Thursday, May 22, 2014

Looking in the Mirror: A Key to Good Parenting

Parenting is hard -- not every day, but some days it is really, really hard.  Some days we are hard on them.  Some days they are hard on us.  This is real life, nitty gritty, hit your knees in prayer living.  Today I was remembering how God parents me and how He goes out looking for lost lambs and He doesn't stop looking until He finds them and how He runs down the road to meet His wayward son and throws him a party after he rebelled!  I was abiding in the lavish love of God to us, His undeserving, but beloved children.  And I was moved to extend grace which is beyond my own capacity because God can do things through a person when we lift our eyes to Him and pause long enough to relinquish control and let Him be the One.  When we say, "this is beyond me" He says, "nothing is beyond Me." 

Instead of raising my voice, like I have done in the past, I raised my arms to Him.  Instead of controlling my son into obedience, I controlled my temper.  Instead of lashing out, I looked within.  It is because of days like these that I am going through this series on Fenelon and his parenting wisdom.  We need wisdom.  We need God.  We need to have ideas bigger than our own emotions and reactions. 

So, let's dig in.  If you are just joining this series, you can find the links to the rest of the posts here.  We are looking at the section of the book "The Education of a Child" called a Gentle Means of Instruction.  Fenelon describes the brain of a child as a "delicate organ."  Young children need to be free to explore and not pressured into a level of reasoning or acting beyond their age.  Charlotte Mason (a nineteenth century educator) had similar thoughts about the early years of a child's life.  She suggested we not ask them to retell (narrate) a story they have heard before age six.  She advised that we allow them to be in nature {a lot!} and that we provide them the opportunity to engage in what she calls masterful inactivity. When it looks like a child is doing nothing, they are really doing much.  After all, play is the means of learning in the early years.  Childhood at its best is carefree, secure and adventuresome. 

Fenelon goes from talking about the freedom of childhood to talking about teaching our children the goodness of virtue and the darkness of vice.  I have been pondering his wisdom ever since I read it. If a child is around people who are ill-mannered or have very poor virtues, but the child comes to love these people, he will possibly come to love their way,  to "esteem that which is despised."  It is for that reason we are cautioned (again and again) by Fenelon to take care as to whom they are exposed for any serious length of time. I have seen this to be so true in my older son.  As he has been around various people, he comes to love some of them very much.  Those people have a great influence on him and he wrestles more with seeing faults in them than he does in others he does not like as well.  This is wonderful when these people are virtuous and have values we want him to embrace.  It has caused us to have some discussions and even at times put some space in relationships regarding people who are not as good of an influence.  Fenelon gives a foreboding warning:

If a child take up a dark and sullen view of virtue or if independence and vice seem attractive, all is lost. 
 We want our children to want what is good for them.  We don't want them to see it as dull and burdensome to do what is right and live with a virtuous character.  We want them to see evil for what it is and not fall for the idea that it is really the fun and good life.  The world will hold out a lot of temptations to our children as they age and we want them to be able to see that what is good and right is also what brings them joy and peace.  We do not do this by clamping down and insisting they walk the straight and narrow.  Nothing can make someone want to head for the nearest exit more than being pressed into a laundry list of behaviors and demanded to comply.  What we do is to love them, meet their needs and model goodness in ourselves.  We set healthy limits, but those limits are like a fence, not a leash.  They must feel free to choose so that the good they do comes from the desire of their heart rather than external legalism. 

Now, here's the rub.  We parents are going to blow it.  We are going to fail.  We are going to have days where we wish we could hit pause and rewind and then delete.  Fenelon has great wisdom for us here too.  Watch that you put forth your best in front of your children, but know that they will see your shortcomings.  Children will "frequently find out even your lightest faults."  
"We should therefore model forgiveness, mercy and forebearance to children as our Heavenly Father has extended these gifts to us."
Fenelon encourages us to welcome the admonitions of a friend to point out our defects. He makes the amazing observation that often we who are leading children are so strict on the child, but we don't put near the effort into our own growth. 
"Generally those who govern children pardon nothing in them, thought they pardon everything in themselves. This excites in the children a spirit of criticism and malignity, consequently when they find any fault in their governors they are delighted and feel only contempt for them."
We don't need to be afraid to acknowledge our own failings and defects, especially those which we have acted on in front of our children.  Fenelon suggests we "tell him that you will give an example how to correct his faults by correcting your own, thus you will from your very imperfections a means of instruction and edification.  You will both edify the child and encourage him to reflect upon his own faults and correct himself."   All the while we remind the child that it is the Spirit's work by which we overcome our flawed character. 
We need to help our children see their own sin as well, but this is far less important than noting our own and working on our own character development. Fenelon states that "Children who understand their own weaknesses will develop a forebearing spirit and a merciful heart." But, surely we all can see that children whose weaknesses are shamed or who feel criticized will not at all become merciful or patient.  They will become defensive and downcast and will end up picking out the defects in others to make themselves feel at least equal. 

In addition to the handling of weakness and sin, we need to simultaneously make virtue pleasing.  The child needs to see that what is good is also delightful and purposeful.  They draw this conclusion in a large part from how we treat them:
"Never assume, without the greatest necessity, an austere posture which always frightens children and often arises from affection {acting on emotion} and pedantry {overly focused on rules} from those who govern.  You close their hearts from you by it and make them withdraw their confidence."
When we are too strict with our children, we turn them away from us and what we have to offer to them.  They close their hearts and do not want to model after us or follow our advice or path.  When we are humble, loving and sincere with our children, they feel accepted and loved and they want to draw near to us, to learn from us and to be like us.  So, you and I, we need to look in the mirror far more often than we look around at the little ones in our homes.  We need to see to our own character and when we grow, the overflow of our hearts will spill out all over our children.  

Photo of family skipping edited from

No comments: