I am just starting to feel the baby kick. My first conscious interactions with our daughter are starting to take place and I must say, with those interactions comes a growing sense of the mind-bogglingly daunting task ahead of us as parents. Before she is even born, we find ourselves making the first attempts to determine our policies about everything, from pacifiers to college educations.
In the midst of this unavoidable effort to “prepare ourselves” with parenting books and solicited advice from other parents, I found myself encouraged this evening as I read the words of counsel and reflection offered to parents in this year’s issue of The Examined Life.
How did these articles encourage me? By collectively saying that parenting is a complex and subtle thing, and not claiming to offer practical silver bullets. These authors expressed something much more honest and courageous; they challenged parents to be wise and discerning, to strive for balance, and to enter into honest relationship with their kids.
Have you ever put together a piece of furniture from Ikea? I enjoy these projects because they are just hard enough to require some real effort, but there are a limited number of choices and decisions to make at any step. There are only so many dowels, so many pieces of particle board, and there are only four sides to the top of that desk. There is room for error, but not much. The directions are wordless, graphic images that if one--no matter her language or education--was careful enough to observe and follow, would inevitably lead the way to a completed, functional piece of furniture.
I catch myself looking for the Ikea instructions for parenting. Surely there is one great principle that underlies all the rest, that, if followed, will lead to right decisions at every turn. Or at least a somewhat complicated, but clear step-by-step manual that I can observe for each season of the child’s development. I can handle tough instructions that will ask a lot of me; just give me the instructions.
Of course, no such manual exists because human beings are made in God’s image: free, complex, dynamic, and creative individuals--each one entirely, utterly unique. The truth is I can not decide ahead of time what precisely I’ll do as a mother for the simple reason that I do not know my daughter yet. I don’t know her needs, her ideas, her questions, which of course will be ever-changing.
The authors of these parenting articles knew this all too well, and gave us realistic, though uncompromising counsel. I’ll tell you what I learned from them:
Be discerning, and face the particulars.
While some principles are valuable, true, and good to keep as general guides, there is no way around employing discernment in the particulars. You, your child, your circumstances--are all unique. As Fred and Susan Sanders expressed, our behavior as parents (as people, even) is often mixed. Some of our ideas are good, others need refinement. How do we know which ones are which? Reflect, discuss, pray, and discern. Peter Gross cautions us to temper our reactions to our childrens’ tastes and expressions; our own tastes may need broadening, or we need to first distinguish between the form and the content of a thing. Tough challenges indeed, yet the truth of their words resonate with me. Blanket rules about dress code, or unwavering principles that span different developmental seasons are certainly easier to maintain, but simply not as effective, honest, or loving.
Strive for balance.
I loved Diane Vincent’s article about finding various ways of growing. Whether reading books is your tendency or not, most of us tend toward one of our spiritual faculties more than the others. For me, I’ll play piano or engage in a long conversation before I’ll pick up a book. Diane cautions us to make sure we don’t become one-dimensional. It strikes me that this is important as parents; for our children will certainly have different strengths than their parents or siblings, and the more we can broaden our range of enjoyment, capacity, and challenge, the more the opportunities for connection.
John Mark Reynolds identifies the powerful connection between love and knowledge, a connection that prohibits us from engaging only with information about loved ones, or only in a disconnected, vague warmth of feeling toward them. We must have both, though it will require most of us to venture into areas that don’t come easily.
Honest Relationship is key.
A theme that ran through most of the articles this year was relationship and honesty. Debbie Swindoll hit it head on when she cautioned us to care more about knowing and loving our kids as individuals than about making sure everyone behaves properly. David Gross challenges parents of Wheatstone alumni to jump in and join their kids in their new-found love of learning, dialogue, and the arts. Chad Glazener reminds us that self-sufficiency and self-importance are obstacles to love. John Mark Reynolds encourages respect for our children’s choices and independence.
Nothing is more difficult, I’m convinced, than dying to self and loving others as ourselves. God knows this, and He will help us with His Spirit of infinite compassion and mercy. We must listen to and learn from children, and be willing to be wrong.
Manuals, silver bullets, and rules feel so much safer than all of this. In my work at Wheatstone, the question I heard the most from parents and students was “how do I do that?” We want desperately to be told what to do, step-by-step, to achieve virtue, fulfillment, and love. If Jesus left us no manual to guide us through the particular decisions of being a family, then we certainly shouldn’t ask John Mark Reynolds--or any author of The Examined LIfe, to give us one either.
Thank you to all those contributors to the Wheatstone community, for being a bold voice that says the hard thing, that doesn’t give us what we all want: easy answers to tough questions. Let us continue to do the hard work, day by day, of loving and serving our families.
by Rebecca Fort - June 2011