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Parenting: The manifesto

Monday, 29 November, 2010

I've been writing this post in my head for a while now, but haven't committed it to cyberspace because I felt like I needed a good slab of time to concentrate on writing it. However, as anyone who has children knows, decent slabs of time are hard to come by, and you take what you can get. So here it is, warts and all.

I've jokingly called it a “manifesto” because I want it to have all the revolutionary and idealistic connotations that manifestos have. Obviously it's expecting a bit much to achieve everything. Obviously I am setting myself up to fail from the very beginning. But I hope it outlines some of the principles I'm keeping in the back of my mind as I labour each day to raise Astrid (and any other children Ben and I have) in love and faithfulness.

The goal

I can't remember if I've said this before, but the goal of all of this is borrowed from one of Guan's friends (who is sort of also my friend in the we-get-along-but-haven't-seen-each-other-in-years-and-aren't-heaps-close sort of sense). Because of her background in social work, she said once that she aims to raise her children to be healthy and happy adults who are full contributing members of society. (I know that, like physical health, you can't always guarantee emotional health, but you can strive for it. I'm sure there are many things you can do as a parent to cultivate it.) I think of growing up as being like the fairy tales: after undergoing various trials, tests and initiation rites, the hero or heroine takes his/her place as a proper member of society. I don't subscribe to this “once my child, always my child” notion; I mean, in one sense, it's true, but what I mean by that is that I don't expect Astrid to stay a child forever; I expect and prepare for the day when she will grow up and stand on her own two feet as a capable and competent young woman, ready to leave the family “nest” to make her own way in the world. I know such an idea is, in some ways, terrifying (and perhaps that's why parents often want to infantilise their children—to keep them safe from the Big Bad World), but that's the way God has ordained (and ordered) life: children grow up and become adults. Our job as parents is to equip Astrid for life in God's world.

(A side note: I like what child prodigy Adora Svitak says about her parents in her TED talk—that their goal is to create better adults than themselves.)

With that in mind, let us proceed.

1. The world

I want to teach Astrid about the world. I don't feel like I know everything about the world, but what I do know, I want to pass onto her. I want to help her understand the world and how it works—the life cycle of plants and animals; the symbiotic relationship of all the beings of creation under God; governments and systems; where our food comes from; how people live in other parts of the world and why; economics; philosophy; politics; science; culture; the arts; and so on.

I want to help her understand how stuff works—not so much from an engineering point of view (because I don't really understand that sort of thing; I've completely forgotten all the stuff from high school science about electricity and physics), but stuff like how to get the things you need, how to get things done, how to travel from A to B, the structures and processes of cities, and so on.

Sorry, that's a bit vague. It exposes the gaps in my own knowledge! More specifically, I want to help Astrid understand people—what they are like, what makes them tick, what motivates them, who are the phonies, who are the manipulators, who you can trust, and who you can't.

Also more specifically, I want to teach her about life—that life is good, that suffering is inevitable (and not always to be avoided), that death is a part of life (and a sad one at that), that hard work reaps satisfying rewards, that too much choice isn't always a good thing, the 10,000-hour rule (i.e. that you can become great at anything if you do it for at least 10,000 hours [which is what separates the virtuosos from the dabblers]—see Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, chapter 2), and so on.

Speaking of Outliers, the inspiration for this entire section comes from chapter four of his book: “The trouble with geniuses, part 2”, where he talks about a study that sociologist Annette Lareau did in which she followed around 12 different families who had third grade kids in them for an extended period of time and recorded her observations. Curiously, she ends up identifying two distinct parenting philosophies that can be divided somewhat troublingly across socio-economic lines: middle class and lower class. The middle class parents took the time to engage their children, and were well-involved with their lives; the lower class parents were not, and regarded things like education the domain of schools and teachers. Lareau called the former “concerted cultivation”, which is “an attempt to ‘foster and assess a child's talents, opinions and skills’”. In contrast, “Poor parents tend to follow … a strategy of ‘accomplishment of natural growth.’ They see as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own” (Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, Penguin, London, 2009 [2008], p. 119.)

The next section is worth quoting at length:

Lareau stresses that one style isn't morally better than the other. The poorer children were, to her mind, often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making use of their own time, and had a well-developed sense of independence. But in practical terms, concerted cultivation has enormous advantages. The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences. She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to. In Lareau's words, the middle-class child learns a sense of “entitlement”.

That word, of course, has negative connotations these days. But Lareau means it in the best sense of the term: “They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preference and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings. They appeared comfortable in those settings; they were open to sharing information and asking for attention … It was common practice among middle-class children to shift interactions to suit their preferences.” …

By contrast, the working-class and poor chidlren were characterized by “an emerging sense of distance, distrust, and constraint.” They didn't know how to get their way, or how to “customize”—using Lareau's wonderful term—whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes. (pp. 119-120)

The next bit I am tempted to quote at length but I won't; I'll paraphrase (but I highly recommend that you read Outliers for yourself; it's fascinating). That section describes an interaction between a boy and his mother on the way to the doctor, as observed by Lareau. The mother is not only coaching her son in how to interact with doctors (“You know you can ask the doctor anything. Do you have any questions you want to ask him? How about you think of them now?”), but also instilling in him the notion that he has the right to speak up for himself—to ask his own questions, to interrupt to correct or to ask something when he doesn't understand. This helps him to understand implicitly that he is “special” and “a person worthy of adult attention and interest”—without the narcissism that could potentially go along with it.

What does this mean for Astrid? This bit piqued my interest less because of Gladwell's point (which was about the cultural advantages of class—which I also want Astrid to have), but more concerning the ways in which the middle-class parents in Lareau's study introduced their children to the world. I don't mean in the over-scheduling of extra-curricular activities and lessons, but in terms of that interaction in the car on the way to the doctor's between the mother and her son; the cultivation of interests; the engagement; the special trips to the museum or the theatre; and so on.

I don't feel like I'm making my point very well, so I'll just return to my opening statement: I want to introduce Astrid to and teach Astrid about the world.

2. Life skills

Teaching Astrid about the world is one thing; helping Astrid to survive in it is another. I want to teach Astrid life skills. I don't just mean household stuff—cooking, cleaning, laundry and so on—though all of that is very valuable, and I am thankful to my mother for teaching me all those things so that I could care for myself without having to rely on someone else to do those things for me. I also means tools like how to find out the information you need to do things; how to discover the answers to your questions (bearing mind that some questions cannot ever be answered); how to work things out; how to be a self-starter and take initiative; how to make things happen and get things done (structuredness and organisation vs. unstructuredness and spontaneity); how to strive for what you want; how to do research; how to network; basic comprehension of a variety of texts; and so on. I want to encourage Astrid's curiosity, interest, thirst for knowledge and desire to learn. I want to make her feel like she's not helpless—that she's got options—that the tools for how to live life are always at her disposal should she seek them.

A big one under this heading is how to handle money—budgeting, saving, responsible spending and frugality, giving (i.e. generosity), and, most importantly, how not to get trapped in materialism—that stuff is good, but you must not love it too much because it is also fleeting and will decay.

3. Creativity

I want to teach Astrid to be creative. I don't just mean creativity in the arts, which is what we often think of, but also creativity in problem-solving and thinking outside the box. It's debatable whether this can be taught, of course, so we'll see how we go.

I do want to pass on my skills to her in the arts—craft (knitting! Crocheting amigurumis!), bookbinding, (to a lesser extent) design and visual sensibilities (which I am not very good at), music (which is probably more Ben's domain), writing …

(Side note: are there weekly drawing lessons for kids the way there are weekly piano lessons for kids? I think that would be rather cool. If there aren't any, someone should start some …)

I also want to teach her about what I call the stages of creativity—brainstorming and inspiration (cultivating imagination); development; the everything-is-crap-and-I-suck stage; the first/second/third/subsequent drafts; hard work and the value of hard work; the value of making an appointment and showing up; and the value and satisfaction of finishing things (even if they are “imperfect”; perhaps imperfection is a necessity).

Obviously I'm not going to push her to become a writer/musician/knitter if that's not what she wants to do; I do want her to lead so that I will encourage and nurture her gifts and interests. These are just some of the things that I feel equipped to teach her, and for everything else, I can probably hire someone.

4. Work, rest and play

I want to teach Astrid how to work, rest and play. This is not as obvious as it sounds.

I want to teach her the value of work—that work can be hard, but it can also be rewarding; that work is necessary and a duty (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 stuff) in that we work to keep ourselves from the dangers of idleness and to provide for ourselves so that we are not a burden to others (and in addition, if you are a member of a household, you must contribute to the household and do your chores), and so on.

I also want to teach her how to rest. In a sense, I'm doing that now, because strangely, sleep has to be taught. (I could write a whole blog post on that, but I won't.) The phrase “sleeps like a baby” is wrong because babies are bad sleepers. For newborns, a parent's job is to identify when the baby is tired (with things like yawning, jerky movements, the rubbing of eyes) and help the baby enter a relaxed state so that sleep comes naturally. If you don't do this for your child, he or she will become really really cranky and irritable by the end of the day, and will most likely scream his/her head off. (Yes, I speak from experience!) I want Astrid to learn to identify when she's tired and put herself to sleep. (Side note: In some ways, there is a certain irony in me teaching Astrid how to sleep because I am so rotten at it myself.)

Sleep is only one aspect of rest though; rest also has to do with self-care and R&R activities (play). Rest is important for our godliness, because when we are well-rested, we are less irritable and less likely to sin against others and God. I want to teach Astrid to make time for rest (to “work hard and play hard”, as DA Carson's mother used to say—see Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor)—resting on weekends and during holidays (holidays are things I am bad at taking and planning for), about how to enjoy life and the things of life, about how to take things slow. I want to introduce Astrid to things that are pleasurable—like reading (and yes, even though I know she's only three months old and can't really understand me, I read to her every day), watching movies, hanging out with friends, and so on.

Of course, I don't want Astrid to develop the mentality that the world must entertain her; she must learn to develop her own amusements and learn how to amuse herself (Margot Sutherland, in in What Every Parent Needs to Know, talks about getting your child started in play so that they have a springboard from which to let their imagination fly. I find it interesting that even here, play is not instinctual and natural; children need guidance). And even though Sutherland talks about how boredom is stressful for children (drawing on Eric Bern's work on psychological hungers—particularly the need for stimulation), I agree with Neil Gaiman that a little boredom is a good thing because “You get ideas from being bored” (and Peter Bregman argues that boredom is essential for creativity).

5. Mental health

I want to teach Astrid good mental health. Again, it's arguable whether such a thing can be taught. I guess what I want is to be able to help her understand her own mind and what causes her to tick (good self-awareness). I want her to be mindful of her emotions and what they are pointing to (as opposed to suppressing them), along with what affects her moods and why. I want to help her learn how to deal with big emotions (which Sutherland also talks about—but in the context of fear, rage, disappointment and sadness; in adults, I think the big emotions become much more complex and need to be separated out into their components).

I want to teach her how to identify and manage stress (whether she is a structured person or an unstructured person). I want to teach her how to enjoy life without over-indulging herself (balance). I want to teach her to take responsibility for the things that are hers and leave the things that are not hers for others (boundaries). I want her to understand the way life affects mood—the things that are objectively sad and objectively good. In short to achieve the “tasks of adulthood”, if I can call them that.

And of course an essential part of that is being other-person-centred (in the words of D Broughton Knox, drawing on the theology of the Trinity—that God is relationship within himself and lays down the ultimate example of other-person-centredness [as opposed to self-centredness]). I want to teach Astrid how to listen, how to be empathetic and sympathetic, how to understand others and put herself in their shoes, and how to love and care for others appropriately in their mental travails.

6. God

This leads me to my last topic: I want to raise Astrid to know the Lord. Other-person-centredness is rooted in knowing the Triune God, and the only way to know God is by reading his word in the Bible. Even though she's only three months old and she probably can't understand it, I've been reading Astrid the children's Bible my Bible study group gave her at the baby shower they threw me. It's shorter and a lot of the stories are paraphrased (and therefore don't always make sense), but I think it's a good habit to get into as one day, I hope to read the entire Bible with her. (I've been rather inspired by David Martin reading the Bible with his sons.) Obviously this is a long-term project! But hopefully in the end, my desire for her is that she will love God's word as much as I do, and will develop a natural tendency towards Bible reading and prayer.

In knowing God, I want her to understand God's perspective on the world—how Jesus is the heir and ruler of all (Ephesians 1), how we have sinned against him (Romans 3), why death is in the world (because of sin—Hebrews 9:27), why death is not the end because of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15), how having God's eternal perspective changes the way you view life, death and everything (eschatology), and so on.

In addition, in knowing God, I want to raise Astrid to be a godly woman in his sight—transformed into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29). This means teaching her to love God first and foremost, and love others above herself. It means other-person-centredness (as discussed above). It means being generous and sharing what she has. It means being considerate, kind, compassionate, forgiving, slow to anger, gentle, self-controlled, and all the other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).

A final corollary of knowing God means what Matthias Media would call “ministry mindedness”—the idea that knowing God transforms the way you live so that you live to serve him and his people, abandoning your life for Christ's sake. I realise that it may be hard for me to watch Astrid do that (especially if she decides to become a missionary in a war zone), but nevertheless, my child belongs to God more than she does to me, and I must accept his will for her life because I love him. I want to cultivate in her a desire to spread the good news, to further God's kingdom, to build others up and (if necessary) train them—in other words, to facilitate what Matthias Media calls the gospel growth process.


Reading over all of this, I realise how ambitious it sounds. Furthermore, I am cowed by how inadequate I am for the task—how terrible I am at some of the things I'm advocating. But it strikes me that this is what parenting is like: you aim high and do your best, and trust God with the rest. Right?

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Sounds like an ambitious long-term project, and a good breadth and depth. Next step is the short-term plan that you’re going to use for, say the next three months.

What? Why???

That plan is on a really, really long timeframe (somewhere between 5 and 20 years by my reckoning) - if you want to achieve things on any plan that covers that kind of timeframe, I think it needs to be broken down into smaller pieces that you can check off as you go.

Completely subjective, of course: as with all parenting, you need to work out the path that works for you.

Hmm, will have to think about that. With this manifesto, I was thinking more in terms of broad trajectories rather than specifics (though I do have a few specifics in mind, e.g. reading to Astrid for as long as she will let me smile



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