Comfort & Counsel

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by Jacob Ninan

Parenting is a subject most young parents are interested in, but this is also a subject with conflicting views, both within Christian and psychology circles. Views vary from the extremes of treating parenting as the only duty of parents, to giving children independence in developing their own personalities! Parents do have to deal with things other than parenting, such as their relationship as a couple, work, ministry, social obligations, etc., and it is unrealistic to say that parenting is more important than all other commitments. On the other hand, leaving out the parenting role except for its merely physical aspects and letting the children grow up without discipline, teaching, or guidance is very common, but its results can hardly argue for it.

Some Christians take a view that the Bible has everything we need to know and practise regarding parenting (or other subjects related to life). Without trying to belittle the value of the written Word of God, it is also good to recognise that it is not meant to be an exhaustive book on any subject. It primarily introduces us to God and our relationship with Him, and also addresses important issues, teaches eternal values and provides many general guidelines on important aspects of life, including parenting. But certainly it would be dogmatic to say that the Bible is the only book we need, or that anything outside of the Bible is ungodly. Just as God has given wisdom to doctors to understand our bodies and medicines that can heal, we must recognise that it is God who has given a lot of commonsense and knowledge to people in connection with parenting.

On the other hand, those who rely more on psychology have to content with the fact psychologists do not agree among themselves, firstly because their worldviews differ, and also because they do not know enough. When we speak about psychology, we must remember that while a lot of those ideas have come from wrong worldviews and many psychologists operate without giving any importance to an absolute right and wrong value system, there are many things there that do fall in line within Biblical teachings or, at least, do not go against them, which we can use with discretion to our advantage.

At the same time, we can safely take the position that the Bible has the ultimate standard set for us by God our Creator and our Father. This is the standard we set for ourselves in our parenting too, and we cannot accept anything that goes against this standard or value system.

Another fact that we need to take into our consideration is that different parents and children are different individuals with different temperaments, upbringing and abilities, and what is good for one family situation may not apply to another.

However, we can see if we can at least identify a few helpful guidelines to keep in mind on this crucial subject.

It is obvious to any thinking and observant person that the human child needs much more parental attention, protection, guidance, teaching, training and oversight than any other creature. This is natural because the human child has higher intelligence, greater abilities and therefore more potential for accomplishment. It can be said in the same breath that, without such parental intervention, no one can predict what the outcome will be--it could be chaotic in most cases, even though there are exceptions who rise above such circumstances. Therefore any parent will do well to pay sufficient attention to this great responsibility.

We would need to understand that without giving proper priority to parenting--in thinking and planning for it, waiting on God for wisdom, looking out for whatever help we can get, making course corrections on the way, constantly crying out for God’s grace on ourselves and our children--no parent can do justice to the demands of parenthood. Without debating unnecessarily on where this comes in the order of priorities for our lives, we need to place deliberate emphasis on bringing up our children in godly ways. It cannot be left to chance, and it cannot be expected to happen automatically. It cannot also be relegated to the Sunday School or regular schools.

Stages In Parenting
Good parenting should start from the time two people get married (!) and cease (!) when the ‘children’ become mature. Let me explain.

One of the major problems that come up in parenting is when the two parents disagree about how they should parent their children, especially about disciplining them. It is very common that one parent wants to be strict and the other lenient! (Actually this has great potential for each one balancing the other.) If this subject is not discussed and agreed to by the time the children come, arguments and quarrels can take place in front of the children they want to train! So, the time before the children come may be used for building the concepts of parenting, with the understanding that these need to be revised and updated often later!

Another major problem is when parents will not ‘let go’ of their children even when they are grown up and have children of their own. Older parents should refrain from doing this, if they want their children and grandchildren to grow up well. They ought to recognise their new roles as advisers, and that too generally only if the children ask for it.

The actual period of parenting can be broadly divided into two stages, the early and the later stages. The early period is when the children behave more out of feelings and instincts, and the later period is when they are also able to think, question and understand ‘why’ and ‘for what’ issues. (Psychologists can divide these further into several stages, but I will restrict myself to these to make just a few points.)

The Early Stage
Some psychologists are of the view that by the time a child reaches the age of 8, he has learnt almost 80% of his behaviour patterns. The prominent characteristic of this stage is that the child is picking up patterns of behaviour mainly by observing his parents or other significant people around him and also by trying the boundaries of how much he can get away with. In these early years he acts almost instinctively, and moved by his feelings, without too much analytical thinking. The task for parents at this stage is to provide good examples for the child to pick up and also to define boundaries for his behaviour. Since the child is not able to think much, explanations cannot be elaborate, and have to be confined to his level. This is the time when behavioural therapy approaches are likely to be more effective than cognitive approaches. Junior is unlikely to understand the spiritual and moral issues behind different issues. But what he can understand is that a certain way of behaviour will not be acceptable and other ways will be appreciated. Without going into the details of the pros and cons of different ways of achieving this, let me just mention that parents must take into consideration the seriousness of the particular issue and also the particular temperamental make-up of the child before taking corrective or preventive action.

While I have suggested more of the behavioural approach at this stage, this is not to imply that no attempts need to be made to feed the child with values or to give explanations about why the parents want him to behave in a certain way. Of course building up a godly worldview with stories from the Bible and application to the child’s life, teaching him to pray and give thanks, etc., has to go on side by side. What I am saying is that parents should not expect the child to first understand why he should or should not behave in a certain way, and then to automatically follow their instructions. Explanations should be made at the child’s own level, to the extent he can understand. But these should be properly reinforced by behavioural reinforcements (positive and negative) if they are to be successful. We must remember the principle of pain and pleasure under which we all operate--and which is something children can understand--which means that we like to do things that give us pleasure and avoid those that give pain (‘pain’ is not just physical).

The Later Stage
Children make the transition from the early stage to the later stage gradually, and not when they cross a certain age. The later stage is characterised by the thinking process, when the children begin to think and ask questions to themselves and others why they should be and do things in a certain way and not in another way that seems to be more pleasurable and which many of his friends are following. Though this stage is seen predominantly in the teenage years, this process begins earlier, and parents have to observe their children when this starts and how this proceeds.

When children make this transition it is important that the parents also change their approach accordingly! To put it simply, it must change gradually from giving instructions and demanding obedience to discussions and suggestions. Remember that this transition is gradual, and the parental approach should also change only gradually. ‘Because I told you’ will be less and less effective in this stage and many times counterproductive. A good way of emphasising this cognitive approach is to take up informal discussions on subjects before they actually come up during confrontations! Dinner times and family outings can be occasions when such subjects are brought up casually with a "Have you thought of this subject?" or "I heard that many kids are doing things such as ... What do you think of such things?" Sometimes it would be good to do this during personal one-on-one’s between a parent and the child, provided there is already a good rapport between the two and it does not take the form of a lecture or an inquisition!

Discipline is almost like a bad word for many people, and some people even equate it with abuse! The whole point of discipline is to guide children to the right way of life and away from things, people, behaviour and attitudes that can immediately or ultimately hurt them. Misunderstanding on this subject is generally due to the fact that most of the so-called discipline by parents is meted out in anger and frustration and as expressions of their physical and hierarchical authority. Then, naturally, it becomes abuse. But discipline is, first of all, not just the ‘after-the-event’ measure, but also measures that go in to guide them towards good ways and to prevent the children from having to face ‘hurtful’ events. The key to effectiveness of good discipline is in the children’s conviction that it comes from parents who really love them, and, like someone said, it is the whiteboard of love on which words of discipline can be written.

The Last Word
The best gift the parents can give their children is not a wealthy inheritance, the best education, the latest toys, etc., but affection. Right from the time they are babies, if we can convince them that we love them and that we are ‘for them’ no matter what happens and what they do, they can grow up in security and develop normally. Honesty counts a great deal in this, because the children take in what they see in their parents more than what the parents tell them. When parents fail in something or the other, as all parents are bound to, an honest acknowledgment of their frailty can restore this parent-child relationship. Good parenting involves spending time with them, playing with them, telling them stories, taking them out for fun, teaching them about what we believe and what we would wish for them, praying with them, etc. It is where this relationship does not exist, because the parents are fighting among themselves or because they have no time for the children, the children suffer immeasurable damage.

The last word in parenting is to place the children before God all the time and plead for His grace and mercy on them. "Unless the LORD builds the house, They labour in vain who build it; unless the LORD guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain" (Psa.127:1 NASB).

-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, August 2010

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