Raising Wholesome Children

tumblr_mcgll0TL1N1rt0kevo1_1280(Not necessarily brilliant, handsome, or talented, and certainly not perfect, but wholesome.)

In 1950 the Gallup organization gave a questionnaire to a large sampling of high school seniors. To the question: “Are you a very important person?” 12 percent said yes.

In 2005 Gallup administered the same question to another large sampling of high school seniors: 80 percent said yes.

The large increase in percentage may seem remarkable to some. Others will quickly relate the upsurge to the great increase in narcissism in our culture.

Remember Narcissus? He was the handsome young man of Greek mythology who gazed at the reflection of his image in a pool and fell in love with himself.

Narcissists are self-absorbed. They betray a sense of grandiosity and self-importance. They have a need for praise, and often show an explosive anger when their fragile sense of self-importance is in any way met with reserve or disbelief.

(Anyone who wants to know more will find a great deal of information by googling not only “narcissism,” but also terms such as “narcissistic injury,” and “narcissistic supply.”)

My understanding is that a majority of teenagers show narcissistic traits (as our generations before them did). But for most, the wear and tear of fighting their way into adulthood rubs away these traits or reduces them greatly.

Also, people of any age may have narcissistic moments or blind spots, but only a small percentage reach adulthood with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Some experts suggest one percent.

What resources can Christian parents draw upon to assure that their children grow up with a wholesome sense of self-respect and at the same time a proper interest in and respect for others?

Perhaps a key insight is given us by Jesus when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is apparently a proper sense of self-love — perhaps called self esteem. So parents should be concerned that children develop appropriate self-esteem but also neighbor-love. To encourage the development of a healthy sense of both, what practices should parents attempt to follow?

To begin with, we must recognize that children are a gift from God and that they bear God’s image. Therefore they are to be treated with respect even when we are correcting them. Sometimes we need to sit down and prayerfully review our child’s value to God so as to check and amend our own vexation over their slips.

At the same time, Christians believe their children (and they too) are members of a fallen race. So early in their lives they will show a “bent to evil” and this will manifest itself early and require parental alertness as well as readiness to instruct, restrain, and discipline.

Parents will be alert and respond in a correcting, teaching way, for example, to their child’s first intentional untruth, the first conscious disobedience, and the first unkindness to others or selfishness.

Parents will want to provide a home where there is lots of warmth, love, and laughter but never lose sight of the fact that moral instruction and Gospel claims are serious tasks.

The tendency to romanticize human nature, strong as it is in our culture, may cloud the minds of Christian parents, making them overlook or see as cute or charming the sinful conduct in the developing child. This laxity could easily plant early seeds for narcissism.

Countering the tendency for our children to be narcissistic calls for a 24/7 alertness so that we can show appropriate but not overblown approval when growing children do what’s right, and appropriate and pointed correction when selfishness creates trouble.

By these means parents help children to form a realistic sense of themselves — that they bear God’s image and have gracious gifts from Him, and at the same time along with all of humankind, they have a sin nature.

At the same time, the deepest remedy for curbing narcissistic tendencies is the embrace of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. That must mean true repentance — a turning away from sin; and faith — a deep turning to Jesus Christ, declaring him Lord and Savior.

Nothing short of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ can begin life’s transformation at the center.

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Image credit: John William Waterhouse

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A Baby’s Dedication in a Baptist Church

Block-Party-9Yesterday morning Kathleen and I attended a Baptist church in the neighborhood called the Beaches on the east side of Toronto close to Lake Ontario. The occasion was to witness a dedication service for our ten-month-old great grandson, Lane.

The dedication was part of a Sunday morning worship service and the building it was held in was a big and old but well-kept edifice. It had character.

The sanctuary itself had a faded splendor. Attendance was sparse, perhaps 80 or so in a sanctuary that would seat 250. We were delighted that our grandchildren, Ian and Chloe, were eager to present Lane to the Lord in this manner and the pastor made the dedication ritual personal and meaningful.

He noted clearly at the outset that this dedication would not be a salvation event; that neither the parents nor the church could save this child; that Lane would have to respond to the Gospel himself when his understanding was adequate to know in some measure that he had a personal need for a Savior.

Nevertheless, the pastor went on to commend the importance parents acknowledge when dedicating a child to God in this fashion, noting that they along with family and church would be expected to carry out faithfully the teaching and training pledged in this dedication. Together they would instruct Lane in the admonitions of the Lord.

The pastor’s message was titled: How to Raise Children to Know God. It was fully outlined in the bulletin and delivered clearly and with personal warmth, mainly in a teaching mode. The flock listened attentively from their places scattered here and there in the sanctuary.

The community surrounding this church building was long-established; houses were close together but well kept in repair and in some cases refurbished. This narrow street and many streets throughout the community were lined on one side with cars. Their owners had parked to go to the beaches, or the shops in the area.

Because there was no available parking at the church our daughter and her husband, who had brought us, found a parking space about six blocks away and then walked back to the church.

It was clear from the bulletin that this church was actively attempting to reach beyond its physical boundaries to offer ministry in the area. According to the bulletin, there also seemed to be an active church prayer life.

I admired the pastor, a man of 45 or so, for his optimism and courage in ministering in this context. This Beaches area was a slice of the modern city. As would be true in most urban areas, there would be great need for the Gospel in the tightly spaced surrounding community. In its midst, to a remnant of Christian city dwellers, the pastor ministered gently and positively.

Before entering the church, I had scanned the densely packed dwellings of this middle class community. Remembering my pastoral experiences, with so many homes intact on the outside but reeling on the inside, I felt the brokenness of our world.

And I felt a little sobered to realize that here was a church building that had once served a robust congregation. Christian influence at that time was accepted and widely recognized. Now the throngs were in the shops or on the beaches nearby while this facility was challenged for its existence.

But the faithful ministry to our grandchildren and great grandchild reminded me that whatever state society chooses, whether postmodern or secular, God will continue to challenge chosen men and women to take up the task of preaching the Gospel and ministering faithfully to needy people

There is no pastoral ministry more challenging than to gather in young couples and aid them in establishing Christian homes. This may not seize public attention or fill church pews quickly. But it’s long range results are immeasurable. The dedication of a baby in the presence of the congregation is at the center of that task.

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Photo credit: waverleyroadbaptist.ca

Resisting the Plague of Narcissism

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Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissism has been much in the news during this past week. I heard about it from the media in full detail three times.

Narcissus was a mythological figure known for his beauty who, it is said, looked into a pool, saw a reflection of himself, and fell in love with what he saw.

So Narcissism is the term used of people who are self-absorbed and pre-occupied with their own imagined superiority. They may come across as strong and self-assured but when that self assurance isn’t honored as they expect they are likely to react in a surge of punishing anger or even violence. The so-called big ego turns out to be amazingly fragile.

Narcissism has been on the rise in western youth in recent years. It often is manifested by a strong sense of entitlement. “I’m special and I deserve special treatment.” “I’ll not take just any job.” So why is this in the news especially this week?

A study on Narcissism has been released that gives a fresh understanding of the cause of this dominating state of mind. Co-authored by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, the study surveyed 565 children ages 7 through 11 and 415 mothers and 290 fathers.

Narcissism, the study shows, can be traced to parents who “overvalue” their children during the developmental stage of their lives. Children between 6 and 8 are especially sensitive to parental influence. This inflated self-image of the Narcissist can be buried deep in the psyche.

If during those years children are told in one way or another they are superior, they are more than special, they do things better than others, and they are thus put on a pedestal, they internalize an undeserved view of their superiority. And other people come not to matter.

It used to be believed that Narcissism shows itself in children who are shown little parental warmth. The new insight from this study pointing to “overvaluing” supplants that understanding.

One might assume from the findings of the study that the condition is planted by parents who have a need to reach some personal star achievement of their own in their children. “My child can do no wrong; my child is unusual in every respect; my child deserves special attention from kindergarten on.” These can be damaging assumptions.

The felt need to foster self-esteem in their child is an entirely different matter. Self-esteem develops when children are helped to internalize within themselves the sense that they are valuable individuals but not superior to the extent that they can do no wrong. In the raising of them they will get the appropriate amount of teaching, correcting, disciplining, and such otherwise character-shaping treatment as needed, all within the context of warm adult parental love. It is “overvaluing” that does the damage.

Christian parents may foster Narcissism in their children if they adopt certain cultural modes of parenting rather than taking their teaching from the Scriptures and Judeo-Christian understandings of humanity.

Christian parents believe that children are not a possession; they are a trust from God and must be raised with that in mind. Valuable as we are to God and one another we are all flawed and that fact should be kept in sight as we raise children.

We should not be surprised when we catch a child in the first lie, or see the first tantrum, or discover the first amazing deception. Dealing with these with love and firmness is important.

Christian parents will affirm their children’s achievements to a degree appropriate to their ages and commensurate with the actual achievement. When a four-year-old makes his bed or a seven-year-old sets the table they are thanked, but not raved over as if that was the most amazing thing anyone had ever done. And when they do wrong, the call to account should be real.

Christian parents pray daily with their children and in this setting where the Christian view of human nature is shared children can be helped to face their failures as well as their successes. The early teaching of a developing child to worship God who is majestic and holy and far above them, is a first line against the development of Narcissism.

 

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Why Be Determined to Teach Children to Obey?

1384954600_483e7e4698_mTeaching children to obey is often a wearying task, for the components of obedience are many: wrestling with a little one’s will; uncovering little deceptions; administering encouragement and rewards — and occasional punishments.

These and a score of other challenges make raising children demanding. Thankfully, the years for instilling the ability to obey are also replete with good times and pleasant parent/child exchanges.

The lessons for instilling obedience require constant teaching, whether we do it by calculated instruction, or by quiet example.

The responsibility can wear parents out, and there are times when they could find it easy to say, “Enough!” and leave the rambunctious child to his or her own devices. But the task is too important for parents to allow themselves to quit or even take breaks. The wise parent must carry on in hope even when the task seems exhausting.

The reasons teaching obedience is important, even crucial, are more numerous than might appear. One could say we must teach obedience to have peace in the family, or to help the child develop a sense of boundaries. Both goals are worthy, but I mention a broader reason in my book, God’s House Rules.

The larger and lifelong goal is to prepare children to live wholesomely under a complex pattern of authorities that are sure to shape their environment wherever they are for an entire lifetime. I write:

Imagine a husband and his wife with two children living in an apartment building. On the one hand, the parents exercise authority over the children. But at the same time, the parents are under the authority of the building manager and the building’s rules.

When that mother drives to her job in the morning she respects the authority of highway ordinances. The policeman in a cruiser tucked behind a bridge abutment is there for a reason.

Then at her work as a department manager, she oversees the work of her team; but at the same time she is under the authority of the superintendent of the plant. The multiple authority structures we all live under are many and require balance.

Isn’t it true that if children learn obedience at home they will function better in their childhood world – school, summer camp, Sunday School class, scouting programs, baseball leagues – not to mention how they will do later as adults?

In passing, I note that focussing on the Apostle Paul’s one word of counsel (Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right (Ephesians 6:1) leaves room for lots of play, pleasant exchanges, and fun-filled surprises in the home. In fact, fun experiences are even more likely when there is good order.

Some secular voices might counter that “obedience” is old-fashioned and overrated: after all, they say, children need to be free to be creative, to experiment and to test their wings. The two ideas of obedience and self-actualization are not mutually-exclusive, but creativity and experimentation need some degree of supervision.

Obedience goes to the heart of the matter, and if obedience is not viewed as fundamental other less wholesome styles of relating — chaotic or combative or competitive — will battle for dominance and prevail.

Above all, Christian parents understand that they are accountable to God for the task. And they know they are equipped by Him for the stewardship of parenting. They also know there are rewards to children when they are helped to live ordered lives (Exodus 20:12). God makes his promises.

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks (via flickr.com)

Dealing with People Who Punish

3606314694_cf0a20a0ea_mThe doctor’s waiting room was filled with patients. All sat quietly except for a three-year-old child who took command of the floor and whose annoying conduct seemed to pollute the atmosphere. She was at war with her mother. The people glanced furtively in her direction and then away.

The mother was obviously embarrassed by the little girl’s conduct. Finally she attempted to reduce the annoyance in the room by picking the child up and holding her tightly. Predictably, this led to a struggle of huge proportions. The three-year-old protested loudly and writhed to be free.

The mother appeared in danger of being conquered, but not the three-year-old. She fought resolutely, likely knowing instinctively that she had a secret weapon: she had an audience which likely suppressed the mother’s resolution to manage her with authority.

Finally, the mother released the child from her grip. It didn’t seem to occur to her to take her out into the hall or even back to the car for a cooling-off period. Rob the little girl of her audience and the balance of power would change quickly.

Instead, the harried mother surrendered, setting the three-year-old back on her feet. It was not enough for the child to have won the battle, however. She then took a few steps away, turned back toward her mother and began to berate her in a loud voice.

“You’re a bad mommy. I hate you. I hate you. You’re bad!” Her little face contorted with anger as she spit out the words. The poor mother sat looking straight ahead. It was as though she had been thrown to the mat.

Some of the older persons in the room must have blanched at the unchecked punishment the child was handing out. They may have thought to themselves, if such developing behavior is not soon arrested the three-year-old is on her way to becoming a lifetime punisher.

As she grows older, siblings will get punished. So will school or work associates. Perhaps many years hence her spouse will slowly wilt under her tested, sophisticated skills of punishing. Her close friends will be few.

Consider some forms of punishment these practiced punishers use.

Anger appears to be a foremost weapon. Sometimes it explodes, like a bomb. Sometimes it is less obvious, lying below the surface, yet ready for release at any moment. The person who has previously experienced the emergence of this concealed anger is rendered uncomfortable and off-balance, but uncertain of the reason for it or how to counter it.

Some punishers use a sullen silence to show their displeasure. It may be effective in delivering the intended message, but it’s never effective in returning a relationship to some sort of normalcy. It’s a dead-end method, and unchallenged early in life it is a method hard to counter.

I’ve also seen sarcasm used as punishment. The person skilled with this technique usually doesn’t use explosive sarcasm for all present to feel. Rather it is made up of little underhanded cuts slipped in here and there and left to create internal pain and confusion.

Sometimes the most damaging kind of punishment is “bad-mouthing.” Children who grow to adulthood without sufficient parental and societal restraint and the pruning of their modes of relating may have learned to respond to thwarting with this technique.

They diminish their target by eagerly spreading false complaints and rumors about them behind their backs.  This can damage the victim’s reputation and cripple relationships. Punishers deeply steeped in this mode of vying for control seem to have no conscience about the hurt they cause.

All this makes firm parental responses exceedingly important to such punishing skills as the three-year-old displayed in the doctor’s waiting room.   In her best moments she was probably a delightful child. But this inclination to punish those who thwart her will cripple her, if not treated as serious. It will greatly diminish her pleasure in life as well as the pleasure of close associates.

One can ask: if parents neglect to confront these anti-social modes of relating early and with serious intent, is this neglect not a form of child abuse? What makes such failure all the more serious is that such conduct in a three-year-old can be quite readily confronted with success.

On one occasion my wife and I saw an example of effective parenting close up. We were invited to dine with a young family in a fine restaurant. The three-year-old, a delightful child in our experience, had apparently already been inclined on several prior occasions to make a fuss whenever a public setting provided the stage where she could set her will against parental wishes. Her parents had developed a strategy that they said was gradually curbing this behavior. Here is what we saw.

Before entering the restaurant, I heard her father rehearse the ground rules. He told her quietly as we walked from the car that there would be many other people around us and, for their sakes, she must not cause a stir; she must do as she was told while inside.

And then I heard him say quietly but clearly, “If you cry or make noise, or if you don’t do what Daddy tells you, I will take you outside and we’ll wait outside until you tell me you are settled and ready to return.”

Soon after we were seated there was a slight stir where she sat. The father had apparently detected the early symptoms. He got up quietly and carried the three-year-old out. Fellow diners heard only seconds of her protests.

We later learned that all he did was to hold her and lovingly tell her she must stop crying and be ready to do what he told her before he would take her back into her dinner.  Some time later they returned. Her cheeks were wet with tears. She took her place and the meal went forward happily without episode.

As we were leaving the restaurant, the patrons around us, not knowing the meaning of the father’s earlier departure with the child, spoke warmly to the parents about how amazed they were by the fine conduct their young children had shown — an uncommon sight in fine dining places, I’m told.

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Photo credit: G. Westfall (via flickr.com)

A Tribute to Fatherhood

Father and son
Yesterday Kathleen and I attended the funeral of a longstanding friend, Al Hill. During our trip home, we pondered his life as it informed the term, fatherhood.

It was evident that Al had a large circle of friends; the church was packed. He had also distinguished himself as a churchman and educator. Yet, it was his success as a father that lingered with us.

It was obvious that Al and Grace had raised three stalwart sons, all now in stable marriages with children to bless them and their grandparents. All this stayed with us as we drove.

One son’s tribute stood out. He said that his father had insisted that under all circumstances he and his two brothers respect their mother. The point was made repeatedly while they were growing up. The three boys were apparently reminded even in adulthood to “look after your mother.”

This reminded me of an episode with one of my own sons who in early adolescence had begun to show moments of veiled disrespect for his mother. I spoke to him about it. “She is not only your mother,” I told him sternly, “she is my wife, and I insist that my wife be respected.” The message given in that novel way registered. Today, this son and my other two children could not be more loving and solicitous of their mother’s well being.

Fatherhood should be more elevated in our world than it is for a variety of reasons: it is a divinely ordained assignment, a role deeply rooted in history, a widely-used positive metaphor, an honorable title, an art, a crucial social role — and a joy.

I will remember Al for his churchmanship. I will remember him for his good ideas. I will never forget the favor he did for our family when, as a school principal, he facilitated our daughter’s return to Canada to teach.

But, after the tributes we heard yesterday, I will honor him foremost in my memory for the way he embraced fatherhood as a sacred trust. And he did it well.

(More next week.)

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Raising Kids for Christ

I have now had the pleasure of observing from their earliest years the traits first of children, then grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. I’ve noticed that if you observe carefully you can see their dispositional tendencies from the start.

Before they can talk or even walk they show on their faces and by their responses their reactions to people and life in general. And those traits tend to carry over to some degree when they arrive on the shores of adulthood.

One child has a sunny disposition from the start; another is unusually shy around all but close relatives. One child is full of self-confidence; another takes considerable encouragement to embrace new challenges. One tends to be defiant against all orders; another is easier to convince to go along. They all seem to share to one degree or another the ability to manipulate, to deceive, even that wretched impulse to punish parents who are supposed to regulate their lives. Likewise, they all at times have flashes of loving generosity toward parents.

If I could run my life back two generations to the time when our children were small I know I would study each one separately much more carefully than I did. I see even now how different they were in temperament.

I’m not a trained psychologist but I have gleaned from my child-raising experiences one truth that I find myself repeating over and over again. It’s that every child comes into the world with a “package,” one that their parents have to work with. They do not come as a blank sheet to be written on.

In the Bible, Esau was an outdoors type; Jacob was more for the indoor life. Esau was a man of appetite in the moment; Jacob was a cunning trader who could hold for the long view. But they were twins, both from the same mother and father. Each came into the world with his own package.

As our children were growing up, my wife, Kathleen, and I tended to pool our insights regarding how we would handle difficult situations. We had slightly different perspectives on what to do, and that was good. In fact, God made us to bring a male and female perspective to a parenting situation. But because of our shared values we agreed fully on the outcomes we were working and praying for.

We wanted our children to know Christ as we have known him. And character-wise we wanted them to be honest, respectful, obedient, and accountable to us even as they matured and went farther afield.

It pleased us to see them become resourceful and enterprising as they grew up. Perhaps some of this came from parental example and encouragement, but I think a fair portion of it came from the genes. They hustled and got their own odd jobs, saved their money, and bought some of their own clothes, or a bicycle, or fish tanks, or other things they were left to themselves to provide.

They were not without their squabbles. For siblings, fighting for territorial rights and jockeying for favor go with the territory. Sometimes it was tiring to us as it is for all involved parents. Those issues seemed to recede with the coming of adulthood and the children became staunch supporters of one another. And when they bring their spouses home, the mutual support among them all is a joy to see.

I feel for young parents who are bringing children up in today’s environment. There are so many external anti-family lures to contend with -– sitcoms in living color, often with subtle anti-Christian biases, cell phones, the whole perilous world of the Internet, texting (and sexting), early access to automobiles, a movie industry that can’t always be monitored, and even some educational influences in school that contradict family values.

Yet, I believe when properly administered, good family influences are stronger than all the counter influences. What are some of the things parents can do to increase the likelihood of winning the children to Christ and to adopt family values? Here are nine:

(1) Read the Bible and pray with them daily. Make it a family time.

(2) Take them to a church regularly where the preaching is biblical, clear, and anointed and leads to the growth of community.

(3) Make sure you attend a church where Christian Education for all ages is taken seriously and encourages discussion.

(4) Keep alert to the friends they choose. Invite them into your home.

(5) Don’t be shy about keeping track of what they are seeing and doing on the Internet; you are their guardians.

(6) Have fun times with them on their level.

(7) Take them for a treat occasionally one-on-one. In this case, it will not be the size of the treat that counts, it will be the exclusive attention of a parent.

(8) Be sure they get to Christian camps where their activities are properly supervised and they are invited to give their lives to Christ or to follow him.

(9) Model consistency before them and when you come short acknowledge it. Children respect honesty.

In my opinion, parents today tend not to reckon with a child’s free will as they should. They should make much of it when parenting, rather than considering themselves totally responsible for outcomes. By the time children are 15 they have made scads of choices that are rapidly shaping who they are becoming and what value system they will live by. Lying, cheating, stealing, sassing, rebelling –- these are all options open to them, however seriously their parents coach them in uprightness and decency and respect.

Children should therefore be held responsible for their choices. This needs to be brought home to them from their early years. I remember little sayings repeated to me in my childhood that infected me with a sense of personal responsibility from early years onward: “If you make your bed, you have to lie on it.” Or, “Your chickens will come home to roost.” Or, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Whenever I was unresponsive to parental advice regarding some decision, one such saying would be dropped into my memory and left with me to accept or reject. They were effective lines.

The battle for the souls of our children is a taxing one, but one well worth waging on every front -– the spiritual, the moral, the social. At the same time, every child must be helped to understand clearly that they are fully responsible for the decisions they make that seal their eternal destiny. The key decision: “What will you do with Jesus?”

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