Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pandora's Box

Proverbs 13:24: "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him."

There it is: one of the most controversial statements in the Old Testament. (Right behind "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".)

Interestingly, the OT is full of people who are successful in some way yet their kids run wild: King David and Eli are the first 2 that come to mind. But it certainly seems like the Hebrew Scriptures don't contain much good parenting material. But here it is: Don't spare the rod.

Of course there are scholarly debates about what this means exactly. Does he literally mean a 'rod', like something you would hit your son with? What were ancient rods like? Can I find one on Ebay? Are they in the toddler section? Do I have to upgrade to a preteen rod at some point? Or was that an idiom simply meaning 'discipline' (as suggested by the second half of the saying.)

Then there are a plethora of studies trying to link spanking children with violent behavior in later childhood all the way to adulthood. They are not, as a whole, completely convincing, mostly falling prey to the 'correlation vs. causation' distinction and/or the presence of numerous secondary factors. So what are we to make of this?

I thought about this yesterday when I was very angry at one of my children. My first two thoughts were: A: This is not entirely his fault, I could have been in a better mood to begin with; and B: if I were to hit him it would be simply to placate my own anger, rather than discipline him. (PS I was not seriously considering hitting him, but even in my frustrated state I took the time to reflect. I know, I'm weird like that. It's like a story I heard in a Brennan Manning book about a man being chased by people trying to kill him. The man jumps off a cliff and grabs onto a bush at the last second that happens to have strawberries on it. Hanging from the cliff with the potential killers above him he takes a bite of a strawberry and thinks: "That's the best strawberry I've ever tasted"...Yeah, I'm like that guy.)

I have in fact gotten into this argument with other believers before because I have never spanked my kids. I just don't see any Scriptural justification for it. This is besides raising the question I did earlier--at what point does it stop being about their discipline and start becoming about our anger? This is a classic threshold argument. What behaviors deserve spanking? When is my heart-rate too high for me to begin spanking my child? What criterion can we objectively employ to make this choice in a morally satisfying way? Additionally, it raises the question of my own sinfulness. If I were to spank in anger, would that not be rather sinful?

I could take it a step further and apply just war theories to spanking, but for the sake of my audience let's not go that far. Essentially, I believe that redemptive violence is a myth (the death penalty, for example, works insofar as it prevents a criminal from committing anymore crimes. But morally it is bankrupt--and it has not been shown to be a deterrent to other criminals. Notice how in Genesis God tries to stop this cycle of violence by PROTECTING Cain after he murders his brother...I don't have space to go into this here, but if you are interested read "The War of the Lamb" or "What Would You Do?" by John Howard Yoder.) So if redemptive violence is a myth on a large scale, why would it be effective on a small scale? Certainly it can work inasmuch as it can temporarily change behavior. But it does not help us make connections, and it leaves the door open for future bad behavior because at the concept of violence itself is not challenged. 

I've heard the phrase: "Violence is for a world that has lost its imagination". And I think the same is essentially true for spanking. Coming up with a punishment that fits the crime is psychologically effective and is morally defensible. For example, one day (some time ago) Natalie hit me with some toy she had. I simply took the toy and threw it in the trash. Lesson learned, and one fewer toy cluttering my house.

So my case is not that people who spank their children are evil or bad parents. I am also not making the case that kids who were spanked are more violent than those who weren't. Rather, I am simply explaining how I came to my decision not to spank my children. I believe it can be argued coherently from a Christian perspective. It also gives more integrity to my authority when I say: "Just because he hits you, it's NOT OK to hit him back!"

Peace and love,

PS> Please, if you are not convinced disagree gently...spare me the literal rod :)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Making Memories

So one of the things I've done in the last 2 months (since last writing) was go on vacation. Two adults, two kids, one car, 3,000 mile round trip.

What is your first reaction? Is it something like: 'You're crazy!', or is it more like 'I can't wait to do that with MY kids!'?

Actually my kids were amazing. My wife was on the phone and I was driving when the trip mile counter passed 1,000. The kids were in the backseat laughing with each other. It's hard to ask more of them than that! So anyway, the discipline part of the trip was pretty easy. I'm not going to write about how to pacify kids on a road trip.

The more important question that comes up, at least in my mind, regards how important experiences like this are. I have memories I will take with me from this vacation: having to dive under a wave with Natalie on my shoulders then miraculously finding her sunglasses in the ocean over a minute later, listening to a master storyteller at the local library, listening to the 4 cousins on the baby monitor as they pretended to sleep, Jonah getting really excited about gas stations and hotels...and many others.

But will my kids remember any of it? What is the biggest benefit of going on a trip like this with them?

I would suspect that most people would say it is quality time with our children and even if they don't remember it per se they are still bonding with us and their quality of life increased.

In fact, as I think about it, I think these events become an integral part of the fabric of who we are as a family. We know who we are as a family because of the stories we share together. The things we do as a family end up defining us. It's not altogether different from how they used to talk about God in the Old Testament. They always emphasize His actions: "The God of our fathers, who brought us out of Egypt..."

In the end, we do the same thing with our families. When we get together with our grown brothers and parents we retell the same old stories over and over--not because we don't know them but because that's where our identity comes from. ('Hey, do you remember that one time when we set off the alarm at grandpa's house in our swimsuits?' 'Or how about when your brother got stung by a bee rolling down that hill?') We are a family because we have a shared narrative that gives depth to who we are.

If we are not focusing on creating memories with our children, we are failing to give them this gift. If we are not giving opportunities to actually SHARE life together with them we will lose this extremely important part of what it means to be a family. I sincerely hope that when my kids get older they don't think: "Dad was gone all the time working" or "my childhood was so boring..." I hope they get together as adults and retell the stories of our family. Their individual identities will be better formed, paradoxically, by the events and stories they share with the whole family. These stories are a far more important gift than anything material I could give them.