Several years ago, when I was pastoring in Chicago, I was talking with a couple whose son had just been sent to prison for the second time. In reflecting on their childrearing and what they had done right and wrong during their son’s formative years, they finally concluded, “I guess we just loved him too much.” I didn’t say anything in response because I didn’t want to add to the already heavy load of guilt they were carrying. I knew, however, that the problem was not that they had loved their son too much. It’s impossible to love someone too much. True love is freeing. True love is empowering. True love gives us the foundation of confidence and security we need to face all that life will throw at us.
No, the problem was not that this couple had loved their child too much. The problem was that they hadn’t love him enough—at least not in the right away. Had this couple had the insight needed for real reflection, they would have realized that the real problem had nothing to do with love but, rather, insecurity. The problem was that they feared putting limits on their child. They feared their child’s anger, their child’s disapproval, their child’s rejection. So, rather than put limits on their son, they continually gave in to him thus preventing him from learning to put limits on himself. This is not the pure love of a parent but a parent’s insecure need for approval masquerading as love. In an article entitled, “Can We Love Our Children Too Much?” Kenny Vaughan has said: “The reason we don’t want to hurt another’s feelings is rarely if ever about the other person. Too many times parents fear getting hurt themselves by drawing their child’s disfavour. We want to be our child’s good friend instead of the parent they need us to be.” How true this is. Our kids have enough friends but only (at most) two parents. Be a parent to your kids, not a friend.
In his article, Vaughn suggests principles to help us love our children in healthy ways:
Be consistent; but let them win . . . sometimes. Our kids need to know the boundaries of appropriate behaviour. And there needs to be consistent consequences for crossing those boundaries. This gives kids a sense of security. It’s incredibly frustrating for a child to have no clear understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This does not mean that we never make exceptions to rules. A good parent always takes extenuating circumstances into consideration. A teenage daughter missing a curfew because of unavoidable circumstances may need to be shown grace not judgment. Still, boundaries need to be maintained and exceptions should be just that—exceptions.
Discipline . . . with love. We should never disciple our children out of anger. Now, I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it. We’re at our wit’s end and our child has just made one smart-alecky comment too many and we blow up. This shows that even parents are human. We’re human and we make mistakes. Still, the goal of discipline should be to teach more than to punish. The goal of discipline is to teach our children to do the right thing even when it hurts. And this kind of teaching, this kind of discipline can never take place in a fit of anger.
Don’t do everything for your kids. Vaughan writes: “The hardest part of parenting for me is wanting to do everything for my kids instead of making them get their own hands dirty. It’s impossible for our children to grow emotionally and spiritually and to learn, if we do everything for them.” This is a lesson my father taught me. When I was a teenager, my dad owned a cottage on a piece of land which was partly surrounded by water. One day, a big storm swept over this piece of land, leaving behind what looked like a thousand little stones and pebbles. The morning after the storm Dad took me down there and asked me to pick up the rocks. “But Dad,” I said, “there are so many; I don’t know where to begin.” Dad’s succinct response has never left me: “Son,” he said, “start with one rock.” I did and several hours later all the stones were picked up. I’ve never forgotten this lesson and it has served me well in pastoral ministry.
The Bible speaks of the kind of love we’ve been talking about: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).
There are never any guarantees when it comes to raising children. I have seen the most dysfunctional families produce amazingly balanced children and absolutely wonderful parents raise troubled children. When, however, we put our kids’ long-term best interests over our own insecurities and need for approval, we stand the best chance of raising children who will grow into balanced adults and contributing members of society. And isn’t that the goal of parenting?