Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Functional Orphans: How Lack of Discipline Hurts Children

I was in the church nursery the other day and I noticed again how interactions with my own children are different from interactions with other people's children. My children are my responsibility. Thus, when my children misbehave, I correct and discipline them. But when I am watching someone else's child, there's not a lot I can do to correct their misbehavior. I can gently encourage them not to hit, bite, or push other children and tell them it's not nice and then try to redirect them, but it's not my place to discipline them or explain to them why they should be kind to others. That is the job of their own parents.

So why am I telling you this? It occurred to me that this soft, hands-off approach we use for dealing with unruly children in the nursery is no longer reserved for temporary caretakers in our society. Many are pushing parents to treat their own children in this way - never punishing or correcting them, but only gently encouraging them to behave and redirecting them to other activities. This isn't fringe either. It's pretty mainstream advice.

It's no surprise, given this approach, that so many children these days are badly behaved, anxious, and lack self-control. But it's not just poor parenting to allow children to disobey and hurt others and throw fits and so on without disciplining them. It's treating the children as if they were someone else's children. It's a failure to parent at all.

The Bible has something to say about this topic as well.
Hebrews 12:6-8 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
So, the Bible tells us that parents who don't discipline their children are treating them as if they were not their children. Discipline is one of the main responsibilities of parents. Undisciplined children are functional orphans. They have no parents. They have someone who meets basic physical needs and manages them so they don't get seriously injured, much like a daycare worker might, but they aren't getting the training they desperately need. They aren't being disciplined.

Why doesn't anybody notice this? A large part of the reason is that our society has a hollow and abbreviated understanding of the role of parents. Everything is supposed to be delegated to a professional these days. Education? That's what school teachers are for. Spiritual training? Take them to church to be taught. Sports? Find a good coach.

The one thing most people still agree that parents are supposed to do for their children is foot the bill for all their collection of experiences. But if your view of parenting is that it’s a mostly managerial position involving paying for a host of experts to provide your child with the proper inputs and making sure they appear at the proper places at the proper times, that’s a poor substitute for actual parenting. (It also makes sense of the weird trend to ask parents of large families how they intend to pay for all their children’s luxuries like a college education. I guess if the main role of parents is to pay for everything, you better not have too many kids or else it gets expensive and you might not be able to afford the best experts.)

Along with this view of parenting, you get the rise of the term “quality time.” Rather than spend quantity time with their children (which is how almost all parents did it in the past), parents today are encouraged to spend quality time. This is usually interpreted as having special, memorable experiences together on the rare occasions you are together, often involving the spending of lots of money (are you seeing a trend here?). Parents don’t have the opportunity to spend quantity time with their kids because they’re too busy making money to pay for all the quality time. In those special times when parents are actually present with their children and actively engaged, they are trying so hard to have pleasant “quality time” that they don’t want to ruin the moment with such unpleasant matters as discipline. They don’t want to be the bad guy when they finally interact with their kids. So I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that the rise of laissez-faire parenting coincides with the rise of absent and distracted parents.

Of course, not all households with two busy, working parents fail to discipline their children. And even some otherwise involved parents have fallen for the “gentle parenting” nonsense that says they should never punish their children. These are societal trends, not descriptions of any particular homes. But there is a lot of overlap.

The sad thing about these trends is that many children today are suffering a tremendous lack of parenting. They are growing up as functional orphans. There is no substitute for careful, involved, loving parents who discipline their children and teach them. This necessarily requires quantity time, not just quality time. You can’t raise children by long distance or by a collection of babysitters, teachers, coaches, and other professionals (or grandparents). You have to be there. And you have to discipline your children. They need it desperately.