When I was young and a new parent, someone handed me a copy of Mike & Debi Pearl's book To Train Up a Child. At the time, this simple volume seemed like a godsend. It reduced the complex to simplicity, and claimed that every child was easily raised simply by showing him who's boss. I liked that idea, when I was young and inexperienced and had yet to be baptized in spitup and bubbles and children's laughter. Since that time, their ministry has grown and others have also risen up to proclaim that parenting is a simple game of mastery and will-breaking. But now that some of my children are about grown, and now that I have grown so much through contact with these children, I wonder how biblical some of these principles really are.
Christian-based programs like this one, and the infamous "Growing Kids God's Way" claim to tell parents how to raise a child biblically. They recognize that a child's image of God is profoundly influenced by that early relationship with Mom and later Dad. But what sort of God do they have parents emulating? Typically one who is suspicious, overly stern and unforgiving.
When I study the Bible -- even the Old Testament with its bloody wars and judgment -- the overall picture I see of God as a parent is not the stern, hateful, show-'em-who's-boss master. God is the parent who creates an earthly home that can only be vaguely "good" without offspring. God is the parent who looks upon those children newly created and states with satisfaction that because they are formed, now life is "very good." God is the parent who desires to lead his people to "a land that flows with milk and honey." God is the mother who brings forth her children with great effort, and dandles them on her knees. Like a nursing mother, God can never forget those children. What if we were to emulate this God?
Children most often grow up to be like their parents. As my own six children mature and I watch them -- each so different from the other -- working out their own path of life, it occurs to me the lectures, the rewards and punishments, the programs, and the hours spent trying to "mold" them have had only a trace effect on their development. Their own personalities have been most important, and the effect I've had has come not through discipline or teaching so as much as by example.
Our job as parents may not be what we think it is. It may be more about "modeling" right attitudes rather than "molding" right behaviors.
Imagine if we focused more on modeling than molding. We would feel free to shower our children with good things, happy times, close connections, acceptance, and as much responsibility as they were ready for, without the scheduling, expectations and punishments recommended by the Pearls and their kind. Perhaps they read too many Cinderella-type fairy tales where the mistreated child grows up to snag the prince, while the well-loved children are horrible and spoiled. Those fairy tales are not reality. In fact, the child who grows up without love will typically not be happy or healthy. If a prince comes along he may not be interested in a person who has not learned to give and receive love.
Someone will inevitably say, "You have to teach children they can't have everything they want." The flaw in this thinking is the idea that you have to "teach" that concept at all. Life will teach them so, and quickly. Just tell such a person, "Don't worry. We don't live at Disney Land, we don't eat ice cream for dinner every night, and ear aches and bee stings happen. Life is already teaching her that things don't always go her way. My job is to teach her that sometimes things DO go your way, and that you have a right to hope for and work for that."
I'm calling this type of parenting "milk and honey." We give our children love, respect, and good things. We teach them to expect, long for, and demand good things from their world. We model giving good things to others.
Interestingly, La Leche League has really embraced this type of positive parenting. (La Leche League is a worldwide breastfeeding advocacy group, so we'll put them in the "Milk" category of Milk and Honey!) They espouse "attachment parenting" which recommends that parents hold their babies most of the time, avoid leaving them to cry, sleep with them, nurse them as long as they want and any time they want, and generally give them all the good, healthy things they desire. Their ideas are often characterised as overly permissive, but I've found that many of their suggestions are just a matter of basic respect. For example, they suggest telling a child it is almost time to put his away his toys and that dinner is cooking, instead of "put that up and come to dinner now." It is, in fact, something like the Golden Rule. You know, "Do unto [your children] as you want [your children] to do unto you." (Because when you are elderly and in their care, they probably will...)
What if we practiced the Golden Rule with our children? I've noticed that it's easy to have a double standard, especially in how we speak to our children. We may order them around, use sarcasm to get our point across, or express negativity toward them in the way we talk. Yet we expect them to answer us respectfully and look us in the eye. What if we simply spoke to them the way we want them to speak to us?
At our house, we make a point to tell our children "please" and "thank you" and we often call them "ma'am" or "sir." Because we do this, we've not had to teach these concepts of courtesy, and if they slip a simple reminder will do. Many people have complimented us on how our children look adults in the eye, talk to them pleasantly, and are so polite. Reflecting on this, it's something we have "modeled," not "molded." That's an area where we've succeeded. One down, four thousand fifty-two to go . . . We just need a little more milk and honey.
Jeannie Babb Taylor