Monday, July 22, 2013

Two-bit advice

Steve, what would you say parents could (or should) do to help ensure their children have happy childhoods but which aren't obviously or aren't commonly done nowadays?

I'm sure there are seasoned Christian child psychologists who could give better advice than me. But for what it's worth, here's my two-bit advice.

Before getting specific, I'll make a few general observations:

First, my advice isn't a reflection of my unhappy childhood. That's because I didn't have an unhappy childhood. So don't read between the lines to discern a nonexistent subtext. My advice is based in part on having been around long enough to observe some obvious, elementary mistakes that some parents make. 

Second, Christian parents can do all the right things, and still have one or more kids turn out badly. Conversely, Christian parents can make a lot of mistakes, but still have their kids turn out fairly well. In a fallen world, there's no foolproof formula. No failsafe. But while there are no certainties in child-rearing, there are probabilities.

Third, I think it's prudent for Christian parents to have more than one or two kids. Kids can be a great disappointment. You make a huge emotional investment in your kids. Hence, it's wiser to have a margin of error, so that even if one or more of your kids breaks your heart, you have another one or two kids whom you can count on, who will be a great comfort to you in your declining years. 

Fourth, always remind yourself that, ultimately, you're not in control–God is. Like all the other important things in life, we have to pray, trust God, and leave the outcome in his hands. 

Finally, I'm going to discuss boys rather than girls because I used to be a boy, so I understand male psychology better than female psychology. 

i) We can't ensure that our kids will have a happy childhood. We can only make a good-faith effort in that direction.

ii) A lot of this is less about what you should do than what you should avoid doing. Don't turn every day into a pass/fail performance evaluation. To some extent, home is where it should be safe to let our guard down.  

iii) As long as what your kids like to do isn't sinful, give them the time and freedom to do things they like doing. Of course, they can't spend all their timing doing whatever they want. But let them explore the world for themselves. Experiment with innocent pastimes and hobbies. 

iv) Fathers should do things with their sons, like hiking, hunting, camping, or horseback riding. That's also a good setting to talk about whatever. Likewise, it's good for fathers to be openly affectionate, demonstrative. 

v) Now I'm going to say something controversial. I think it's probably a mistake for a father to tell his boys–especially older boys–"Son, I'm proud of you, I'm proud of what you did."

I think that can foster self-esteem issues in a son. There are grown men whose fathers have been six feet under for forty years, yet their sons are still living under the shadow of their worm-eaten fathers. They never felt they measured up, and they are still struggling to earn their dad's approval. 

God didn't put your son on earth to make make the old man proud. Don't make your son think that should be his goal in life. It's not. Don't chain him to you in that fashion. 

Of course, sons need and crave their father's encouragement. But there are better ways of expressing affirmation or approval than "I'm proud of you." Praise your son when he does something praiseworthy, and explain why that's praiseworthy. 

Now, I don't think it's necessarily wrong for a father to use the "pride" motivation when praising his 5-year-old. It's good for sons that age to be eager to please. And at that age, their father is, for better or worse, a placeholder for God. That's part of their socialization. But as they approach adolescence, they need to shift focus from the placeholder to God. That's essential to their spiritual and masculine maturation. 

vi) I do think it's good for fathers to stretch their sons, encourage them to be adventurous, take reasonable risks. 

For instance, some boys are shy. Some boys are shy because they're natural introverts. There's nothing wrong with that. However, if a boy suffers from crippling shyness, that can make him socially miserable. That will hold him back. That may put him on the wrong track. Keep him from doing whatever he wants to do. Too many lost opportunities. 

In a situation like that, I think it might be good to enroll his son in something like martial arts to help build his self-confidence. Make him more comfortable in his own skin. Comfortable with his body. Comfortable around girls. Comfortable around other boys.

Even if his son hates it at the time, we all have to do things we hate. So a little of that is a good thing.

However, the father should make it clear that he doesn't think more or less highly of his son based on whether he excels in this situation. The boy has nothing to prove–except to himself. His father should never shame him to do better. And this exercise shouldn't be round the clock. Most of the time, his son should be allowed to be the introvert he is. But having that extra self-confidence will give him more options in life. Maybe he'll still become a bookworm or harpsichordist, but he will be that by choice, and not because he was too awkward or tongue-tied to try out for something that would give him greater satisfaction. 


  1. One thing the parents can also probably do is focus on cultivating their own attitudes. A child, in my experience, will reflect the attitudes of the parent. I notice that my nephew (who I've raised since he was 6 months old) has started to reflect my whining and complaints about things. If a parent is always exhibiting a critical or unhappy outlook on life the child may pick up on that and see life through that same lens. If a parent can appreciate life and take joy in simple pleasures the child may learn to see things through that lens too.

  2. Great advice Steve. Thanks. We've disagreed on the issue Santa Claus in the past, but I have to admit that your views have become more appealing to me in recent months.

  3. This reminds me of Franky Schaeffer's latest post on his blog...until recently he was preaching a gospel of salvation by military service. (His son is back home safe now so he has dropped that sorry for the parents of kids who encouraged their kids to serve and then who got killed or mangled.) But now it is the Gospel of Salvation by having kids, lots of them, and having them early so you will be around to see the grandkids.

    1. Since my post isn't preaching the Gospel of Salvation by having large families, how does my post remind you of Franky Schaeffer's?