We all know them. The people who make statements that begin with, “When I have kids….” Like, “When I have kids, they’re going to be well-behaved.” Or, “When I have kids, I’m not going to allow them to make a mess of the house.” Or, “When I have kids, they’re never going to [insert behavior that the person has just observed and is particularly irritated by at the moment].”
Best not to get bent out of shape about statements like that. Best just to nod and smile and wait for the day when they find out….
Three Young Boys and a Library
I have a personal library that contains several shelves of books, developed while going to school to study English literature and theology. Yes, this all happened before you could get a whole library onto a tablet.
I used to like organizing my books. Fiction arranged alphabetically by author’s name and then by book title. Nonfiction arranged by category. It’s not that I’m an organizational nut. Far from it. Ask my parents about my room when I was a kid. But I liked being able to find specific books pretty easily, and I liked how it looked. Publishers often give books from a single author a similar cover and spine, so putting them together makes it look like they fit. It’s not so random.
So along came Daniel, my firstborn, and although having a baby changes your life immediately—because suddenly you’re responsible for this new life who can’t do anything for himself yet, and he’s crying and waking you up in the middle of the night—your life is changed, but your baby is still contained: contained to a crib, a car seat, a stroller. You, as parents, are still more or less in control. For the moment.
And then came my twins, David and Michael, and the next few years are a blur. You think that one infant is difficult, waking you up in the middle of the night, crying at random times because he needs to be fed, or changed, or he just feels cranky. But then make that two infants tag-teaming you, one waking up just as you’ve gotten the other one down to sleep, or both of them being needy at the same time for different things. It’s hard. Add to that a two-year-old, who is no longer contained, but is running around exploring and playing and infinitely curious about everything in the house.
And then the infants start growing and toddling around and being curious too. Daddy’s working a lot of the time and Mommy’s got her hands more than full and the boys are exploring their world, and it turns out that part of their world is shelf upon shelf of variously-colored rectangular thingies. What are these? Daddy seems to like them. He’ll take one out and open it up and play with it for a long time. What are these things? The first one just has black marks inside. So does the second one. But the pictures on the outside are pretty. Let’s take more out!
So I come home, and half my books are scattered all over the floor. Cecile will deny it to this day, but I swear she thought it was funny.
So I got the books together and scolded the boys, to the extent that it’s fair to scold small children who are just doing what children do. I arranged them back on their shelves in the correct order. And so we’re good, until a few days later when it happened again. And then again. And I didn’t always have time to rearrange the books, so they’d go on the shelf in some random order, and I’d make a mental note to get them organized again. And I did, too, a few times. But the books kept coming down and I kept putting them back up (“What a fun game!” my boys must have thought) and little by little I lost control of the organization. And then we moved a couple of times, so they’re all packed up in boxes and then reshelved when they’re unpacked and there’s way too much to do to worry about exactly where each one goes, especially when you’re losing hope that the effort you put into organization will last more than a week.
The boys are now all over 18, they’ve long since stopped playing with my books in that way, we’ve lived in one place for five years now, but my books are still a disordered mishmash. They’ve beaten me.
Choosing Between People and Order
I know that right now, reading this, there are some people who do not have children yet and are thinking to themselves, “I’d never let my children behave like that! When I have children, I’ll make sure they behave! When I have children, they’re going to know not to play with the grownup things! When I have children, we’re going to have order in this house and they’re going to learn to appreciate that!”
Yeah, good luck with that.
I don’t mind so much the single people and young couples who feel that way. No, the people who worry me are those who already have children and are actually trying to raise them that way. The parents who don’t allow their children any leeway, who are regimented and controlling, whose children exhibit all the discipline and order of the Von Trapp children obeying their father’s whistle. They are perfect in public, always neat, clean, and polite, and never give their parents any cause for embarrassment. These are the dangerous ones, the ones who are going to break out and break hard when they leave home—which will probably be as soon as they possibly can.
Because the only way to produce that picture-perfect family is to use a lot of discipline to rein in the natural curiosity and energy and impulsiveness and lack of experience that is childhood. Discipline is not the problem, in and of itself. It’s necessary to guide children and to protect them from the weightier consequences of their actions as they get older.
But the kind of discipline and the focus on picture-perfect order that I’m talking about sends a very damaging message to children: You are less important than my need for order and for the approval of other adults. (tweet this) Children can’t help feeling this way when they are continually checked and stopped and reined in and scolded for not being miniature adults. They aren’t miniature adults; they don’t have the experience. They’re being forced into a plastic, phony role that sooner or later they will resent and need to rebel against. Their entire life experience tells them that they are not valued for who they are by the people whose opinion matters the most.
No one wants to do that to their children. But some people are so focused on order and on how their children appear to others that they unintentionally squelch who their children are. Sometimes parents want their children to be just like themselves, or want their children to be completely different from themselves in a particular way. Sometimes parents have made significant mistakes that they don’t want their children to repeat, and so any tendency in that direction results in the parents overreacting.
Even worse than unrealistic parental expectations, though, is parental embarrassment. In essence, this is the same problem moved up a level: rather than parents imposing their own expectations, they are imposing the expectations that are coming—or that they believe are coming—from the people around them. This can create hypocritical standards, when things that are disregarded at home suddenly become grounds for punishment when they occur in public. Some parents, recognizing the hypocrisy of having different standards at home and in public, impose inauthentic standards all of the time, creating rules not based on scripture or on what the parents personally believe to be wrong, but rather based on the expectations of other people with whom the parents do not even agree. They are punishing their children based on other people’s convictions, not their own.
Fathers, Don't Exasperate Your Children
It is for this reason that Paul writes, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) and “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21).
In his own culture, what Paul had to say to those in a culturally subordinate position was unobjectionable and actually mild. However, the fact that any responsibilities were required of the culturally dominant person was a radical departure from the norm. So in the immediate context of the two passages, children being required to obey their parents would have been thought to be simply normal. But the fact that fathers—or parents: the Greek word could mean either, but in the culture of the day, fathers ruled the household—the fact that fathers were being called upon not to exasperate or embitter their children would have been astonishing.
This warning against exasperating and embittering one’s children indicates that these things can and do occur, and that we may be doing them without meaning to. How do we exasperate and embitter our children? Often, I think, it’s by doing exactly the things that were being discussed above: making the rules that we have for our children more important than our children themselves. Making rules not primarily for the benefit of our children, but for our own convenience and to secure the approval of others in our social circle. Making our children feel devalued because they know that our rules and discipline come not out of concern for them but out of selfish motivations.
In parenting, we tend to view things as a choice between discipline and indulgence. Instead, we should look at the difference between discipline motivated by love and discipline motivated by selfishness (tweet this). Are our rules and their enforcement intentionally grounded in concern for our children’s safety and development, or is it grounded in us wanting to impose our will on our children and wanting to gain the favor of other adults?
Sometimes these two motivations will coincide. As my children grew old enough to understand the difference between books and toys, I made it clear to them that pulling books down and leaving them all over the place was unacceptable. I don’t want them going into a library and destroying the place, leaving it to some hapless librarian to have to reshelve everything. There are valid issues that engender social disapproval of parents: when children are allowed to act selfishly and without regard to consequences, they don’t develop a recognition of when they are failing to love their neighbors as themselves. They can go through life carelessly offending other people, and then wondering why they are disliked. So teaching children to clean up after themselves not only serves to support our own desire for order, but also gives them skills they will need for their own lives in the future, and helps them to treat others with respect.
But the two motivations—concern for our children and concern for how we are viewed by others—sometimes don’t coincide. This comes out most strongly when we want to impose an order that our children aren’t developmentally ready to deal with yet, or when we want to punish them for behavior simply because it embarrasses us with other people. Our children know when we are disciplining them for selfish or inauthentic reasons. It makes them learn the wrong lessons, learn to hide behavior rather than to change it, and to evade and escape our influence whenever possible.
This tendency toward being overly strict, toward exasperating and embittering our children, is more common in religious circles than in the world at large. This may be the case because in religious circles we tend to derive our value more from law than from grace. Rather than frankly presenting ourselves to each other and to the world as forgiven people, we always seem to want to present ourselves as moral people, good people. We see our children as a reflection of ourselves, and to be fair, this is a human response to the fact that others do, in fact, judge us based on the behavior of our children. We want to be thought of as moral and respectable, so we punish our children when they don’t showcase us in a positive light. We are all too worried about how moral we appear, rather than about how deeply in God’s grace we reside.
Children are messy. They come out of the womb bloody, and no involved parent has escaped being pooped on, peed on, and vomited on. Children are incredibly curious about everything around them. They want to touch, smell, taste everything—this is why everything goes into a baby’s mouth. They will do and say absolutely anything at any time. They intrude upon the order we want to impose, they bring chaos wherever they go. And Jesus said that whoever comes into the Kingdom must come like one of these. They’re authentic. They’re real. They don’t have a carefully cultivated illusion of order and respectability that they have to maintain.
Perhaps the chaos they bring into our lives is God trying to tell us something.
To know more about my family's story, and for more of my perspective on biblical marriage and family, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .