I’m going to try my best not to make this post a rant about what horrible parents I had and how I’m going to do so much better. My parents weren’t horrible. Not only would that be trite and presumptuous, but it wouldn’t be fair either. All parents make mistakes, and while mine certainly weren’t perfect, I know they did the best they could with what they believed was right.
This photo, snapped by the Cassini spacecraft in 2011, shows the moon Dione orbiting its parent planet, Saturn. The gas giants have moons orbiting much closer than Earth’s moon. Image courtesy NASA.
But as I look down at my three-month-old son sleeping peacefully in my arm (yes, I’m typing this with one hand), I can’t help wanting certain things to be different for him. I don’t want him to grow up believing it’s impossible to do something that’s genuinely good without any hidden motivations or agendas. I don’t want him to feel like his mother and I have a set of expectations he can’t ever deviate from. I don’t want him to see the world through a single, unyielding lens of good and evil that casts every person as either saint or villain. Most of all, I don’t want him to feel like he isn’t allowed to disagree with us or explain why he feels a certain way.
My parents did the best they could, but they had a very specific set of beliefs about raising children.
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of reproof drives it far from him.”
“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”
“Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.”
Now, corporal punishment is an entirely different topic, one I don’t think I’ll be discussing at present. What matters most is the other part of these passages: that children are naturally foolish, that they need to be guided lest they end up shaming their families, and so on.
Thanks to the intrepid teachings of Michael Pearl and others, my parents firmly believed that the book of Proverbs was not only plenary word-for-word inspiration, but a decision engine as well. According to prevailing evangelical belief, the book of Proverbs was in essence a manual for child-rearing.
Not the part about kissing people on the lips when they’re honest with you, necessarily (Proverbs 24:26), nor the “way of a man with a virgin” (Proverbs 30:19). No, just all the parts about raising kids.
The book of Proverbs is part of the Bible because it’s a collection of quotes—from men—that tell us about their view of God and the way God related to them during their lives. There’s a lot of insight it has to offer, and a lot of prompts for discussion. But it’s not an inspired set of instructions for parents. Especially not new parents.
By taking the above-quoted passages as literal messages directly from God, my family’s brand of homeschooling fundamentalism arrived at the conclusion that children are intrinsically rebellious. There are a lot of other adjectives to use too: rebellious, obstinate, presumptuous, self-willed, and so forth. But all accompany the explicit or implicit view that simply guiding your child isn’t enough; children have to be actively altered and controlled and “fixed” in order to turn out right.
From the Pearl’s To Train Up a Child:
“If parents carefully and consistently train up a child, his or her performance will be as consistently satisfying as that rendered by a well trained seeing-eye dog.”
This, we were told, is the parent-child relationship not only intended, but mandated by God. That first quote from above—about “foolishness” being “bound up” in children—was the central overarching theme. A child needed to be tamed, broken, brought into submission to the will and guidance of the parents.
And so we were. I remember how everywhere we went, people came up to my mother and told her how impressed they were. “Your children are so well-behaved!” It was a constant refrain, echoed no matter where we went. Each time, my mother would smile and thank them and credit the principles and promises of God with her successes. Privately, she would complain that people always assumed it was either her diligence or our good-heartedness, when it was actually just firm belief in God’s promises that made us so well-behaved. “They could do it, just the same as us. It’s all in the Bible.”
We were the perfect family.
But this perfection came at a cost. Because we were the children, we weren’t allowed our own thought process. Of course we were taught to think critically about the outside world, to examine worldviews and apply logic—for that, I’m incredibly grateful—but critical thinking stopped when it came to what our parents wanted from us. Instant obedience: that was the order of the day, and the month, and the decade.
It wasn’t intentional authoritarianism or obtuseness. But they believed children had a “root of foolishness”, and so entertaining criticism or questions of any kind was a sign of weakness. If we made mistakes, the worst was immediately assumed: we were bitter or obstinate or rebellious. Any explanation, no matter how sincere, was “making excuses” and further proved guilt. I never got the feeling that my parents wanted to understand us. Even when I was their intellectual equal, my opinion still didn’t matter, because I was the child and they were the parents.
I know that raising my son is going to be frustrating sometimes. He may seem precious and adorable now, but I’m sure he’s going to stretch my patience to its limits someday. I know he’ll be contrary just for the sake of being contrary. But I want to try something different.
When he makes mistakes or disobeys or does something terribly frustrating, I want to assume the best. I want to take the time to hear his explanations. I might disagree with his reasons, and his explanation might not change the consequences, but I want him to know that I tried to understand what he had to say. I’m sure he’ll still get frustrated when his arguments don’t always change my mind, but I want him to know I value what he thinks. I want him to feel the freedom to disagree with me—about anything—without worrying I’m going to think less of him.
I don’t want him to be afraid. I want him to know that I love him for who he wants to be—not who I want him to be.
There’s a lot to love about Magda Pecsenye’s letter to her sons at Ask Moxie. She writes to them about their responsibility in stopping sexual assault, in treating others with dignity, and in making responsible decisions. But one of the things I liked best was this:
“If it’s not safe for you to say something, leave the room quietly and calmly and call me. I do not care if you’re someplace you’re not supposed to be, or not the place you told me you were, or in Canada or someplace that would normally get you in a lot of trouble. You get immunity if you’re calling for help. My phone is always on, and it does not matter what time of day or night it is. If I don’t pick up right away, call your dad, and the same immunity rules apply.”
If my parents had told me something like this, I don’t think I would have believed them. There was never any immunity for anything; everything we did was an outward sign of the inward flaws that still needed to be worked out of us.
But I want things for my son to be different. I want him to know, just by the way we act, that we care more about his safety and happiness than about our ambitions for him. I want him to think independently and make his own decisions.
And I think it’s possible. I know there will be plenty of bumps along the way, and I know I’ll make a lot of mistakes. But I want a different approach, one where he feels supported, but free. I want him to discover his future for himself, not just fall into whatever path I could dream up for him.