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Have you ever played the game 'Consequences'? Here's how it works. One person writes a sentence on a sheet of paper, then covers it up, and the next person adds to it, and so on. So you might end up with a story that reads, 'He said it was a cold day. She said she liked chocolate. The consequence was that both of them were put to death, and everyone said that it served them right.'
The game of Consequences makes just as little sense when it's played in real life, but many children find themselves unwilling players, and their experiences are just as arbitrary. If a certain kind of autonomy could be given the title of king, then we'd all be heirs to kingdoms. Watch children playing 'school.' Note how the child playing the teacher loves to slap the wrists of her students, and swat her scholars! The pretend students are happy to join in this game, even though the teacher is abusing them. They know they'd do the same if they were playing the part of the teacher, and their turn will come.
How does this tendency for autonomy, which gives spirit to most of the games children play, work in real life?
Perhaps little Nikki has a tendency to be dissatisfied. Her care-giver happens to be unusually busy one morning getting out the children's summer clothes. She's normally a kind-hearted woman and she's fond of Nikki, but this morning she grumbles, 'Why do
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you have to be so whiny?' and she emphasizes her point with a smack. There was already something wrong, which is why Nikki was whining to begin with, and that smack is putting Nikki 'to death,' like the children playing the Consequences game. But the effect on Nikki isn't manifested for a year or two. The care-giver totally forgets the hasty smack, and nobody ever associates her with the family's sorrow. One might argue that the care-giver is kind and just doesn't know any better. It's different with the parents. Yes, but not as different as you'd think. Mr. Lindsay, who is a book-lover, goes into his den and discovers his little four-year-old son constructing a tower with some of his most valuable and sought-after books. The tower collapses, the books fall, the corners are bumped, and the books are now irreparably damaged. 'What do you think you're doing! Go to your room, and don't you ever dare come into my den again!' Oh, dear. Does he have any idea how deeply that cuts? Doesn't he realize that a ten-minute romp with Daddy in his bedroom is the most supreme joy of little Daniel's day? And does he realize that everything feels like forever and ever to a little child who doesn't have the experience to know how to hope when things look darkest? But, you might protest, it's for the child's own good. But is it really? Daniel doesn't even know what he did wrong. A simple, 'Never touch books unless you have permission to play with them,' would have educated him and prevented him from making the same mistake in the future.
How is it possible for such a devoted care-giver and loving father to give such damaging 'death blows,' both emotional and physical, to a child's tender nature? A lot can be blamed on ignorance or thoughtlessness--they didn't know, or they didn't consider, how this or that would affect the child. But the interesting thing is that grown-ups almost always make the same type of mistake.
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The arbitrary use of authority by parents, babysitters, day-care workers, or anyone put in authority over a child is a real stumbling block and rock of offense in the way of many children.
This doesn't mean that a lenient, permissive mother is justified in congratulating herself and saying, 'I always thought Mrs. Naybor was too hard on her children.' The most damaging use of authority is when a mother makes herself the final authority, with the power to excuse her child from his duties and grant him unfair privileges and indulgences (and I don't mean the kind of indulgences that the pope can grant!) This soft kind of parent is relentless with her authority. She allows no one to interfere with her rulership. And, yes, it is rulership, even though her children are exceedingly unruly. All advice and suggestions are brushed off with the same response: 'My children will never have any reason to claim that their mother refused them anything that was in her power to give.'
'In her power.' Here's the mother's mistake. She believes that her children are hers--that their bodies and souls are in her power, and that she can do whatever she likes with them since they belong to her.
It's worth our time to consider the origins of behavior within human nature. That's where we'll find the source of this common reason for mismanaging children. There must be some unsuspected reason that people of both weak and strong natures should make mistakes in the same area.
We know that within every human being, the same primary, natural desires are implanted, and these are among the principles that the person acts on. These desires are neither good nor bad in themselves. they're completely involuntary, and they're within everybody, from the most savage drunk to the most brilliant genius. Anybody who appeals to any one of these primary desires guarantees that he'll have an effect on his hearers. For example, every person has an inborn desire for
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companionship. Every person wants to know, no matter how trivial the thing he's curious about. Everyone wants to be respected and admired by those around them, and some will do ridiculous things to get that esteem. Every one of us wants to be the best at something, even if it's only a game of chance. Everyone wants to have some power, even if we only lord it over the family dog or a younger sibling. These desires are natural, and if a person lacks any one of them, he's considered unnatural: a man who hates to be with other people is called a recluse, and a person who isn't curious about anything is considered dim-witted. But we've seen with our own eyes how a person can ruin his life and destiny by excessively indulging any one of these natural desires. Controlling, regulating, balancing and maintaining these wellsprings of behavior is an important part of the self-management that is every person's duty.
But it isn't only natural desires that motivate our actions. Affections, appetites and emotions also play their part, and our reason and conscience are the ones whose job it is to regulate the actions that can result from any one of a hundred impulses. But the subject of this chapter is the punishment we inflict on children--and we won't come to any conclusion unless we consider punishment from the perspective of the punisher as well as the punishee.
Any one of the desires, or affections, or appetites has a tendency to run rampant if its object is well within its grasp. If the desire for companionship is undirected and uncontrolled, it can lead to endless running around from one activity to another, and constantly hanging out with crowds. Curiosity is a wonderful thing, but uncontrolled curiosity can result in an excessive
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love of gossip, and of insignificant disconnected bits of information served up in scraps, which is in the same category as gossip. Ambition, or the desire for power, can be used well to handle a child, servant, horse or dog. A person with no ambition can't lead others. Any care-giver who manages children well is showing that she has ambition, and her ambition is finding an outlet in handling the children. But if the love of power isn't regulated and controlled, it leads to arbitrary behavior and savage, cruel actions towards those under our care. We can be so carried away and intoxicated by a fierce lust for power that we do something terrible and tragic to a tender child, and wake up to never-ending remorse. We didn't mean any harm, we only meant to teach obedience, but, horror of horrors, we've killed a child.
In the last few years we've read stories in the newspaper about the savage abuse of power in an area that's currently free from external control--tales that, whether they're true or not, should make us all consider in our heart and be still. Because there's one thing we can be sure of: those people who did those things are no worse than we could be under similar circumstances. They had the opportunity to do evil deeds, and they did them. We haven't been left to ourselves, with no governing power over us, to that extent. But let's look ourselves in the face and recognize that the inborn trait that betrayed others to do such mad crimes is inborn within us, too, and whether that trait leads us to high and noble lives or criminal cruelty isn't something we should leave to chance circumstances. We need divine grace to guide us and follow us, and we need to
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be consciously seeking, and diligently using this grace to keep those of us who are in positions of authority meek and humble, remembering that Jesus, who is entrusted with the rod of iron, is meek and lowly of heart.
If we remain aware of our tendency in the area of authority, then we'll be more trustworthy to enforce the law to little children with tender souls and bodies. We'll remember that merely a word can wound, and a harsh look can hurt as much as a slap. Yes, sometimes it's necessary to hurt in order to heal, but we'll be more likely to examine ourselves carefully before we resort to harsh methods. We won't be quick to react with reproof, punishment, reward and praise, depending on our mood at the moment. We'll recognize that our authority is only a deputy position, and to be used with care and wisdom. Not only that, but we'll be extremely careful about who we choose to take care of our children. It's not enough that they be Christian. We all know good Christians who have an arbitrary tendency and dare to wield the iron rod that's only truly safe in God's hands. Besides being Christian, a person should have culture and self-knowledge--not the kind of morbid self-knowledge that comes from too much introspection, but the wider, humbler understanding of human nature that comes from studying the guiding principles and wellsprings of behavior that are inherent in all human beings, including themselves. That understanding makes a person certain that 'I am just as bad as everyone else, and might even be worse if it weren't for the grace of God and careful living.'
It's undoubtedly easier to establish our authority and let our children follow our lead, or have someone else keep us in order rather than exercising
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constant vigilance as we carry out our calling. But we don't have that option. We have to rule with diligence. Our children need us to do that. But we need to keep ourselves constantly in check and make sure that our inborn desire for power is properly channeled into building up a child's character rather than in constant scolding, criticizing, belittling, curt responses and hasty smacks. None of us adults could endure that kind of treatment, yet we practice it on our children routinely 'for their own good.'
American author Helen Hunt Jackson (Bits of Talk about House Matters) wrote, 'To this day, my cheeks still burn when I remember certain rude and arrogant comments that were made to me when I was little, and were stamped on my memory forever. Once I was called 'a stupid child' in front of strangers because I brought the wrong book from my father's study. There's nothing worse that anyone could call me today that would give me even a tenth of the hopeless sense of worthlessness that I got from those words. Another time, an unexpected guest arrived for dinner. I was whisked away from the table with the comment that 'the child doesn't matter in the least; she can just as easily eat later.' I would have been very willing to be accommodating to make a place for the guest at the table if I had been approached differently, but I never forgot the sting of having it put that way. Yet both of those instances of rudeness are minor compared with things we see every day. They'd be too trivial to even mention, except that the pain they gave me has lasted to this very day.'
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'Do you mean that in these overly sentimental days, it's too severe to call a child stupid? The child will make an idiot of himself when he goes out into the real world and people call him worse names, if he's been raised on nothing but mild words that are as sweet as honey and soft as butter.' This kind of objection is contrary, not in harmony with the kind of perfect childhood concept that we amuse ourselves with these days. But we need to consider the objection. We can't afford to ignore it. Young mothers used to hear their elders warn them, 'Don't make a fool out of the child.' But we've changed all that. Now we try to create a paradise for the child to walk in. We hear, 'He's so happy at school!' and we're satisfied and don't ask any other questions. We've reversed the old way--it used to be, 'If he's good, he'll be happy.' But now we say, 'If he's happy, he'll be good.' We consider goodness and happiness as convertible concepts, and we've decided that happiness is the cause, and goodness is the effect. And a child brought up this way is both good and happy without exerting much moral effort to make himself be good. Meanwhile, our role is to surround him with pleasant circumstances to make him happy until he's gotten into the habit of being good.
But there's a weakness with that system. Once there was a mother who got the idea that mothers could bless their children with a good set of teeth into adulthood: 'It makes sense that, for every year you can avoid any wear and tear on the teeth, the child will have good teeth for a year later when he's old.' Her doctor said, 'That's nonsense, ma'am. You're actually ruining your child's teeth by giving him nothing but baby food. At this rate, his teeth will be no stronger than egg shells! No, you need to give him
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plenty of hard crusts to crunch, bones to gnaw, something to harden his teeth on.' In the same way, a child has moral 'teeth' that need to be strengthened if he's going to carve out a place for himself in the real world. He needs to endure some hardness in order to strengthen him into manhood. Blame as well as praise, and tears as well as smiles, are the daily food that Nature provides. Penetrating speech is a tool we can use sparingly to develop character. We need to call a spade a spade, and we can let a child know he was stupid to bring the wrong book, whether it's in front of strangers or not. This is much better than having to have a deep, private conference with Mom over every trivial thing. This is the kind of thing that leads to morbid introspection.
Our position is precarious, as if we're standing between the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. On one side is our uncontrollable lust for power, like a six-headed monster with razor-sharp teeth. On the other side is a monster who lives in a whirlpool, ready to suck in all the strong, manly traits of our poor little Ulysses. If we have to choose one over the other, then we'd be safer choosing Scylla [power] than Charybdis [permissiveness]. It's better to lose something to the monster's teeth than to be totally sucked into a whirlpool. But there's an even better way.