For many years, I looked forward to being a dad. I’ve always loved kids, and I assumed I’d have a few of my own. As my peers married, I felt a bit “left out” as I never found “the one” (and I did look!). I discovered, later on, that I missed becoming a parent as much or even more. I love small children and playing with them; but I have an even greater affinity for teenagers. One teen even came to spend time with me when he heard me say from their pulpit that I loved teens. I have been a tutor, sometimes for pay, and I have been a mentor, never paid. While many dread the teen years, I find them challenging, and I even find myself drawn to the “troublemakers,” not bad kids but those who have minds and ideas of their own that don’t conveniently “fit in” to the standard classroom or even family. I’m not just drawn to them; I want to see them become the mature and creative adults I know they can become. With God’s help, unconditional love and thoughtful encouragement are the keys to bringing the best out of a young person.
So, I hope you aren’t surprised when I say that I do not understand parents who treat their kids poorly. I accept that discipline is part of parenting, consistent, well-communicated discipline. In part, discipline is the teaching of self-control, following a wise parent’s management of a child’s behavior. Then plan should always be to transition from the one to the other, so when the parent can no longer force obedience upon a pre-adult, the child is prepared to control himself or herself and, having been well taught and understanding why self-control/self-discipline is necessary and worthwhile.
The other part of discipline for a child is to learn about consequences. In other words, discipline, as compared to punishment, lets the child learn that certain poor choices lead to corresponding undesirable results. The punishment of a criminal is one such consequence established by civil authorities, but a child is not a criminal. The parental role should be overwhelmingly characterized by love, not just in words but in clear expressive actions. If a parent has to say, but may often not bother, “I’m only doing this because I love you,” then they’ve neglected the more important part. In an earlier, far more disciplined time and culture, parents, especially fathers, may have been able to convey love through a severe strictness; a child would learn that without the discipline learned from their fathers, they would be ill-prepared for the demands of that strict and unforgiving, primitive culture.
Today’s Western culture is marked by permissiveness and selfishness; the former makes it harder to train a person to be self-disciplined, and the latter often already leaves the question of parental love uncertain in the minds of children. So doing both well is not easy but very much needed. When I use the word “selfishness,” I refer to what the Bible calls “pride.” It is self-important, self-focused, and egocentric. It may be obvious or subtle, but in the decisions and activities of life, it is “me first!” It is the natural instinct, you might say, of a child at birth; how could it be otherwise, as it has only know the warm confines of its mother’s womb and has yet to learn of others. The first act of discipline may come when innocent cries of need—food, cleaning, affection—are replaced by a demanding cry for attention. I remember one child who was still making such cries at the age of nine, and her mother was still running when she called! That was so different from the mother who heard her boy cry out when he fell and broke his arm… She knew the difference. It is love to run to a child in pain; it is not love to cater to a spoiled child.
Today it has become fashionable to teach self-esteem. Teachers rightly recognize that young people are missing a healthy sense of themselves, but they err in how to correct the problem. Humans are prone to selfishness, and trying to teach “self-esteem,” a different attitude, tends to re-enforce the selfishness. I agree that every person needs to feel valued, accepted, liked, and loved, but they won’t feel those qualities by studying them in a class. They cannot be learned, they must be communicated by people significant in their lives, first and primarily by their parents, grandparents, older siblings, and family friends. Of course, it comes through words, but it also comes through hugs and kisses and cuddles and tickles and giggles and play. I have a fond memory of a family friend that shared her rocking chair with me (when I was small enough to sit beside her!). Later I remember coming home after school, finding my mom in the kitchen, and talking; I have no idea what I had to say, but I did it nearly every day! I also recall finding a newspaper clipping about some high school accomplishment of mine in my dad’s wallet after he died; until then I never fully appreciated his pride in me.
However, I also remember when my dad criticized the way I shoveled corn; even now I won’t share the words he used. After many years, I figured out it he was just tired and hoping for more help than his young teenage son was able to give. I’d never shoveled corn, except maybe just a few shovels full. I was far from having an adult man’s strength and stamina. He wasn’t thinking of how those harsh words might shame and linger with me for years. He just wanted to get the task finished and needed the son I would later grow to be. Today I believe his words were largely innocent and unthinking. I’m sure that it isn’t always the case. Parents can be cruel to their children whether by accident, carelessness, malice, or preoccupied selfishness. Teachers and other significant adults can do the same. Better that we should build up than tear down.
For example, some parents lecture and scold. Sometimes I’d guess they communicate that way with everyone, but it is a horrible way to communicate with a child. At a certain point, it becomes pointless, counterproductive, and devastatingly annoying. Even for interested students in a classroom, lectures are often hard to endure. From a parent, they often carry a prominent note of rejection, failure, and shame: “You disappoint me. Why don’t you listen to me? Do what I tell you!” At least in a class, a lecturer may give students a chance to ask questions, but don’t you dare interrupt a parent in the middle of a rant! Such scolding may even be worse; it may openly include an attack, “You’re just like your father.” Your mother did exactly the same thing, and look what happened to her.” Does a child at the receiving end of such words feel love and acceptable? Obviously not! Negative comparisons like this reflect the disappoints of the parent’s life and should not be directed at a son or daughter. Of course, they may be like their (absent or rejected) parent, but even that person is not all bad. The child should here the positive comparisons; the negatives are better thought than spoken. Not only should a loving parent refuse to run down their child; they should also refuse to recruit their child into a war with a former spouse, who continues to be the child’s parent!
One of my roles as a mentor is encouragement. I have two messages I try to communicate to my young friends—my love and my faith in them. I will back up those messages with whatever resources I have and word hard to convey my absolute sincerity. I encourage others to do the same. Even when good parents show love and teach toward self-discipline, young people may struggle to be sure they’re “okay.” After all, parents are supposed to love them, but what about the rest of the world? Recall that self-esteem can’t be taught; it can only be absorbed in their experience with people1. I’m not teaching self-esteem; I’m showing them my sincere acceptance, my real pleasure in them as a person, my genuine affection and unconditional love, even as I may have reason to deal with sin/bad behavior.
Whether from a parent or a mentor like me, love, to be fully communicated and received, must be unconditional. It should never comes with qualifications or requirements. I saw a mother tell her daughter that she loved her, and the daughter immediately got up and brought the mother a bottle of pop. Oh, how much I wanted to challenge that mother! Even that little bit of “condition” was too much. So, obviously, any word of rejection due to failure is far worse. Yes, children are little sinners, and teenagers are bigger and more devious sinners, many times. Oh, and by the way, parents are sinners, too. Dealing with a child’s disobedience must come with the very flavor of heaven. In other words, Christ died for our sins, and parents’ sacrificial love must be the overwhelming message especially when dealing with their beloved child’s mistakes, willfulness, and disobedience. A parent must never ever communicate the notion that a child must satisfy or please the parent to be loved!
Unconditional love takes time as well as restraint. Busy, selfish parents often have too little time to give. It’s classic to hear stories of a child wanting the parent’s attention, some even aired as public service announcements. Quality time is important for talk, play, events, and expressing love, but quality cannot fully substitute for quantity of time. Love always takes time. Little gestures can help when the schedule is full, but only temporarily. Love takes time, and parental love takes more time, while it’s possible to give. In an amazingly short time, the opportunity will be gone along with the child.
1 Actually I believe an understand of Biblical truth may be taught so that a person comes to know that God loves, values, likes, and enjoys them. Each of us is a unique creation of God, and his son Jesus died for the salvation of each one of use, because he loves us. Nevertheless, a person will find those truths easier to accept if they have been truly loved in the more tangible realm of human relationships.