My wife is the one who follows the parenting expert books that teach you better techniques than the old-fashioned approach of yelling and spanking when yelling doesn’t work. I tend to rebel against following what “the experts” say to do about anything. As much as I critique my fellow evangelicals for having a knee-jerk reaction against the “worldly wisdom” of “secular humanism,” it’s part of my DNA too. When my sons aren’t obeying me, I want to put them in line with a look or my voice or my belt. But I’ve been convicted recently that my need to be the big mighty papa bear has led me into sin. I had to ask my sons’ forgiveness for being a bad parent twice last week.
The first time was Wednesday night when my older son was doing his homework at our kitchen table. He kept on getting up and running around the room. I opened to the assignment, read the instructions with him, got him started, and expected him to be able to do the rest. I was sitting on the couch around the corner on my laptop with some writing of my own to do. Every time my son would hop up, I yelled over for him to get back in his seat. He would start whining about never being able to play the Wii, which I had said he could do after he finished.
As time went on, I got more and more crotchety and he got more and more discombobulated. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was probably creating to a feedback loop where his fidgitiness grew with my own agitation and increasingly harsh volume and tone of voice in telling him to get to work. He finally finished his homework. The amount of time it took him to do the work was about 15 minutes. The amount of time he spend agonizing over it was over an hour.
When I said it was bedtime and he couldn’t play the Wii, he of course had a meltdown. And then I went off on him. But as I was putting him to bed, I felt convicted. I could have sat with him when he was having trouble focusing and helped him rather than wanting to be able to do my own thing on the laptop and yell at him from around the corner. So I told him I was sorry that I hadn’t helped him with his homework more and said that I shouldn’t have yelled at him like that and I would try to do better. He’s a very forgiving kid so he just said, “It’s okay, daddy. I love you.”
The next occasion was Saturday morning after my younger son’s soccer game. A friend had recently shot a deer, and he met us at the soccer field to give us some venison in a cooler bag. We needed to get home before the ice in the cooler bag melted to put the deer-meat in the freezer. But my younger son really wanted to play on the playground. So I said he could for about five minutes.
It ended up being fifteen minutes. I wrangled both of my sons to go. We’re walking back on the sidewalk and first my son says that he needs some water. I told him I would give him his water bottle when we got back to the car. So he stops dead in his tracks and won’t move any further. I decided I would give him his water bottle and told him to keep walking. I walked further and he hadn’t taken another step.
He wanted me to come back where he was and get his water bottle from him. I thought this is a ridiculous power game that I’m not going to play. I said to him, “I’ll just leave you here if you’re not going to come.” He stayed standing where he was. I figured he would eventually bolt and run after me. But he didn’t. I walked all the way to my car with him not moving an inch.
I got in my car and started the engine, thinking I would drive over to where he was and pick him up. When I got there, I couldn’t see him at first so I thought oh crap. I got out of the car and called out his name. He had apparently started running over to where I had been parked and he was on the other side of a row of cars. He came over to my car sobbing, with his face covered in tears.
Once he had calmed down, he said, “Daddy, would you really have left me there? Would I have to sleep on the grass tonight?” And it hit me that he took me straight-up literally. Duh! He’s four years old. I should have given him some kind of concrete consequence for not coming when I called like no Wii or no Halloween candy instead of making a vague threat to abandon him. So I pulled over the car and turned around and said to him, “I need you to come when I call you, but I should not have said that to you and I’m sorry. I promise that Daddy will never leave you anywhere and I will never say anything like that again. Can you forgive me?”
I guess I wanted to share these two incidents because I suspect there’s a tendency for Christian parents, particularly those of us who grew up evangelical, to think that the only mistake we can make in parenting is to not be strict enough. Too often I compensate for my inadequacy in setting consistent, firm boundaries for my sons by expecting to make them obey me through my meanness. It should be obvious that the Galatians 5:22-23 fruits of the Spirit — “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” — apply to how I treat my sons. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.