Parents – Keep to the Middle of the Road (part 2)
In my last post I described the markings of "right-side" and "left-side" parenting. I attempted to explain how that though the motivations that undergird these forms of parenting are very good in and of themselves, they actually become harmful to children once they are focused on exclusively.
Right-side parents place a premium on justice. They believe that their child is most benefited by consistent corrective measures (chiding, grounding, spanking, etc.) in response to their disobedience. The expected result is God-fearing obedience, though all it often produces is parent-fearing obedience that rarely takes root in the heart.
In contrast to this, left-side parents place a premium on mercy. They believe that their child is most benefited by consistent affirmation (verbal praise, encouragement, rewards, etc.) in response to their, well, in response to just about everything. The expected result is a happy, vibrant, flourishing child, though all it often results in is a sullen sense of entitlement and misguided self-confidence.
What about middle of the road parenting? What does that look like? In short, it takes the defining qualities of both sides of the road and combines them into one.
This is, of course, easier said than done. Imagine for a moment what it would be like to get parents from both sides of the road into the same room. You know that nervous, awkward parting of the crowd that takes place at junior high dances? (And if you haven't experienced it you've probably seen it.) The same thing would happen here, except the parting would't take place along lines of gender, it would be parenting philosophies.
The point is, these two philosophies don't play nice together. The one is always trying to claim it's superior to the other. Maybe you've experienced this tension in your own home? One day you catch your child misbehaving and you punish them quickly and decisively. Later that night, you're lying in bed and a voice from the left side of the road says, "You know, that was a very harsh, what you did today. You saw the hurt in their eyes, didn't you? Let's go softer tomorrow - what do you say?"
The next day comes and your child misbehaves again, but this time you bite your tongue, smile, and in as mild a voice as you can muster gently explain to them why they shouldn't have done that. The child pauses for a moment and you feel the flutterings of gratification in your heart. But just as the first syllable of the phrase, "I told you so," sounds from the left side of the road, the child, determined to call your bluff, doubles down on her misbehavior. Now the right-side pipes up. "You can't allow this. You know she's making a fool of you, right? You're the parent! You don't negotiate with children! Make her stop - this instant!"
It's a distressing back and forth as these two sides constantly vie for your attention. To be sure, both sides make good points, but you have to find a way to avoid these violent shifts from one side to the other. You need to strike a balance by discerning when a given situation calls for justice over mercy, and vice versa; and there is only one power that can enable you to do this.
Love is the only thing that can keep you from getting torn apart by these opposing sides. If you love your children, you'll give them what they need. Sometimes they need mercy and sometimes they need justice but applying one when the situation calls for the other can quickly become confusing and discouraging to your child. As Jesus said, "Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay."
Take for instance the spilt glass at dinner time. For some reason (I'm not sure why) this is terribly distressing to most parents. This is generally right-side territory as some parents nearly scream at their child for committing such a clumsy act; but is this really what the situation calls for? Is it what love demands? No. We should be patient with our young ones, showing compassion and understanding towards their mistakes as we allow them room to grow. We were spilling milk at the table once too.
Or what about when parents learn of true misbehavior and act like it never happened? What about when children lie or physically harm others to get their own way? Apparently this is of no consequence to some parents. They betray their left-side leanings by permitting the child to continue in their error with little to no correction; but is this what the situation calls for? Is this what love demands? No. We must be quick to correct our children when they commit such acts for by so doing they may be delivered from turning down a forbidden road.
Remember that awkward parting of the room that I spoke about earlier – the left and right sides of the road congregating with their own and murmuring about each other? Our job is to get them to mingle; to bring them together and allow them to balance one another out. When we're tempted to focus solely on our child's misbehavior and our days are dominated by yelling, correction, and frustration we should seek for the tender mercies of our Heavenly Father and allow him to show us how to humbly guide our children down the narrow way. And when we're tempted to lazily pass over our children's misbehavior as if it were of no consequence, we should remember the justice of God and how he corrects those who are out of the way in order to bring them back to the place of blessing.
In the end, it's neither justice nor mercy that dictates how God responds to his children, but love. So it should be with us. Keeping to either the left or right side of the road as we parent our children is not a display of love, but selfishness and our children are too precious for our parenting to be governed by that. Parents – keep to the middle of the road.