Everyday brings new experiences. This past weekend Andi (my wife) and I were faced for the first time in our journey of parenting with the question of how to best respond to a 22 month old girl who was disobedient, resistant, and out of control. It was a day unlike any other we have experienced in the 22 months since God blessed us with the joy of our daughter Callie Grace. It was a day that all parents experience. Callie simply was in a bad place all day long, becoming easily frustrated and uncharacteristically disobedient. It culminated during a brief outing at an outdoor park with my brother, his wife, and their 1 year old boy. When it was time to leave, Callie responded with a barrage of screams and refused to let us put her in her car seat. Andi and I had to tag-team and hold Callie still in order to put the seat-belt straps around her. For the duration of the 45 minute drive home, Callie was mostly screaming. We were confused, puzzled, and searching for the best way to respond. Add to all of this the embarrassment of having to cancel plans with my brother and his family due to our daughter who was unable to be comforted.
Here are some reflections that have been important to me and I hope will be encouraging for those of you who have young children.
First, the reality of embarrassment has to be dealt with immediately by the parents. It is of course natural to be concerned about disrupting others and fearing that folks will mumble under their breath about how you have no control over your children. Yet, the root cause of the embarrassment and concern will usually be driven by pride, an extremely important issue that is not only unbiblical, but will lead to an unhealthy paradigm shift in understanding what successful parenting looks like. That shift will ultimately result in behavior modification as the final foundation for good parenting. Parenting does not begin and end with behavior modification and yet many of our most devoted Christian parents are stuck in that way of thinking about their children. If we can just get them to act right at home and in public, then we will be successful parents. Amazingly, this mindset even creeps into church ministries. Several times I have been congratulated on a successful youth ministry because the youth were “acting so well during the church service.” This must be examined and discussed openly by both parents for many reasons, but here are two quick ideas to remember. First, pride is the very reason for our sin-cursed condition. It was pride that Satan used as his first attack mode in the Garden of Eden and it is pride that Satan still uses to muddle the hearts of minds of Christians around the world. Nothing can be deadlier for parents than responding to our children out of an arena of pride. To do so will inevitably cause parents to miss the essential element of working through difficult issues which is to understand the heart. All behavior stems from the heart, on this the Bible is clear. So, when we resort to parenting means that stem from pride, those will always stop short of reaching the heart of the child and will be concerned only with the behavior. Second, behavior modification is only one step removed from a works-righteousness theology. To put it simply, “if we act right, then we are right” is a brutal misinterpretation of the message of Christ for both salvation and for parenting. Of course we want our children to respond and behave correctly, but we want to move deeper than just surface behavior. We want to move to the heart. That is where the Lord looks when he views his children, that is where we are to look when we view ours (1 Samuel 16:7).
Second, Callie’s behavior last weekend should move my mind to remember the dreadful human situation called sin. Callie was responding to her situation from a singular point of view; her own. For that moment at the park, the instruction from her parents was vastly overshadowed by her own desires and wants. The result was a fierce response of anger and emotion. This is not a child thing. This is a human thing. Perhaps adults, at times, have a more sophisticated method of dealing with not getting our way. Yet, at other times, our reaction is just as primeval as a 22 month old. I wonder how many Christian homes have a hole in the wall or broken piece of furniture because of an angry, selfish fit that resulted in an outward, aggressive action. Every act of disobedience, whether from an adult or child, moves the cross of Jesus Christ once again to the forefront of our lives and our purpose. Sin can only be dealt with by Christ himself. My little girl needs Jesus Christ to save her. Not that her actions and behavior will become magically perfect when one day God’s grace moves her to repentance. But her rebellion should cause me to remember that all people are sin-cursed, all people need Jesus Christ.
Third, I have to place the situation in its proper context. To put it mildly, things have been a bit displaced at the Meade house lately. As anyone who has visited our house knows, Andi and I place a big priority on making sure our home is in order, both in terms of neatness and schedule. Simplicity is big. For a while now, due to some uncontrollable circumstances including several weeks of struggling with health issues, our house has been not quite what it normally is. That’s ok. That’s life. The day before the incident with Callie was especially difficult. Thus, as parents we must not pretend that all behavior exists in a vacuum. Although still wrong and disobedient, Callie’s desire to get things her way for a while is more understandable given her immediate context.
Fourth, Andi and I must clearly decide and know the biblical response to Callie’s future disobedience. This is not the article to address those responses, but suffice it to say that it is imperative for Andi and I to consult Scripture first and foremost in our discipline. Not our pediatrician. Not Parents Magazine. Not the advice of our family. Not the latest children’s psychological movement. We first go to Scripture. When we truthfully and honestly search Scripture for parenting responses that are pleasing to God, it might (and probably will) be challenging to embrace. My hunch is that more Christians turn a blind eye to Scripture when it comes to responding to their children than perhaps anything else. We trust it for salvation. We trust it for teaching about God. We trust it for dealing with grief. But not so much when it involves our children. That, we conclude, is better left to professionals or our own personal judgment. Be cautious parents. Scripture alone must be our first means of developing a response to our children.
How did our crazy day with Callie end? It ended with Callie, at some place in her heart, realizing that she had crossed the line. We know this because she said “Hi Daddy, Hi Mommy, love you” about 2 million times during the last 5 minutes of our trip. She went to sleep with no trouble at all that night. Another day, another learning experience, another offering of grace from God. Thank heavens for that.