Saturday, October 23, 2010

Parenting in an achievement-based world

I was reminded yet again this week of the difficulties, struggles, and self-inflicted worry that occur being a parent in our Law-heavy, achievement-based world.

I am the father of an amazing, brilliant little five-year old. He is clearly going to be like his father, and excel in mathematics/engineering/physical sciences. Ever since his little fingers could hold Legos he would build complex objects; at age four he could look at a domino and tell you (without counting) how many black dots were on it; he taught himself to count by twos last week to get through his preschool assignments quicker. The kid is extremely bright for his age, no doubt about it.

And of course, that shouldn’t matter at all. Every child, no matter how smart or dull or fat or skinny or awkward or funny, is a unique blessing. Every minute with a child is a chance to be awed at God’s gifts, at their playful creativity, at their trusting wonder about the world around them, at their ability to experience a purer joy than any adult. A grace-filled parent loves his child regardless of their aptitude at anything. A grace-filled parent overflows with love for his child—not because of what they can do, but because of who they are: your child. But how much more so should we be worry-free if, in addition to this abundance of love toward our children, you have a child who is great at something? And let’s be honest…most kids, if you look for it, are great at something.

Yet here we sit last week in Alex’s five-year old checkup. He performs well at everything except one: the nurse practitioner says that he has “mild articulation development delay”, and refers us to a speech therapist. Now what are these grave errors in his development? He doesn’t pronounce “r” well; he doesn’t annunciate his “th” and “sh” sounds all that great. He can do it if he focuses, but in the course of normal speech he doesn’t.

Things like this – comparative-based ranking of children – suck parents into a hopelessly downward spiral of Law and achievement. Your child is ahead of his age in math? Great. But he’s behind in speech? Terrible – he’ll probably be bullied as a child and live a horrible life. You need to consult a specialist.

We hold up our children to this standard of what a child “should” be able to do at a given age. Never mind that God made every child different; never mind that every parent is different; never mind that we are raised in different situations. And it is irrelevant whether the child is happy and loved and joyful. It is irrelevant whether he or she excels in a hundred areas. If even one is slightly below the “average” for his or her age, then you have a problem. You need a specialist. Or your children will end up in special ed classes.

Do you see what we are doing with our children? Out of our honest desire to give our children great lives, we have enforced a suffocating Law upon them. They must be perfect. Not just average…perfect. Not happy…perfect. And what does “normal” or “average” really mean? For a child to be ‘normal’, they should always be ahead of their age at some things, behind at others, and adequate at others. If, on the average, they are normal…then that should be good enough.

But it isn’t. No, our children must be “normal” or better in every individual category in which they can be measured. Perfection is the desire. Anything less is a judgment on your child or your parenting. And so what do parents do? They read developmental milestone books, constantly judging their children against our ideal perfection to see if they are “ok”. Parents push their children into organized sports—two or three sports at a time, please, so that later they can choose their favorite!—and now their children spend 6-10 hours per week in practices and games.

Our achievement-based, Law-hungry society has developed a ruthless program of milestones that our children must adhere to. “No child left behind”, we say—but is that reasonable? Isn’t it true that in every area which is measurable, humans fit on a Bell curve? Some will be ahead of average, some below. (That is, after all, what defines the measurable as an “average”.) That is how God designed us, so why do we feel the need to try to make everyone perfect?

Instead of accepting our children as they are, in every avenue of life, we drive our children to achievement. You probably agree in general, but think you are the exception. Guess what? You are not. You do the same thing. Consider for a moment. What do you want for your kids post-High School? The vast majority reading will say, “College.” But what if your kid doesn’t get joy in school? What if God clearly didn’t design Him to be an academic? Maybe your son is supposed to be a factory worker driving a fork truck. Maybe your daughter is best fit working as a waitress her entire life. Are you okay with that? Are you okay with your son being an awkward geek instead of a jock? Are you okay with your daughter being a D-student? Are you okay with your son having a lisp? Are you okay with your daughter not being pretty?

Or, do you put them into stress to try and ‘fix’ their weaknesses? Do you take great care to ensure that they always look a certain way? Do you encourage them to try as many sports as possible—regardless of whether it is good for them? Do you take them to therapy and special programs for everything that they are behind average on? Do you closely monitor them at all steps to ensure that they are excelling (or are at least average) at sports and academics and socialization and appearance?

If so, then guess what: you are parenting based upon achievement, not grace. You are more concerned with your kids fitting society’s Law of expectation for them, than that they understand graceful acceptance under any condition.

And that, my friends, is why so many children today suffer from depression. Why so few have an understanding of grace. And as a result, why so few ever truly embrace God as He meant for them to embrace them. And then for their children…how shall your kids give grace in raising their children, when you have given them no example from which to draw?

As it turned out, my son did not have articulation problems—he was perfectly appropriate for his age. Imagine our relief. But the relief that I feel is, at least partly, wrong. It is of course perfectly right for me to be relieved that my son is not developmentally delayed. But the degree of relief is what is bothersome. I was too relieved…which in turn means I had been too worried. I love my son. He loves me. He is a great kid. We have a bond that few fathers and sons have. And yet here I was worried for his future. Why? Because this child whom I love says, “wead me the Bible” instead of “read me the Bible”? Would my love for him be any different if he was not an achiever, if he truly needed speech therapy? Of course not! Do I feel that there is anything wrong with my son? No. Was I worried about him before his checkup? Not a bit. Then why, after the referral, did I allow myself to worry about what society believes is “appropriate” for his age? Why did I remind him, going into his evaluation, to speak clearly? Why did I take off of work for it? Because I am a parent of our age: a parent who constantly checks his children against the Law-like perfection of what a child “should” be doing at each developmental milestone.

So…what should parenting look like? Well, as God is our Father, perhaps we can use Him as an example. How does God treat His children, those who have chosen to follow Him? Does He stop us from making mistakes or even force us to correction for our flaws? No, though He does give us advice against bad decisions (through Scripture, friends, and the Spirit), He chooses to love us as we are. Does He expect us to be perfect? No, and in fact He encourage us to learn our weaknesses. Does He help with our weaknesses? Yes, but not in a way that expects us to defeat them. No, God teaches us to what our weaknesses are, and give us the tools to do get better. How does God parent? He teaches us to look at ourselves honestly—warts and all—and He tells that He loves us regardless. That nothing we do can separate that from Him. And that He will help us as much as we want. And guess what happens as a natural result? We all try to improve, we all try to grow. And we all can rely fully on His grace, no matter how many times we fail. It is far easier to try and get better when you are freed from the pressure of checking every box, achieving every goal. When you are trying to improve just because you want to be better, rather than to achieve a set of laws.

So next time that one of my kids is “behind the curve” on something, what will I do? I hope that I will be honest with him and let him know that he’s struggling a bit in a certain area, and that I will be there to help him if he wants to get better. That help may be therapy, or homework, or whatever. It might be as simple as saying, “Alex, sometimes people have trouble with understanding you. Here is how ‘th’ sounds.” And then drop it. But whatever it is, I must be careful that the actions I take will not induce stress or display displeasure. It will not be achievement-based. He cannot believe that his worth to me is at all changed based upon meeting some arbitrary criteria. And if he fails at something, he fails. It will not disappoint me. It will not separate us. I want both my sons to know instinctively, without having to be told, that nothing—not height nor depth, not power nor principality—would be able to separate them from my love.

That is grace-based parenting. And unfortunately, that is exceptionally rare.

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