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A Forbidden Topic
At a retreat at which I (Dr. Cloud) spoke recently, the discussion at the lunch table turned to parenting. At first, people talked about their children. But soon they started talking about particular parenting philosophies and practices. I remembered what my childhood barber once told me: 'If you want to stay friends with people, don't talk about religion or politics.' I think he should have added parenting to his list of forbidden topics.
As the table discussion progressed, battle lines were drawn. In fact, I was reminded of Buffalo Springfield's classic song of the '60s, 'For What It's Worth':
Battle lines bein' drawn;
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong.
People carrying signs:
Mostly saying, 'Hurrah for my side.'
Although people were prefacing their remarks with conversational niceties, I could feel the underlying tension.
On one end of the spectrum, my luncheon partners advocated structure and control at the expense of everything else. To raise an obedient child is the most important thing. On the other end, they advocated love over structure. Having a child feel loved and secure in love is primary. Structure plays a secondary role.
Then there were those who emphasized the sinfulness of children. According to them, if you didn't seize every opportunity to focus on getting control of the little sinners, you would lose them for sure. Still others emphasized the inherent goodness and innocence of children, feeling that they only sin when they have been first mistreated by the outside world.
The tone of their voices and the expressions on their faces revealed that each saw the other side as a villain. Where is this conflict coming from? I thought to myself. Why can't they just discuss their viewpoint without vilifying those who disagree? As I listened further, some things made sense. I understood why there was so much passion around the table.
My luncheon partners were not talking philosophy after all. They were talking about something much closer to home. They were discussing four aspects of their lives in which they had invested their very hearts:
1. Their children's welfare
2. Their community
3. Their own welfare
4. Their God
When I understood the role that each of these 'heartbeats' played in their discussion of childrearing, I got it. There should be passion surrounding an issue that touches on the things they care about the most. Let's look at each and see why.
First, in terms of their children's welfare, these people wanted the best for them. What would help their children be healthy now and secure for the future? What discipline would give their children the ability to say no to drugs? What would help them to succeed in school? How do parents make sure that their children grow up to be capable of intimacy and love? What can they do in a child's early years to prevent divorce later on?
For these reasons, parents can hardly stay neutral when talking about parenting practices. After all, what they decide to do might affect several generations, much less the next handful of years. Because parents love their children, parenting philosophy is more than an academic topic.
Second, in terms of community, these parents were not alone. Instilled in their thinking were the admonitions of the people with whom they live day-to-day. Their friends, families, and church groups were all telling them what to do. Many were members of some particular parenting group at their local church, meeting regularly to learn how to be the parents their children need. Others received regular input from their own parents, grandparents, or other extended family. Still others received advice from their close circle of friends and other support systems.
So this topic couldn't be neutral. To entertain an idea about what to do with a crying infant that is different from what the group tells you to do might put you at odds with your closest friends or support system.
Think of the pressure on a young parent who wants to discipline a certain way, or raise a teenager with certain limits different from those of her pastor or her mother. You are no longer just talking about the child. When you parent, you invite conflict with those who care about you and who care about your child.
Third, when one talks about parenting, he is not just talking about his child. He is also talking about his own welfare, or the welfare of his marriage. After all, isn't your life greatly affected by how your children are doing? Don't you want to be able to sleep through the night and not have to feed a crying infant eight times? Don't you want to be able to spend that savings account on a family vacation and not drug treatment? Don't you want to have a loving and playful conversation around the dinner table instead of constant bickering? And don't you want to be able to avoid the broken heart of watching your child live out a life of pain?
So when a parent talks about parenting, he is talking not only about the welfare of the child but about his own welfare also. It becomes understandable why a parent cannot just listen neutrally to a discussion about what to do with an infant or a teenager. The topic concerns him in a very deep and personal way.
And finally --- something that would probably surprise my barber --- a discussion on parenting styles is a discussion about religion after all. It is a discussion about morals, values, and responsibility to the God who entrusted that child to the parents' safekeeping for eighteen or more years. Try suggesting to a devout believer of a particular philosophy of parenting that this philosophy is just a 'secular theory,' not really something God would approve of. Those are fighting words. The discussion can quickly escalate from potty training to whether or not the parent is a 'true believer' or a heretic. To change or entertain a new idea threatens a larger belief system and one's own view of true spirituality.