Free to Choose
October 26, 2011
Ahhh, I could sense a great disturbance in the force, as I hit publish on my last post. “Teach your kids to choose, as a higher value over obedience”? I mean, even the Bible clearly lays out the importance of obedience, right? Surprisingly, I have had very little push from this, but it is a common enough concern, I wanted to do a follow up post to clarify key issues. These posts are not intended to help you pass a test, I want them to really help you in real life.
First let me say, that I am a trained Marriage and Family Therapist, with a decent amount of education and experience in Child Development and Personality Theory and all that junk. I worked for the Juvenile Probation Department for three years, and then, spent sixteen years in a successful private practice. I am also the father of four amazing grown kids, though you may have to ask someone else how they turned out, I am admittedly biased. I mention these things to clarify for new readers, or readers who do not know me personally, I am not only speaking from opinion, but from a certain amount of professional and personal experience.
They key issue is, without a doubt, training your children to use their will. Teaching them to choose can be done at every stage of development. Parents make two mistakes in interacting with their child’s will. They either overpower it, or they get into power struggles with it. In both cases, our children learn harmful strategies for choosing in life.
When I say teach our children to choose, even at the early stages we must communicate with our kids in such a way that they have an opportunity to choose how they respond to parental instruction (Do not eat from that tree, for in the day you eat from it, you shall surely die…). Children must have the opportunity to choose obedience or disobedience, and they should understand clearly from us what will be the outcome of either choice. We must make the circumstances clear and the cost clear, and then step back and be willing to follow through if our children choose the harder path of disobedience. This will help them learn the value of a good choice. It is not really a choice, if, as parents, we overpower their will.
We overpower their will, when the intensity of our emotion, the threat of punishment (not the same as discipline…) or shame, guilt, rejection etc. are too powerful for them to feel they have a real choice. When our emotional needs as a parent, or our fears and pain overwhelm our child’s newly developing will, they do not make a true choice, they comply, and thus take a position in life of compliance. This is not the same as choosing to obey. If you are in a restaurant, you can only order from the options presented on the menu. You will not order what does not seem to be an option. In the same way, if our kids cannot see the option of disobedience, they do not make a genuine choice. They learn instead fear and pain, or their will becomes paralyzed. They only do what others tell them, which is a dangerous way to grow up.
We get into power struggles when we are too invested in being right, or winning a battle, or feel that we must get them to obey at all costs. Too often the cost is relationship, and from the platform of a wounded relationship, we stay in a constant tug of war. I have always said never argue with a three year-old, because as soon as you do, you have already lost. They have brought you into their definition of the struggle, instead of you bringing them into yours. “Parents, do not provoke your children to wrath” describes this common parenting mistake. We teach our children that they are to use their will for resistance. This is also a very dangerous lesson, and sets them (and you) up for all kinds of pain and frustration.
Finally, I want to refer back to the distinction I made between discipline and punishment. Discipline is an overall strategy for teaching. It may involve an intentionally applied consequence, but the goal is that the child learn, and it is therefore crucial that the child’s will be engaged, and be gently shaped by a parent in the context of a loving relationship. Punishment, on the other hand, is essentially parental revenge. We have had enough, and it is time this child pays a price for opposing me. This approach will result in the deterioration of relationship and ultimately both parent and child will suffer over the long term relationship.
God gave us the freedom to choose, because real obedience is an act of the will, made in the context of a growing love relationship. I once heard a teacher say that God is after a Bride not an army. He is looking for voluntary lovers not obligated servants. In raising our children we must assist them in the development of a healthy will, otherwise they develop a lifestyle of compliance or resistance. Neither of these are true obedience.