Friday, August 26, 2005

Be Mean or Not Be Mean

Since my children have become adults and I’m farther and farther from my role in their childhood, I find myself feeling more lenient toward my grandchild and young children of others. I’m not the generation that has to correct and mold their lives.

I see parents that want to be friends with their children and thus do not take their parenting duties seriously. I hear them say, “I know I shouldn’t let her do that, but I just can’t say ‘no’ to her.” It makes me want to shake that person until her teeth rattle, saying, “Don’t you LOVE your child enough to be firm?” I think James 4:13 applies here: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”

At church once, I was guilty of saying to a young mother, “You were more distracting in your reprimands than your children were in what they were doing!” But I admire her greatly for being firm with her children.

I’ve had doubts about all the times I was so harsh with my children. At the time I felt that it was the only thing to do for their good. So I’ll go through some of the memories I’ve had lately.

When Kelsey was two, I read Dr. Dobson’s The Strong-Willed Child. I tried some of his ideas and they worked, so I read the book again. The advice there was invaluable to me. It covers all ages from a Christian perspective. The other one I read and re-read was Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child. His practical outlook helped me keep a balance in my parenting.

I especially remember Ginott’s advice about compliments and use it to this day. Not “You are a fantastic person,” for none of us really believes that about ourselves, but “You picked up your toys very quickly. Thanks for responding when I asked you to help,” which is acceptable and believable and enhances the child’s self-image.

I remember requiring my child to return the award that had been acquired due to lying about a score.

I remember spanking over and over until my child was exhausted and so was I, but I would NOT allow my children to go against my will when I was certain what was best for them.

I remember driving my 14-year-old daughter two hours to a youth rally when I knew her real motivation was to meet a boy that would be there. In that kind of thing I seemed to spoil her, because I knew that I would always be within a few yards of where she was.

When she wanted to visit him and his family in a nearby town for the weekend, we were adamant that that would not happen, over her tears and recriminations—“He’s a Christian!” Right. So was she, but they were also hormone-driven teenagers. I am very glad I stuck to my guns and she was never alone with a boy (to my knowledge, of course—I’m realistic as well) until she was over sixteen.

I remember the arguments over clothing—the struggle to buy shorts that came to her fingertips—“But you can’t buy shorts that long!” Yes, you could if you looked hard enough. After such a struggle with shorts, the short skirt issue was already decided. Her dad would give her lectures on what guys really think and feel and spared no detail.

Allowing a group to go together as freshmen to a Homecoming Dance was the biggest concession we’d made up to that point. It wasn’t the beginning of dating, because she knew she wouldn’t date until she was sixteen, a fact loudly bemoaned. We were fortunate that her closest friends’ parents had the same values we had, so she had girls to hang out with when she couldn’t yet date. Her dad teased her that she could date when she was 25, and there were times she feared he meant it.

We never set a curfew for either child, such as “Now that you’re 17, you can stay out past midnight,” for we felt that that was asking for trouble. There might be time to fill, for no one wants to get home before curfew. Instead, we found out before they left all the places they were going, who would be in the car with them, who would be at their destination, and about how long it would last. Then we would tell them the time we expected them home. If they were to be a minute late, they were to call, and of course that was before cell phones.

I remember a flying trip that Steve took to counsel with our college-age son about the seriousness of his romantic relationship and the importance of purity. Knowing his dad had gone to such lengths to talk to him and her about it emphasized our concern that sexual purity be a priority for them.

I think of how closely we monitored our children’s friendships, and how often we would question the wisdom of spending time with certain people. We encouraged them to bring anyone to our home, but were very cautious about where we let them go, being sure there was always a responsible adult—someone we knew, not just any adult—in charge.

Even at church gatherings, from toddlerhood on, we tried to always know where our children were and who they were talking to. With each, at different times, we required that they talk to two adults—extended, not perfunctory, conversations—after each church service before they could talk to their friends. Talk about resentment! But they knew that if they couldn’t report on the conversations on the way home, more privileges would be revoked.

I tried to hide my amusement when the adults raved about how sweet my children were and that the other children never paid any attention to them. (I’d learned that “punishment” from my own parents.)

Once, when our son was about eight years old, he was late being ready to go to church on Sunday morning because he was reading the comics. His father informed him that he could not read the comics before church for a year! It was a long year, but I’m guessing that to this day he hesitates to read the comics on Sunday morning. I know that his childhood punishments—admittedly harsh—for lying have made him into the most honest person I know.

I had a fear that if I showed too much grace and mercy to my children that they would run all over me. I saw the children of my friends and was appalled at what they got by with. I think we need to model grace and mercy in our dealings with others and explain that to our children, but consistent firmness with children is the only way to be a responsible parent.

We rejected wholly the idea of reasoning with a toddler. We believed that a small amount of carefully-delivered pain was the best teacher. I’ve also seen perfectly lovely adults who were never punished physically as a child, so I’m not saying my way is the only way, but that’s what worked for us. We had standards to which our children had to adhere—for their own good.

Shortly before our son’s twelfth birthday, he searched all the closets until he found his gift—a special game he’d yearned for. When I got it out to wrap it, I could tell it had been played with, so I wrapped the empty box with a note: “When you find the contents of this box, you may have it. It doesn’t pay to snoop around about your gifts.”

His room was always a disaster, (one of the battles I chose to fight only occasionally) so I hid it under some clutter I’d asked him several times to clear away. It was weeks later that he discovered his toy, but of course the joy of it was gone. I probably went too far on that one. That was really mean of me. I know Steve feels that way about the comics punishment and some of the times he spanked the children.

One thing we were perfectly clear on was that we weren’t meant to be our children’s pals. We enjoyed playing with them and being together. Steve would have “fun time” each evening after dinner while I cleaned up the kitchen. Then gradually they began taking over that chore and accepting more responsibility and we cut back to “Fun Night,” a designated night of the week with which nothing was allowed to interfere.

So what’s the point of this confession? A few years removed from even having teens, I think about what I did right and wrong as a parent. I’m embarrassed at some of my actions, but they were because I wanted so much to train my children “in the way that they should go so that when they are old they will not depart from it.” We never demeaned our children, but disciplined them to encourage them to be better people. “You’re a better person than this” was our message.

My mother told me recently that she was called to the bedside of one of my childhood friends. Joyce said, “You know when you wouldn’t let Lanita so riding with us, and wouldn’t let her get in the car with boys? We thought you were so mean, but now I wish my own mother had stopped me instead of letting me do anything I wanted to.” Of course we knew her mother. She was a loving mother, but had a weak will when it came to her children.

My children aren’t yet old, but they are mature, responsible adults of whom we are very proud. When I start regretting all the ways in which I demanded and punished, I look at the end product. I am not ashamed of them, nor disappointed in them. They are God-focused in their lives, marrying or married to Christians. Funny thing, too—their friends think they’re being too strict with their daughter. When God is the center of your decisions, I don’t think you can be too strict, because that keeps you from going to far—into abusive behavior. I certainly don’t condone abuse, but discipline. Bobby Brewer used to talk about the true meaning of discipline—helping the person to become a disciple, or follower, of what is good.

Proverbs 13:24 says it very succinctly: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” This is the very reason my children have always known that we love them deeply.

Now that we are adults, we can finally be friends. I don’t have to be mean any more.