you might find yourself saying, "At least it worked: the Wii is turned off, the boys are up off the sofa and in the kitchen giving mom the help she so desperately needs!"
The problem with such behavior, however, is that it only addresses the behavior, not the heart causing it -- if anything, it can actually make the hardness of heart worse. Because at this moment, what's really driving your anger is not the sense that the glory of God has been ignored, or that the duties to mom have been neglected. What's really driving your anger is the inconvenience you feel at having to deal with this problem right now. Your mind is raging with thoughts like: "I can't believe you are so lazy!" "You've made your mother angry at me again, I've had a hard day, I don't deserve this, why couldn't you just have gone into the kitchen and offered her some help. Then I could have come home to a happy household!" You might even find yourself justifying your anger, "I'm angry, but so is God! Therefore my anger must be righteous because we are both angry at the same situation." But have you considered that while God might indeed be angry with your children in this situation, He is so for very different reasons? He is also angry at us, I might add, for running roughshod over so many Biblical principles. What's the one we like to quote to our quarreling children?-- It has something to do with a harsh answer and the lamentable response it inevitably provokes
Another problem with this kind of anger is that it has absolutely no power to change the heart of a child for the better. "The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God." Sure it can command momentary, grudging obedience, but it inevitably tends to drive the child away, break their spirit, and blind their eyes to their own sinfulness. As Tripp states so pointedly, "If you deal with a lack of character with a lack of character, you will not accomplish what God has given you to accomplish in the hearts of your children."
When it comes to the issue of parenting, more than perhaps any other modern, human author, Tripp helps me see this principle. He helps me see that I am a fool to use the logic of hell to train children of heaven. He helps me rise above the petty, selfish irritation of the moment and see what's really at stake -- in my heart and in my children's heart. We both desperately need the grace of God. For those with eyes to see, therefore, each parenting opportunity, no matter how irritatingly inconvenient, actually represents a heaven sent doorway to mercy-- mercy for the child and mercy for the parent. God knows, we both desperately need it.