On Controlling Children and Setting Boundaries

Over on the Culture Monk’s blog, there is a post in which he discusses a conversation he had over coffee with a young woman who’s older sister was thrown out of the house by her parents, and was now using crack, pregnant with twins and living in a homeless shelter. The punchline, as it were, is that Dad is a deacon and Mom is the secretary at a Christian church.

File:Hooded sorrow.jpg

One the one hand, this is all too believable. I have friends whose situation with their oldest daughter is similar, and I’ve seen plenty of drugs and pregnancy and family lines being drawn, so I am familiar with  this sort of stuff. On the other hand, imagining my wife and me ever reaching such a state with our own children is just impossible. Even if one of my kids were to totally reject our beliefs, fall into drug use and become so violent or damaging around the house that we would have to kick them out for the safety of the rest of the family, all I can see myself doing is 1) penance and 2) following that child around in tears, attempting to get through to them.

May Our Good and Loving Lord preserve my family and all families from such sorrow!

That said, and that prayer offered, here’s what I’ve seen. NOTE – BIG DISCLAIMER HERE – I am in no position to judge people. Who really knows what’s going on in their souls? (Certainly not me!) But there are some common threads that that it would be less than honest to ignore:

1. Love doesn’t comes first. The child doesn’t comes first. In the cases I’ve seen, while there is love, often a lot of love and willingness to sacrifice, the love is entirely conditional  – there are other things that come first, and the kid knows it. The list of things that can come first is infinite, with the example from the Culture Monk’s conversation – maintaining good standing in a Christian congregation –  merely a particularly tragic and ironic one. Most insidious, perhaps, is the parent’s self-image: I think of myself a certain way, and the child cannot do anything to upset my image of myself. The Member in Good Standing in a church is perhaps a subset of this. Succumbing to the temptation to play armchair psychologist, perhaps sometimes our own childhoods required that we exert heroic efforts at keeping things together, efforts totally inappropriate for a child to have to make. We ended up, in various ways and degrees, taking care of our parents’s needs in order to have anything resembling a peaceful home. Then, when we become parents, our own model of what a parent is, formed by whatever stories we told ourselves to get through our own childhoods, kicks in – and woe to the child that challenges or disturbs it! We KNOW, experientially, that it is the CHILD’S job to make it work. Our inability to sympathize or understand our child is a feature, not a bug, of this system. If we tried to really understand them, we’d be reopening old wounds of a most painful kind.

Yet, since the second great commandment is like the first – loving our neighbor is like loving God with our whole mind, strength and soul – our love of our own child must be like our love of God. Our love of our own child must involve surrender. Imagine having goals or limits or expectations for God. Sound a little sacrilegious? A lot sacrilegious? Rather, are we not to have a relationship with God, in which, by surrendering our desires to God, we are reformed in His Image?

Couple this with: Unless we become as little children, we shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So, our love of our children must come first, right along with our love of God, because surrendering who we think we are – dying to ourselves – which we must do to be saved, is to become more like God and more like our children.

2. No limits, or many arbitrary limits. Sometimes, our idea of parenting is CONTROL. So, when we see our child do anything good, bad or indifferent, we think it’s our duty to control it – you know, for the child’s own good. Or, conversely, we reject the idea of limits at all – which only means we reject them until the kid crosses some line that costs us something we don’t want to pay. See this a lot out here in California.

As a father, I sometimes think of gardening as an image of raising children. Whatever it is that makes a tomato a tomato, or a bean vine a bean vine, is nothing I have any control over. My job is to put that plant in good soil, get rid of the weeds, water, hope for sun and get out of the way.* In the same way, our children grow into who they are by the will of God, not our will. We clear the weeds, pray that, through our example, God may be the sun to nourish and draw them, and get out of the way.

Of course, every family has limits and rules (whether they are conscious of them or not). The question becomes: are the rules natural, meaning do they fall out of the need for everyone to share in the task of being a family? If so, we raise children who will understand that, to get something good, sometimes you have to do or not do something else. By the time they are 5 or 6, kids can get this. (Doesn’t mean they won’t whine about it until they’re 15, but that’s not the point.) Being part of a good family is the natural goal of all the members. The limits on behavior that flow out of this are different in character from simple arbitrary ‘because I said so!’ controls – and the child knows it.

If you want to raise a rebel, then either impose arbitrary controls, and dig in your heels and double down whenever the child calls you on it, or pretend to impose no rules, so that the child is constantly hunting around for something stable to push against.  They will find something.

In my experience, many parents cannot see this difference. At. All. They cannot separate their need to control (see point 1 above) from the objective need for family rules.**

Few of us are immune to these temptations and sufferings. We must be eternally diligent – and pray unceasingly.

Finally, speaking of prayer, let us pray for all families, especially for the family of the young women mentioned in the Culture Monk’s blog, especially for the unborn children and their father, and their young mother. Let us all find someone to be kind to today, perhaps one of our own children.

*I’ve always done minimal training of tomato vines, disliking the severe trim and train school beloved of the English. So my plants tend to look messy – but they often have plenty of tomatoes.

** Not everything is about school, but the arbitrary and coercive nature of the current model of schooling has been been picked up on – and denounced in song – by generations of school kids. How many controlling families reach the boiling point over school?

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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