Monday, April 8, 2013

Parenting : What is your goal?

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a story that he called the best thing he had read in a long time. After reading the article I was left with the question, I wonder what the author's goal was in parenting her children? I have 5 kids (one in heaven now), and I know that I do not have it all figured out. Therefore, Traci and I have done quite a bit of research on parenting, both from a Christian perspective and from a secular perspective. We have done this not just as a clinical exercise but because at times we just do not know what to do next. Therefore this article intrigued me because I am always trying to examine parenting ideas and techniques for myself and for others who ask me for advice.

The article is titled "How Machiavelli Saved My Family," and it tells the story of a mom who took principles from the Italian statesman and philosopher, Machiavelli, and applied them to raising her kids. Machiavelli had a philosophy that emphasizes the use of power to accomplish goals. He wrote primarily to give advice to help the ruling class be more effective.

Some of the principles from Machiavelli's book, The Prince, she applied to raising her kids are: (I summarized the points.)
  1. Do not let your kids have everything they want, because in the long run it will not be good for you or them. She recommends giving them some money of their own to spend so that they can learn how to be more responsible and not nag you for stuff.
  2. Encourage your kids to compete with one another to spur them to accomplish more.
  3. Provide consistent discipline to help your kids learn how to behave.
  4. It is okay to be a little immoral if the goal is good enough to justify it. The example she used was lying to her kids about what she and her husband were doing one weekend so that they could have some much needed away time.
  5. To maintain good control it is okay to use power even against your spouse. The example she gave was withholding sex for the purpose of getting him to agree to her plans for the family.
Now, I have not read Machiavelli myself, so I cannot say whether Ms. Evans, accurately interpreted  him, but I believe my summaries accurately reflect what her ideas. Furthermore, I agree that consistent discipline and teaching about not getting everything you want are great lessons that we all should learn.

On the other hand, Ms. Evan's Machiavellian principles for parenting seem to reveal that she has a wrong understanding of what the goal of a parent should be, especially when compared to the biblical standard of parenting. As a Christian, my goal in parenting my kids is to encourage them to follow Jesus with their whole heart. In other words, parenting is really discipling my kids in their relationship with God. This does not just mean that I just want them to look like Christian externally, but that I want to encourage them to have a personal relationship with the true God of the universe and that their hearts would be oriented toward him. The best material I can recommend in helping understand this goal and giving practical advice toward this end is Shepherding a Child's Heart, by Ted Tripp or for teens, Age of Opportunity, by Paul David Tripp (they are brothers).

As I was reading the article, I could see Ms. Evans had some wrong parenting goals listed by the Tripp brothers in their books. For example, it is clear that Ms. Evans highly valued a controlled and orderly environment in her household and that before applying these principles she did not have those things. Now having an orderly household is not a bad thing, I would suspect that most people value this as well, but if it becomes the goal, then it can be accomplished through means of use of power while at the same time not touching the hearts of the kids.

Another example is the use of competition between the kids to get them to do better in school. Again, I have no problem with encouraging kids to live up to their potential, but the way that she was doing it shows that she had both the wrong goal and techniques that could lead to other problems. She was clearly teaching her kids that their identity and acceptance was tied to their performance in academics. Now again, I am not saying that we should not encourage our kids to succeed in school, but often the report card is a symbol of value of the individual, not just a measure of personal growth.

Furthermore, she was also teaching them their identity was measured in comparison to other people. So life is all about measuring yourself compared to others, and in particular compared to other according to specific standards of success as given by education. This mentality leads some to arrogance because they are now better than others and are rewarded for proving they are better, and it can lead others to despair because they can never measure up. Where in these measure is love for one another? How are they developing character that might encourage them to think of the other person as better than themselves or to love their enemy?

Finally, although Machiavelli never said specifically the ends justify the means, the concept is certainly in his writings and Ms. Evans article clearly shows that she agrees. You are going to teach your kids that a little immorality is fine as long as it leads to some great good, but who determines the greater good? She gives us no idea of what that is other than what she personally desires. She desires a break from the kids, so she lies to accomplish that. (As an aside, why would that require lying? Why would it not be possible to teach your kids that they are not the center of the universe and that parents need time together without deceiving them? In fact, would it not be better to help them see the goodness of their parents spending time together and help them see that a little sacrifice from them in the short run leads to a better outcome in the long run.)

She also apparently thinks that not having any more kids is better, so she uses her relational power to manipulate her husband to the goal that she apparently thinks is better. So she teachers her kids that as long as they perceive the goal to be good, it is okay to ignore the wishes of the other person and force your will on them. I would hate to be her if her kids learn this lesson well and become little Machiavellian princes themselves! As they grow older and learn to use the growing power that they have, they will either revolt and overthrow her in the home or simply leave if they cannot win.

Ms. Evans goals seem to be primarily self centered and while in the short run she may actually help her kids by providing a more stable and controlled environment, in the long run she does not seem to have their interior life in mind, which could lead to major conflict later. Would her way be better than complete chaos? Yes, but that does not mean it is the best way or even close to the best way. I believe it is completely possible to achieve a stable loving household by pointing kids to the gospel so that they can repent and become more like Jesus. This does not mean the kids will be perfect, because we are still being formed into the image of Christ too, but unless we have the right goal in mind we will never come close to the right target.