Just imagine if Jesus had been a parent, and if he’d designed a parenting course for his followers. What a relief!
It would run on six Tuesday nights during the school term, at 7:30pm in someone’s lounge, with cake to share and ring binders of notes, right?
We would have no more arguing about smacking or television or cleaning your plate. No more resorting to, “in my day…” or, “…and it didn’t do me any harm!” Oh, if only!
But the Bible is no more a handbook on parenting than it is a gardening guide or a physics textbook. There are relevant principles but no step-by-step recipes to apply directly in our homes.
We haven’t got parenting (or being human) right, yet
It’s tempting to think that since parenting is a millennia-old task, humans must be good at it and our societies must have perfected it by now. But we know this is not so.
In New Zealand we have horrific rates of child abuse, even as far as death. Our poor kids go hungry and our rich kids get drunk. Many, many children, from all parts of Aotearoa, go without enough love and security to thrive.
We haven’t got it right yet.
Human beings have been raising children for a long time. We’ve also been waging war, enslaving each other, pillaging the environment and generally making a mess of our relationships with God and each other for some time now.
We’ve never had it sorted and there’s no past golden-age of parenting to be nostalgic for.
So maybe we could do with re-examining our basic assumptions about the parent-child relationship. Lucky for us, God can redeem all brokenness, even generationally-inherited patterns of behaviour.
Back to basics: love your neighbour as yourself
Let’s start with Jesus’ summary of the law: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. He went on, in Luke 10, to illustrate the neighbour concept with the famous story of a Jewish assault victim being helped by a foreign stranger – the Good Samaritan. Trying to love our neighbours as ourselves leads us to the practice of empathy.
What if we began the parent-child relationship with the understanding that our child is our neighbour?
What if we try, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to respond to our children with empathy, first and foremost, as our expression of love?
I bet you can remember a time as a child when you were misunderstood, when your feelings were disregarded. How did you want to be loved, in that moment?
Let’s get practical: empathy and tantrums
When we give a child the red cup instead of the green one (which it turns out they want), and we get an ear-piercing display of displeasure in return for our kindness, it's so easy to roll our eyes at how ridiculous kids are, and even post a #whymytoddleriscrying photo on social media.
But let’s try taking another approach to this screaming small person. Walk in her tiny shoes. For whatever reason, the colour of the cup is deeply important to this child right now. Why? Take a moment to guess or find out. Maybe it's the one her best friend gave her, or the one Daddy promised she could use. Maybe it's just, as we often find in our house, that it wasn't what she was expecting, so it surprised her or messed with her sense that the world is predictable and safe.
So what would Jesus do?
Here’s a trick: ask yourself how you would treat an adult guest who expressed an odd preference for the red cup. Changing cups won’t hurt anyone, and it will make your guest content, so why not swap them?
Some adults will worry that we are pandering to children by taking their weird wishes into account, that we are spoiling them. I see no evidence in the Bible or in child psychology to say that responding empathetically to children spoils them. I think choosing empathy over control is an experiment worth trying in our broken society.
How does this actually work?
Here's how it often goes in our house:
“Here you go, here's your smoothie.”
*Scream/tantrum/melt into puddle on the floor for no apparent reason!*
“Oh dear, you're very upset (connect with empathy, show the child you have noticed they're unhappy). What's the trouble? I don't know what you need (give the child tools and reminders for asking in a more appropriate way - eventually). Did you not want the red cup? (guess, especially if it's pretty obvious and they're still not able to tell you calmly) Oh! We can solve this problem! We're good at figuring things out together (reassure them it will be okay - they don't need to panic). How about you tell me in a kind voice which cup you want and I listen to you. Shall we try that? Let's start again. What cup would you like, sweetheart?”
In my experience, if you do this often enough – respond empathetically, and take the child's seemingly irrational preferences into account – this process gets shorter and shorter as you build trust that you do respect their wishes and you are happy to accommodate them when possible.
That gives you credit in the bank when you need to disappoint them. When they want the red cup but it's already taken, you can tell them empathetically that it's not possible, and they know that you're not just withholding it to be mean:
“Oh dear, you're very upset! Did you want the red cup? Oh, what a shame, it's not available. Luke already has it, and it's his turn. It will definitely be your turn next time. I know it's disappointing. Would you like to choose the green or the blue - or maybe even a star cup?”
Parenting as neighbours, not dictators
If we look at our kids as our neighbours, worthy of respect and love, just like us, we can help shape their character and behaviour through conversation, experience, mentoring, love and good leadership, rather than through force of will.
If this is new to you, try this for a week: in your mind, give up your rank as boss.
Negotiate, empathise and discuss with your child, as if you’re reasoning with an adult guest. Ditch the bribes, the rewards, the punishments, the “because-I-said-so” answers. Start every interaction with empathy, out loud. Treat your child as a neighbour to love, and see what happens. I’d love to hear how it goes.
Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a Carey graduate and the former pastor of New Plymouth West Baptist Church. She is now the mother of two children who give plenty of practice at this empathy business, and the creator of parenting website sacraparental.com where she writes on social justice and spirituality for parents and kids.
Photo Credit: Marcel Jancovic/shutterstock.com