Does it seem like parenting has gotten more complicated? I mean, as far as I can tell, back in the day parents basically tried to feed their kids, clothe them, and keep them away from explosives. Now our kids have to sleep on their backs (no wait, their tummies; no never mind, their backs), while listening to Baby Mozart surrounded by scenes of Starry, Starry Night. They have to be in piano lessons before they are five and can’t leave the car seat until they’re about five foot six.
It’s all so involved. There are so many rules and expectations. Kids can’t even eat sugar anymore. My parents were solid as a rock but we still had a cupboard populated with cereal royalty like Captain Crunch and Count Chocula. In our house the pebbles were fruity and the charms were lucky. The breakfast bowl was a place for marshmallows, not dried camping fruit. Our milk was 2%. And sometimes, if we needed to take the edge off a rough morning, we’d tempt fate and chug a little Vitamin D.
Trial by Error
I don’t consider myself a particularly good parent. I was asked to speak a few years ago at some church’s conference. They wanted me to talk about parenting. I said I didn’t have much to say so they should ask someone else (which they did). My kids are probably not as crazy as they seem to me (at least that’s what I keep telling myself anyway), but if I ever write a book on parenting I’m going to call it The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.
There are already scores of books on parenting, many of them quite good. I’ve read several of them and have learned much. I really do believe in gospel-powered parenting and shepherding my child’s heart. I want conversations like this: Me: What’s the matter son? Child: I want that toy and he won’t give it to me! Me: Why do you want the toy? Child: Because it will be fun to play with. Me: Do you think he is having fun playing with the toy right now? Child: Yes. Me: Would it make him sad to take the toy away? Child: I guess so. Me: And do you like to make your brother sad? Child: No. Me: You know, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That means loving your brother the way he would want to be loved. Since Jesus loves us so much, we have every reason to love others–even your brother. Would you like to love him by letting him play with the toy for awhile? Child: Yes I would daddy.
I try that. Really I do. But here’s what actually happens:
Me: What’s the matter son? Child: I want that toy and he won’t give it to me! Me: Why do you want the toy? Child: I don’t know. Me: What’s going on in your heart when you desire that toy? Child: I don’t know. Me: Think about it son. Use your brain. Don’t you know something? Child: I guess I just want the toy. Me: Obviously. But why? Child: I don’t know. Me: Fine. [Mental note: abandon “why” questions and skip straight to leading questions.] Do you think he is having fun playing with the toy right now? Child: No. Me: Really?! He’s not having fun? Then why does he want that toy in the first place? Child: Because he’s mean. Me: Have you ever considered that maybe you are being mean by trying to rip the toy from his quivering little hands? Child: I don’t know. Me: What do you know? Child: I don’t know! Me: Nevermind. [I wonder how my brilliant child can know absolutely nothing at this moment.] Well, I think taking the toy from him will make your brother sad. Do you like to make him sad? Child: I don’t know. Me: [Audible sigh.] Child: He makes me sad all the time! Me: Well, I’m getting sad right now with your attitude! [Pause, think, what would Paul Tripp do? Thinking . . . .thinking . . . .man, I can’t stop thinking of that mustache. This isn’t working. Let’s just go right to the Jesus part.] You know, Jesus wants us to love each other. Child: I don’t know. Me: I didn’t ask you a question! Child: [Pause.] Can I have some fruit snacks? Me: No, you can’t have fruit snacks. We are talking about the gospel. Jesus loves us and died for us. He wants you to love your brother too. Child: So? Me: So give him the toy back!
Then I lunge for the toy and the child runs away. I tell him to come back here this instant and threaten to throw the toy in the trash. I recommit myself to turning down speaking engagements on parenting.
Growing What You Can
I want to grow as a parent-in patience and wisdom and consistency. But I also know that I can’t change my kids’ hearts. I am responsible for my heart and must be responsible to teach them the way of the Lord. But nothin’ guarantees nothin’. I’m just trying to be faithful, and then repent for all the times I’m not.
I have four kids and besides the Lord’s grace, I’m banking on the fact that there really are just a few non-negotiables in parenting. There are plenty of ways to screw up our kids, but whether they color during church, for example, is not one of them. There is not a straight line from doodling in the service as a toddler to doing meth as a teenager. Could it be that beyond the basics of godly parenting, that most of the other techniques and convictions are nibbling around the edges? Certainly, there are lots of ways that good parents make parenting a saner, more enjoyable experience, but even the kid addicted to Angry Birds who just downed a pack of Fun Dip and is now watching his third Pixar movie of the week (day?) still has a decent shot at not being a sociopath.
I remember years ago hearing a line from Alistair Begg, quoting another man, that went like this: “When I was young I had six theories and no kids. Now I have six kids and no theories.” I must be smart. It only took me four kids to run out of theories.
Getting a Few Things Right
I look back at my childhood and think, “What did my parents do right?” I watched too many Growing Pains reruns and played a lot of Super Techmo Bowl (LT could block every extra point and Christian Okoye was a stud). I never learned to like granola or my vegetables (kids, stop reading this post immediately!). But yet, I always knew they loved me. They made me go to church every Wednesday and twice on every Sunday. They made us do our homework. They laid down obvious rules-the kinds that keep kids from killing each other. They wouldn’t accept any bad language, and I didn’t hear any from them. Mom took care of us when we were sick. Dad told us he loved us. I never found porn around the house or booze or dirty secrets. We read the Bible. We got in trouble when we broke the rules. I don’t remember a lot of powerful heart-to-heart conversations. But we knew who we were, where we stood, and what to expect. I’d be thrilled to give my kids the same.
I worry that many young parents are a) too adamant about the particulars of their parenting or b) too sure that every decision will set their kids on an unalterable trajectory to heaven or hell. It’s like my secretary at the church once told me: “Most moms and dads think they are either the best or the worst parents in the world, and both are wrong.” Could it be we’ve made parenting too complicated? Isn’t the most important thing not what we do but who we are as parents? They will see our character before they remember our exact rules regarding television and twinkies.
I could be wrong. My kids are still young. Maybe this no-theory is a theory of its own. I just know that the longer I parent the more I want to focus on doing a few things really well, and not get too passionate about all the rest. I want to spend time with my kids, teach them the Bible, take them to church, laugh with them, cry with them, discipline them when they disobey, say sorry when I mess up, and pray like crazy. I want them to look back and think, “I’m not sure what my parents were doing or if they even knew what they were doing. But I always knew my parents loved me and I knew they loved Jesus.” Maybe it’s not that complicated after all.