Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Response to John Piper's "Parents, Require Obedience of Your Children"

This post has been all over my newsfeed today.  There are some good points in it, for sure, but there was also much that left me either shuddering or rolling my eyes.  Our world is already saturated with adversarial, fear-based parenting that tries to mix with common sense, and I would much rather see more Gospel that is truly good news for our children and families.

Piper's article starts off lamenting permissive parenting where parents repeatedly give a child instructions that the child ignores, and then resort to bribes.

OK, I can agree that that is not necessarily effective parenting.  We are teaching children that our words don't matter if we toss them out there willy-nilly and they know that we don't mean them.  However, he doesn't clarify whether or not the children heard the instructions, which actually is rather important.  My children, just like me, often become so engrossed in whatever they are doing that it doesn't always register that someone is talking to them.  In that case, yes, I repeat myself.  I also try to get close enough to my child to gently touch a shoulder and make eye contact so that I know they are aware of what I am saying.

As for the bribery, it is just the flip side of his own form of motivation.  He advocates punishment and fear-based coercion, some parents prefer to rely on bribery as a more positive version.  The thing is, though, that both punishment and rewards are external motivation.  Neither encourage children to do the right thing because of love and desire for righteousness--it is all about what is in it for them and how to keep themselves most comfortable.  I want my children to go beyond self-centeredness to Christ-centeredness.

Then the ick starts to ramp up: he essentially says that if parents don't enforce immediate compliance every time, they are training their children to be shot by the police.   Really?  The fear-mongering here is a bit over the top.  Fear clouds good judgement.  When you encourage parents to operate from a place of fear, almost anything can be justified.  It's the "spank-them-so-they-don't-run-in-the-street" argument on steroids.  After all, if you are convinced that your children will be killed, or go to hell, or whatever other dire outcome, lesser violence seems acceptable and even desirable.  And if you are scared enough, you just might not realize that there are better ways. My own worst parenting moments have always come from fear.

Piper claims that "requiring obedience of children is implicit in the biblical requirement that children obey their parents." Where does he find this in Scripture? The commandment is not, "Parents, demand honor for yourselves."  Read the Gospels and look at Jesus' response to the disciples when they started trying to grasp honor and position for themselves.  Arrogantly demanding that others honor us goes entirely against the nature of Christ.

Consider this other example of Biblical family relationships.  Husbands and wives are commanded to submit to each other, but they are certainly not commanded to coerce the other into submission.  Knowing that Piper believes wives must obey their husbands, if he is going to be consistent with this idea, then he would believe that husbands must force their wives to submit.  That is a recipe for abuse.  For a Reformed pastor to teach that we must coerce others into obeying God seems awfully Inquisition-like.

We are responsible to God for following His commands to us.  We are not responsible for exacting revenge against those who do not soothe our pride.

Another important consideration is that obedience is far more than compliance.  Compliance is just outwardly doing what is required.  True obedience means that they hear with their hearts, they understand, and they choose to obey.  It is a heart response of united purpose.  It cannot be forced.  If it is done out of fear, it is merely compliance, not obedience.   And nowhere are parents given the authority to judge the hearts and intents of their children.  To attempt that is to try to usurp power that belongs to God alone, and a far more serious thing than any childish mistakes our little ones might make.

Piper's third point is also disturbing: "Little children, under a year old, can be shown effectively what they may not touch, bite, pull, poke, spit out, or shriek about. You are bigger than they are. Use your size to save them for joy, not sentence them to selfishness."  First of all, the most basic, introductory info on cognitive development in infants will show that babies this small are not capable of that level of self-regulation. What is most telling to me about this comment is that he doesn't say, "Use your maturity, wisdom and perspective as an adult to help them."  He says, "Use your size."  Instead of adults coming alongside their children to help, Piper implies that they are to bully and intimidate their babies.

Piper's fourth point seems to be that public behavior is much more important than behavior at home, and that consistency is desirable so that we won't be embarrassed in public.  If obedience is really a heart issue, though, then what is done in secret is just as important as what is done with an audience.  So many parents fall into the trap of focusing on outward appearance, and especially of harshly punishing their children for not catering to the parents' pride.

Point number five, that true discipline or teaching requires a lot of effort from the parents is absolutely true.  I disagree with his characterization of children's motives, but he is right that parents need to teach their children even when they are tired or it is inconvenient.  The problem I have here is that Piper again focuses on the outward action, with the example of a child getting out of bed repeatedly.  This is "disobedience" and requires consistent punishment.  Wouldn't it actually be more effective, though, to find out why the child is so resistant to going to bed?  Is he scared? Is she not feeling well?  Is his love-cup empty or leaking so that he needs extra time or cuddles with us?  Is there a problem at school that has her anxious?  

Point six:
"One reason parents don’t require discipline is they have never seen it done. They come from homes that had two modes: passivity and anger. They know they don’t want to parent in anger. The only alternative they know is passivity. There is good news: this can change. Parents can learn from the Bible and from wise people what is possible, what is commanded, what is wise, and how to do it in a spirit that is patient, firm, loving, and grounded in the gospel."

I really like this one, perhaps more than anything else that Piper says in the entire article.  So many parents do fall into the anger/passivity trap because they don't have better tools.  I just wish that he had given them more effective ways to parent "in a spirit that is patient, firm, loving and grounded in the gospel."  I heartily recommend Gentle Christian Mothers, Little Hearts Books, Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond or Aha! Parenting for practical tools that don't rely on punishment.

Point seven: Piper claims that "the obedience which they have learned from fear and reward and respect will become the natural expression of faith."  So, he wants parents to start teaching the kids through fear and reward before they are even capable of understanding obedience.  (Wait a minute--reward? I thought he was against bribery?  And I get the strong impression that respect in Piper's world is a one-way street.)  I would suggest that if the children cannot understand it, it is not true obedience.  It is just conditioning them.  My children are not Pavlovian dogs.  Piper also fails to provide any explanation of how fearing parents will cause them to love God.  My relationship with God is not based on fear that has become internalized to the point of habit.  It is based on love and trust, and that is what I want for my children, too.

Point 8: Piper's vision of children as brats who must be coerced into being convenient for adults is clear.  Is it possible that seeing children as adversaries who must be defeated contributes to family conflict instead of solving it?  The part about them being happier is just weird unless you read it through his final point, which implies the whole "happiness is the only acceptable emotion/punish them till they are sweet enough" ick that Ezzo and Tripp promote. 

Point 9:
"Since parents represent God to children — especially before they can know God through faith in the gospel — we show them both justice and mercy. Not every disobedience is punished. Some are noted, reproved, and passed over. There is no precise manual for this mixture. Children should learn from our parenting that the God of the gospel is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:7, 29) and that he is patient and slow to anger (1 Timothy 1:16). In both cases — discipline and patience — the aim is quick, happy, thorough obedience. That’s what knowing God in Christ produces."

This one made my head spin a bit.  I have seen some parents take this idea of representing God to children to the point of setting themselves up as idols, but let's bypass that for the moment.  "Not every disobedience is punished.  Some are noted, reproved and passed over."  Didn't Piper just essentially say over and over that inconsistency would cause our children to get shot by the police?  Now we are supposed to pass over disobedience? Oookay. 

"The aim is quick, happy, thorough obedience."  Not only are children supposed to unquestioningly obey our every whim, they must be happy about it!  "Right away, all the way, with a smile," according to some parenting teachers.  Except Jesus' parable of the Two Brothers contradicts this.  The one who obeyed didn't do it quickly and happily.  "That's what knowing God in Christ produces."  But a couple of lines before, Piper says that this is "before they can know God through faith in the Gospel."  So, we are to hold them to a standard that they cannot reach yet, and one that God Himself does not hold us to, but that isn't "the same as requiring perfection". 

I get the idea that Piper is trying to soften his extreme "your child will be shot and it will be your fault!" stance, but is finding it difficult to flesh out.  That is common with a punitive mindset.

Children do need boundaries.  We do need to teach and disciple them like Jesus taught His disciples, even when we are tired or busy.  Instead of passively ignoring misbehavior until we snap in anger, we must learn to parent in a spirit that is patient, firm, loving, and grounded in the gospel.  Piper is saying important truths here.  But this does not mean bullying our children and forcing them to comply through fear.  True discipleship comes when there is so much trust and love in the relationship that the disciple chooses to follow.  

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Lonely Little Pony

"Mami!  Play ponies wif me!"  I winced inwardly.  This little girl is the delight of my eyes, but I hate playing.  Confession time: one of the best things about having four kids is that they have built-in playmates.  At the moment, however, her older siblings were all engrossed in a group video game, and I sensed that she really needed this.  "OK."

I reached into the pile of ponies and randomly chose one. "NO!  Not dat one pony!  Dat one pony's mine!  Get anudder one pony!"  I meekly reached for a different one.  "NO!  Not dat one eider!  Use DIS one pony wif no tail."  I accepted the mangy-looking pony, which had suffered from an unfortunate encounter with a pair of scissors and was also missing chunks of mane. 

"Look at my pony!  She's fwying!"  I held my balding pony up in the air to fly alongside hers.  "NO!  Dat pony can't fwy!  She's too little.  She has to stay on da gwound."  Yeeeep, I could tell this was going to be a fun game.

I trotted my pony around listlessly for a few minutes, resisting the urge to peek at my phone.  "Fluttashy is leabing.  Dey are all leabing in da van for icecweam.  You stay heah.  You aw too little."  The phone won out for a split second, but apparently I was more crucial to the scene than I thought.  Before the Facebook app had opened, she shrieked again.  "Mami!  Play ponies!"

Each attempt to engage was ruthlessly squashed.  "No!  You can't do dat!  Her wings don't work!  Stop, mami!  Your pony is too little!  She doesn't know how to do dat!  No!  She can't come.  Stay heah by yoursewf."  A nice little lecture on reciprocity in play was on the tip of my tongue, when it hit me.  The theme to the whole game was powerlessness and loneliness.   Suddenly, I found myself much more invested in this game.

I began to give her words.  "I feel lonely when I am left behind."  "Yes!  Your pony feels sad, Mami."  "I want to do things, too!  Even though I am small, I can do a lot."  "Yeah, mami!  Be her!"  I was clearly on the right track.  We spent the next hour playing empowering themes.  I let her ponies take the lead, admired her skills and resourcefulness, and gave words to my own little pony.  By the end of the hour, we were both having fun, and I had heard something incredibly important from this little baby girl of mine.

If you had asked me how often she hears that she is too little or that she can't do something, I would have told you that it was extremely rare (and she has never been left behind or excluded from icecream!).  In fact, my concern would have been closer to the spoiling end of things--her brother and sisters dote on her, and even the nine year old will stop and play ponies or anything else with her.  She is the apple of our eye.

Although my girls have never been discouraged from playing princess themes (the eldest actually wore elaborate princess gowns every single day for over a year around age four), and we regularly tell them that they are lovely, we deliberately tell them just as often that they are strong, smart, kind, capable and brave.

The thing is, though, that all of us have times when it is easy to focus on our lack of capabilities, and sometimes we struggle to find the words.  When you are three years old, no matter how beloved you are, you get slapped in the face daily with all the things that you cannot do: you are too small to reach what you want, your videogame skills are not as developed as your siblings', you can't read things for yourself, you have to rely on others all the time.    

If I hadn't sat down to play, I would totally have missed how powerless and lonely she felt.

I also discovered that when I can focus on a purpose in play, I have fun with it.  At one point, she played mami and I played the baby.  With every moment of listening and allowing her the fantasy of omnipotence, she found the power and connection she needed.  Looking back over the last couple of days, I recalled the increase in irritability she had been showing, and I am sure that those unmet needs would have spilled out one way or another.  I am so glad that this time they took the form of a lonely pony with a bad haircut, and that I took the time to play and listen.