Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bringing Up Children in the Way They Should Go

On the problem of teaching children right from wrong – of teaching them wisdom – especially in the abstract circumstances: I sit in my office listening to a mother interact with her young daughter over a Highlights magazine. Seeing a picture of a child riding a vacuum, the girl recognizes, “That is no, no, no, no, no.” The mother supports her child, “Yes, that’s silly.” So we see that the girl knows the word “no,” and that it indicates something which should not be done. The mother takes a psychological approach today, creating the association of silliness with things which might be dangerous or wrong. My problem with this is that youth – and at times even adults – are supposed to be silly. They can make faces and jokes, stand on their heads, and draw pictures of fish in trees. A court jester is silly for entertainment. He is humble, too. In the old days a jester was also called a fool. But here we meet the same difficulty. Foolishness is rejection of God, emptiness, the opposite of wisdom and faith. Fools we should never be if we can help it. Riding on a vacuum cleaner is more accurately described as foolish. The consequences are not foreseen, authority and respect for property overlooked, and no justification given for the activity. Is that what the mother wanted to teach her daughter? The danger in teaching children that wrong things are silly is that there are many things silly that are not wrong. If you say it is silly to eat a peanut butter sandwich only from the left-hand side, or to sing a song of sixpence, then either the child will be terrified, considering all things unlike his parents to be wrong – or he will learn that wrong things are merely silly, and one day he will try them anyway, just to be funny or just to be curious. “Silly” takes the seriousness out of disobedience. What do I recommend, then? Usually when I have parenting ideas, they seem quite logical, natural, and easy to implement. In this case I cannot think of an easy way to overcome this tendency. Adults – especially worn out parents who have had little but two-year-old style conversation – are not creative or attentive enough generally to accurately describe why they disapprove of a certain course of action. Thus they resort to the “silly” tactic, or “because I said so.” Now “because I said so” is a valid thing to teach. Authority must be obeyed even when we do not understand the reason. Unto parents is committed a more complex responsibility of bringing up a child to be able to make his own decisions when there is not authority to instruct. So most of the time a parent should accompany an instruction with a reason, sharing their rationale. “Don’t take your pennies out of your pocket. That isn’t careful. If you lose them that would be irresponsible.” “Thank you for taking your own plate to the sink. That was very responsible of you.” “Good job carrying the cup of water to Daddy. You were careful it didn’t spill.” “You shouldn’t make fun of your brother or call him names. That is unkind.” “Jesus said to be kind to one another. Mommy is kind to you when she helps you tie your shoes.” “That was your sister’s toy. Don’t steal it from her. That is selfish. Love your sister and share with her.” “Telling mom no is wrong. God gave you a mom to take care of you, and He made her the boss.” Jane Austen’s grown-up characters responded well to the more descriptive rebukes. Some were accompanied by explanations, and others were one-liners. Mr. Knightley does not tell Emma “That was silly,” but the much more potent, “Badly done!” Jane checks Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice by saying, “Lizzie, that was unkind!” How much better would we all respond if, rather than a culture that hints and manipulates (psychological influence, peer pressure, teasing, silent treatment, “that’s silly”), we had a culture where good friends and family could tell each other they were wrong? And doesn’t the descriptive version reinforce values? If I scolded to a little boy that he was being “ungentlemanly,” I am implying that there is such a thing as a gentleman and that it is a high calling. On playgrounds children still value courage, by taunting each other with “coward” (or its loosely associated, “chicken”). Jane valued kindness and knew that, in principle, her sister did, too. Mr. Knightley appealed to Emma’s goodness. I might say, “That was dishonest,” or “That was imprudent,” “that was unwise,” unsound, inconsiderate, selfish, malicious, dangerous, destructive, unhealthy…

Any other suggestions, experiences being descriptively corrected, examples, arguments, etc? Comment!

To God be all glory.

1 comment:

Lisa of Longbourn said...

I just read this post at A Holy Experience that reminded me of when I wrote Bringing Up Children in the Way They Should Go.

She's doing a Year of Yes. When a parent wants to say no, because it is easier or safer, maybe they should say yes. Or when they have to say no, couldn't they say something else? Say yes to a good thing?

Look her up. She has a great blog!

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn