I heard a story yesterday about an unbelievable stunt pulled by a precocious tweener boy. Get this: he went off to do his own thing at a big public event, crowded with family and strangers. Didn’t tell anyone where he was going, or apparently think for a moment about how worried his parents would be. Which they were, when they realized he was missing — “great anxiety” was how his mother described the search experience. When they finally found him and scolded him, saying, “Why have you treated us like this?!” Did he apologize? Was he chagrined? No – instead he basically said, “Why didn’t you know I’d be here, Mom?”
This story immediately brought to my mind two inter-related response threads in comments to Ruth Padawer’s story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, one of which is “the problem is these overly permissive parents,” and the other of which is “like it or not, cultures have social norms for a reason and it is a parent’s duty to uphold them” (which I may write about tomorrow).
Here is a taste of comments that express the former thread, all from the online posting of the article:
To accept the premise that the individual – whoever grabs their fifteen minutes of fame – is to define our society as a whole, and we are to continually submit our moral and behavioral standards over to the norm of that individual, is a construct that will destabilize any society to its own destruction. –Reese, Naples, FL
Experimentation is normal for that age, but in these early years it’s the parents responsibility to guide the child according to societal norms and values. If your preschooler has determined to never share toys as part of their “identity”, is that something you would encourage? —RCB Cleveland, OH
This has convinced me never to have children. I could not possibly handle this abnormal behavior. Perhaps that is why the birth rate for litetate people is so low. Reading this article makes me feel so sad or the children and the bullying they will have to endure. –Don Noonan, Bethesda
Is parenting so hard for some of you that you’re willing to let your kid indulge in every fantasy, rather than do your duty, and give your child boundaries? –Rick W. Dallas
“Gender fluid” children? How about useless, gutless excuses for “parents”? How much more screwed up can our country get before it collapses in to big, stinking, unworkable garbage pile. Unlimited “freedom” without any discipline, limits or self-control, whether it is Wall Street bankers or so-called “parents”, always leads to depravity and destruction. God help these “boys”! –Michael, Colorado
So what kind of kid feels that his need to “do his own thing” trumps society’s rules, and what kind of parents let him get away with it? Too bad Jesus and his folks aren’t here to ask — he’s the kid described in the story I heard yesterday.
In our Sunday School class, we’re studying the Gospels in parallel – comparing the ways Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. The story I began this post with, found only in Luke (2:41-52) is the only story about Jesus’ childhood in the New Testament between the age of 2 and the beginning of his ministry. How interesting that it is a story about bucking the system, about doing what he felt called to do rather than doing what he was expected to! (“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”)
Perhaps more than anything, it’s a story about his parents, trying to figure out how to respond to a kid who’s obviously special, but who seems really out of line in the moment. Pause for a moment to really imagine how they felt — it took them three days to find him. Absorb that panic and worry, the self-recrimination that you thought he was off with aunt Elizabeth and didn’t make sure he was OK earlier, etc. And then when you finally find him, he says, “What? Didn’t you know I’d need to be here?” Before you start thinking how much easier it would be for them, since they already knew he was the Son of God and all, the very next sentence says, “But they did not understand what he said to them.”
And then there’s an interesting little tidbit – they go on back home to Nazareth and he “was obedient to them.” It’s like Luke was letting us know that it’s not that Jesus was a bad kid. He was generally obedient and all the things a good Jewish boy should be. And presumably that’s what his parents thought as well – “He’s a good kid who generally toes the line, does what he’s told, and respects our authority. I guess this particular issue was something somehow different, and really important. I’m not sure what it means, but we need to pay attention to it.” Yep, that resonates with me.
I find it laughable that some readers of Padawer’s piece immediately assume that we’re a bunch of wishy-washy lefty liberals who let our kids walk all over us. (I find it laughable to assume that lefty liberals are wishy-washy for that matter; ever heard of Anne Braden? But that’s another post.) I expect that most people who know me would not characterize my parenting that way!
If anything, my partner and I emphasize self-control. Your experience as our kid would include: If you interrupt while we’re talking, you’re ignored. We can’t understand whiny voices, so better try again with a big-kid voice. If I have to intervene in a sibling argument, you’re both standing against the wall. You will say please and thank you. You will use Mr. and Ms. when you speak to adults. You will ask for things politely. (I have been known to respond to “I want!” with my favorite Jessica Lang line from Sweet Dreams: “People in hell want ice water, but that don’t mean they get it.”)
When our son was little, he was so anxious about talking to people that he would not say thank you for gifts. So he had to make thank-you notes instead. (I may not have always managed to get them in the mail, but we were consistent about requiring them!) Of course, politeness can be fun: Around the holidays, our family plays the Present Game, where each person takes a turn finding an object around the house, wrapping it up, and presenting it to another. The recipient has to say thank you for the gift with a concrete reason that it is great. We try to stump each other with ridiculous items, and have great fun coming up with reasons like, “Thank you so much for this broken pencil. I love using my new pencil sharpener so I’ll really enjoy this!”
Are we perfect? Of course not. Do our kids wear us down sometimes? Sure. And they’re both drama royals who have occasional melt-downs, too. But the notion that we let our kids do whatever they want is ludicrous. It seems to be based on an intense discomfort with the idea that this particular self-expression could be fundamental, long-lasting and overpowering rather than a whim, and/or the belief that letting children express individuality is the same as spoiling them.
I’m not comparing my kids to Jesus. They have a hard enough time most days drinking their water without spilling it; I’m not looking for them to turn it into wine any time soon. But I find it really interesting that Luke sets up this choice for parents and leaves us to wonder: what do we gain if we allow our child’s self-expression or individuality to flourish, and what do we as a society lose if we don’t?
(Luke is also the Gospel that gives us the birth story of John the Baptist, which contains a story of parents choosing individual expression for their son — his name — over the cultural expectation, leaving people to wonder, “What, then, is this child going to be?”)