|by James A. Fowler
How long have you been engaged in the parenting process? Do you have it all figured out? I doubt it! Most of us still face many frustrations! Having been a parent for over twenty years, I thought it was time to reflect retrospectively on what being a parent really involves. Hopefully, my evaluations and ponderings will prove beneficial to other parents also.
If you were asked to complete this sentence, how would you complete it?
"If I could have known what I now know about parenting, .......
If you answered that you would have been a better parent, what makes you think that you would have it in your power to be a better parent, any more than you have what it takes to be a better Christian? There is no such thing as a "better Christian;" only a Christian, who, even when serving as a parent, allows for a more adequate manifestation and representation of the life of Jesus Christ in his or her behavior (II Cor. 4:10,11).
- I would never have been a parent.
- I would have been a better parent.
- I would have been a stricter parent.
- I would have been a more relaxed parent.
- I would have been the same kind of parent I was, or am.
- Other _____________________________________
If I were to honestly answer the above question, I think I would have to respond by saying that, "If I could have known what I now know about parenting, I would have been the same kind of bumbling, bungling parent that I was, and am!" My particular selfishness patterns would have been the same. They were entrenched as the patterns of my "fleshliness" before I ever started in the parenting process. That same personality that tries to get everything figured out, and tries to find out the way to do it right; that same personality that has high expectations for myself in doing it right, and high expectations for everyone else, including my children, in doing it right; and then thinks that by doing it right it will all turn out right; that patterning would have been in Jim Fowler regardless of what information he knew, and would have undoubtedly been manifested in my parenting.
I am not a perfect parent. You are not a perfect parent. There is no such thing as a perfect parent (except for the fact that God is a perfect Father, on the spiritual plane). In addition, I will be so presumptuous to declare that there is no perfect parenting process or technique that can be employed to produce perfect children, or even the kind of children we would idealistically like to create.
All we have to start off with in the parenting process are a couple of selfish, self-centered parents, who have procreated a child. If they are responsible enough to face up to the consequences of their actions, they will, with the best of intentions and the greatest of hopes, set out to raise that child into a responsible human being and citizen of society. These parents will inevitably incorporate, to some extent, the attitudes and techniques of parenting that were modeled by their parents and families. These family dynamics of selfishness and sinfulness, of shame and survival, filter down to the third and fourth generations (Exod. 34:7), perpetuated over and over again.
The natural parental process is that of the parent trying to mold their own particular patterns of selfishness into their children; trying to impose and pattern their selfish propensities on the children. It is only natural for a parent to selfishly think that a child should think like them, act like them, react like them, and do it their way (because, obviously, if that were not the best way, they would not do it that way!). The children either adapt and conform to such parental impositions, or they react to such in order to go their own selfish way (and they do so both consciously and unconsciously).
It is doubtful that any parent can avoid this transference of self-tendencies (fleshliness), but the Christian parent can come to the recognition that "in me dwelleth no good thing" (Rom 7:18); confess that "I am just a worthless servant" (Lk. 17:10); and admit that "if I say I have no sin, I am deceiving myself, and the truth is not in me" (I John 1:8). God knows all of this about us, and does not expect us to be perfect parents! He knows that every parent, Christians included, will, for the most part, interject their own selfish patterns into the parenting process. We all do it! The "flesh sets its desires against the Spirit" (Gal. 5:17), and is acted out in parents. But are we prepared as Christians to admit our selfishness, and allow God by the Spirit of Christ indwelling us, to supersede our natural tendencies, and allow Him to manifest His character in our behavior as parents? It is only when we are thus prepared to admit our inability and His ability, that we will be available to all that God wants to do in our parenting.
Re-examining Proverbs 22:6
Perhaps the most abused and misused text concerning parenting is that found in Proverbs 22:6. The mistranslation and misinterpretation of this verse has led to tragic consequences in families for centuries.
The KJV reads: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." The two phrases of this verse are usually interpreted to be a direct cause and effect, command and promise. If you do this... as parents, then there will inevitably be the desired outcome in your child. Thus understood, the verse has put many a parent under intense guilt of self-condemnation, and ecclesiastical condemnation, when the child does not meet up to expectations. The parent surmises, "It's my fault that my child turned out the way he did. I must not have trained him up in the way he should go." It is a heavy parental responsibility, indeed, when the parent is expected to "play God" in the life of their child, by "training them up" to be everything God intends. The religious instructors are only too pleased to jump in, and dictate and delineate all of the correct procedures for training up a child. Child-training techniques abound in religious books, seminars, tapes and support groups.
Another variation (which tries to avoid some legalism), indicates that the intent of the verse is that a parent should "Dedicate (set apart, affirm) the child in the way he should go." Parental dedication or commitment to what God has in mind for the child, creates a great parental responsibility to discover and discern the particular will of God for that particular child. This is thought to be a more "spiritual" approach to parental responsibility. Sometimes the emphasis is on parental dedication to bring up the child in accord with his/her particular psychological needs or particular personality. This, again, creates a great parental responsibility to psycho-analyze each child to determine his/her particular "bent," so as not to "warp" the child psychologically.
Traditional religious interpretation assumes that these commanded inculcations of parental responsibility will then be followed by the alleged promise, that will never fail, because God is faithful to keep all of His promises! "If you parents DO what you are supposed to DO (spiritually and psychologically) for the child (i.e. take him to Sunday School and mold his psyche), then when he is old, he will not depart from it." Apparently that means that the child will never think for himself. He will never make his own choices, as a choosing creature. He will never stray, or rebel, or make mistakes, or fail. He will never make you look bad, humiliate you, or tarnish your reputation (or that of your religious group). He will be a perfect, "spiritual" person; everything God means for him to be. He will live out the psychological personality he was meant to have in full satisfaction of self-fulfillment. All of this contingent, of course, on you, the parent, having properly combined and implemented the spiritual and psychological guidelines of parental child-training.
I don't know about you, but I cannot accept that, because I don't think that is what the Bible says, or what the Bible means! In order to document that, I was forced to do some exegetical research into this verse, to check out the Hebrew words, and to see what this verse really says.
Here is what I found:
The first word in the sentence is the Hebrew word hanak (2596). Surprisingly, it does not mean "train up," nor does it mean "dedicate." According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (eds. Harris, Archer, Waltke), it means "to inaugurate, to initiate, to begin, to start off."
"Start off a child (literally "a boy") in the way he should go.." The phrase "the way he should go" is actually two Hebrew words. The first is peh (6310), which directly (or literally) means "mouth." But the figurative or metaphorical meaning is obviously the meaning in this case, i.e. "opening, entrance." The second Hebrew word is derek (1870), which directly (or literally) means "road, pathway, or way." But the primary usage of this word in the Old Testament is figurative, i.e. "journey, course, way."
"Inaugurate (start off) a child in the opening (entrance) to the course (journey, way) of life,...." That is, obviously, the parent's responsibility - to "start off a child in the opening to the pathway of life." Parents are to engage in guiding the child through the preliminaries of the course of life, admitting throughout that they are just trying to learn where the course goes, at the same time as the child is. We are not God! And we do not have it all figured out! We are there to assist them in getting a good start.
The second phrase of the verse provides a logical consequence of the first phrase: "...when he grows up, gets older..." The Hebrew word is zagen (2204), which comes from the root word which means "to have a beard." When he is old enough to have a beard, he will not depart or leave (Let's hope that we don't have to interpret that directly or literally and physically!) The Hebrew word sur (5493), translated "depart" in the KJV, does not mean that the child will never get surly! The word has numerous meanings, as translated in the Old Testament: "turn aside, defect, rebel, degenerate, escape, swerve, take off, turn off, wander, leave, get away, withdraw, be beheaded, be deprived, lack, etc. Does this mean that a child who is started on the way of life will not "lose his head," or "be turned off?" More likely it means that a child who is started on the opening of the way of life, when he grows up he will not lack foundation or lack direction. He will not flounder, because he will have been set off and directed on the right course! He will not be able to get away from the fact that he had a good beginning, and was pointed in the right direction.
That sounds logical, doesn't it? It explains parental responsibility, but does not send parents off on depressive guilt-trips about their inability to "play God" in the lives of their children. "Start off a child in the opening of the course of life, and when he grows up he will not lack direction." He may choose not to go in that direction, but he won't be able to get away from the fact that his life was inaugurated in that direction.
Misfocus on the Family
There are many popular approaches to explaining parenting and the family today. Dr. James Dobson seems to be the acknowledged "expert" on the family in evangelical Christendom, having published such books as Dare to Discipline and The Strong-willed Child, and having built a large ministry empire called "Focus on the Family." Within the recovery movement, it is John Bradshaw who provides the pop-psychological analysis and diagnosis of the family in his books and television specials. Bill Cosby has a popular comedic presentation in his television sit-coms, and in his book, Fatherhood.
One must question, however, whether these popular emphases constitute a misfocus on the family. Cosby's platitudes are funny, but rather flippant and flaccid. Bradshaw has some valid analyses of the problems in families, but seems to lack any real solutions. Dobson's religious background enmeshes him in child-training techniques that become legalistic rules and regulations; precepts and principles of proceduralism for parenting. Laughter, analysis, and formulaistic how-tos do not provide the parent with what is necessary to be the parent that God intended.
If we are to be Christian parents, our focus must be on Jesus Christ, rather than on family dynamics or on parental procedures. We are to "fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the author and finisher of our faith" (Heb. 12:2), which includes our faithful parenting. When Jesus Christ is allowed to function in the family, and His life is lived out through the parent, then we will see the family function as God designed it to function; not by formula, but by faith which is the receptivity of His activity.
As Christian parents we must recognize that "we are not adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God" (II Cor. 3:5). Jesus said, "Apart from Me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5), and that certainly applies to successful parenting. When we acknowledge our inability and weakness, then the strength and power of Christ becomes operative, and the grace of God is sufficient (II Cor. 12:9) in our parenting. Many a parent has come to that exasperating point where they cry out, "God, unless you do something in this family, it is going to be a total fiasco and failure!" God loves to hear that cry, for then He can begin to function as He desires.
Only God can do what really needs doing in the child's life anyway. Only God can convert and regenerate a child spiritually. Only God can save and sanctify a child, making them righteous and holy. Only God can make a Christian disciple out of your child, and develop His character in the child's personality.
What freedom and liberty there is in understanding the divine dynamic for Christian parenting! "It was for freedom that Christ set us free" (Gal. 5:1). Christian parents do not have to be, nor should they be, so tied up in knots, so uptight, about performing the parenting process precisely. We need to lighten up, relax, and enjoy the children God has blessed us with (Ps. 127:3).
Since Christian parents "have the mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16), they can "listen under" God in obedience; they can trust that whatever comes to their mind and "seems best" (Heb. 12:10) in their parental decision-making is, indeed, right. "Right" is the character of God expressed through us as parents, whatever decision we make; it is not a particular child-training technique. What freedom! What a release from condemnation (Rom. 8:1) there is in allowing for the spontaneity of the grace-dynamic of Christ's life in our parenting! We are even free to change our minds and decisions many times, and it can still be "right" as the divine character is expressed in love which seeks the highest good of the child.
Techniques and procedures of parenting are a "dime a dozen," and have little value or effect on the outcome of parenting. The majority of our parenting input is done so indirectly, so inadvertently, so incidentally, so indeliberately, as to be indiscernable! Parenting is based far more on what you are (personal being and identity), than what you do (procedurally). If your spiritual identity is that of a Christ-one, a Christian; and if you are available to allow the very Being of the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through you (behaviorally); then just "listen under" God in obedience, and enjoy your children! Let them "see" and "catch" what God has for them through you. The "hearing" of teaching and instruction, though important, is probably the least beneficial and constructive means of child development. If your child learned best by hearing, then he/she should know it by now, don't you think? If teaching were just telling, then kids would be brilliant! What children learn best (and they learn it early in life) is what they observe in the actions of their parent's lives, the behavioral expressions and the underlying motivations thereof. The dictum is true: "What you do speaks so loud, I can't hear what you say."
The essence of Christian parenting is the life of Jesus Christ lived out before our children. That expression of Christ's life cannot be orchestrated by techniques and procedures or by how-to formulas, but only as Christian parents are faithfully receptive to the divine dynamic of His activity. Christian parenting is primarily a life expression of "Christ, who is our life" (Col. 3:4; cf. Jn. 14:6). It is His life that we pray might be invested in and indwell our children, but we cannot effect that - only God can!
©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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