Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Safety Valve

NOTE: this begins a long, meandering, frequently interrupted series on raising faithful, happy children. I've done 20 seminars a year on child and family matters -- as well as another 20 on other subjects. I hope these will be of some use to those of you still raising your children or grandchildren.

My son turns 17 in a week. He is a fine, strong Christian gentleman. My daughter is 23 and married to a minister. She sparkles with the joy and love of the Lord. People ask us how we did it and, when we tell them, they scratch their heads and wonder "That can't work, can it?"

Yes. Yes, it can.

When I was a boy, my father and mother canned a lot of the food we ate. My father worked as a missionary and a church planting minister so money was always very tight. We'd often be paid in vegetables or other produce. I spent many, many evenings in front of a tiny black and white TV as I snapped bushels of beans. Then dad would bring out the huge... heavy... scary pressure cooker.

Our pressure cooker was approximately the same size and weight of an NFL linebacker. The thick steel and the heavy screws that secured its lid were impressive, but I was fascinated by the dial on top. It showed the pounds per square inch of pressure that was building up inside the steel pot and the top of the arc was red: danger. Dad told me that if the needle moved up into that area the pot was in danger of blowing up. The shrapnel, he assured us, would kill us all. Yikes!

Then he would point to the tiny little valve sticking up in the middle of the lid. It was a safety valve. If the pressure got too high that valve would pop up and release steam quickly, but safely. It might be noisy and hot, but it was preferrable to having a steel and green bean grenade go off in the kitchen.

Most homes fall into one of two categories. Some try to "can kids" in a cooker with no lid. The kids have no limits, the parents have no spine (or interest in the children), and therefore the children are raised by happenstance and the current culture. The result is predictable and tragic.

The second category is of the parent who've seen the flotsam and jettsam of their neighbor's kids and says "not in my house." They put the lid on their kids and screw it down tight. Rules are not only made, they multiply both in number and in restrictiveness. Rules and controls are mistaken, in this family, for spiritual instruction. The result is not as predictable, perhaps, but it is every bit as tragic. The pressure builds and, for a time, the child is safe and forms into something good and special. But with no place to release steam, an explosion occurs, the child rebels, the family is broken.

In my own family, I saw it happen again and again. Argument or dissent was not allowed. Disagreement on any point - even the smallest point -- was viewed as open rebellion. Walls were built around us, our behavior, and any desire to be or do something other than that which had been decided for you was viewed with horror. The result? Half of my siblings want nothing to do with God and very little to do with the family. There was no valve. The pot exploded. I barely survived it myself and find that I often put God and family at arm's length even to this day.

When we had our daughter we determined to do things differently. Both of our children were raised with a philosophy that had several parts, a few of which are these:

1. Our job is to prepare these children to live without us. That means that -- while we must have some rules -- it is far more important for the child to learn the reasons for rules, the ability to think, and the skills necessary to find their own way in a dangerous world.

2. Never say no when you can say yes. Allow them the maximum amount of freedom possible while maintaining our Christian ethos. If it is a matter of sin, stand and fight. If it is a developmental, cultural, or situational matter -- negotiate. Use wisdom, grace and humor -- but do not paint your child or yourself into a corner. Make sure that, if they need to run, they know it is safe to run towards you.

3. Allow your child to be who God made them to be, realizing that His dream for them may very well clash with yours. Will I spend sleepless nights as my son enters the Marines? Did I worry about what my daughter would major in and what she would do after graduation? Sure. But if God makes my son a warrior, then he is a warrior. If He had made him an artist, minister, or businessman I would have supported that.

4. Encourage independent thought, using every discussion as a teaching time about truth and consequences. Negotiate freely so that they feel free to speak to you about anything, and so that they can work things out verbally right in front of you without fear of ridicule or punishment. We (and here we will lose some of you) never gave our children a bedtime after the age of six, nor did we give them a curfew. Because we had trained them how to make their own decisions, neither of them ever abused that trust. Not once.

There are more bits and pieces we want to share with you in months to come. However, here is the payoff: because they were allowed to release steam in small amounts, they never felt the need to blow up. Did we disagree with some of their decisions? Yes (but, to be honest, that didn't happen a lot). But if Kami and I were to die today we know that Duncan has all the skills he needs -- even at 17 -- to make his way forward from here without us. Kara is already a godly woman, and a very wise one, who would miss us terribly... but she has all the skills she needs to move on without us.

Knowing that, we are at peace. Raising your children to be thinkers and to live in freedom is scary. Some say it is like a walking a high-wire without a net. We say "no. It's more like a pressure cooker with a safety valve. Things might get noisy and messy... but nobody dies."


At 4/11/2006 02:52:00 PM , Blogger David U said...

Patrick, thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience with us! I hope the younger folks who visit this site will take these words to heart.

Keep em coming!

At 4/11/2006 07:12:00 PM , Anonymous renee cutts said...

Hey, some of us older folks are still raising young ones! I have a three year old, a six year old, a twelve year old and a fifteen year old! Yes, thank you for the wisdom. It's easier said than done, that after reflection of just returning from spending four days with ten teens staying in a hostile in Boston with people from all over the world, riding the subway around the city and nearly walking every street day and night, twice at least because of getting lost, all while trying to negotiate the Freedom Trail which is marked by a line red bricks, no less! There were a few times they needed to run to us. It was fun, scary, and educational for us country bred Christian folks! The NT is full of freedoms, freedom within a safe environment. It's the safe part that is tricky.

At 4/12/2006 08:38:00 AM , Blogger Ahnog said...

Excellent advice. My daughter is 28, and my son 26. Both are married. I was probably too lenient. My wife was probably too strict. In most cases we compromised and as it turns out I think that was best for all.

At 4/12/2006 10:18:00 AM , Blogger Jim MacKenzie said...

Patrick, thanks for your insight into parenting. You need to put this stuff out there for everyone. It's good.

As a family therapist, I have seen the aftermath of the pressure-cooker explosion; not pretty. Families are devastated, sometimes ruined(great metaphor, I'll have to borrow that from you for therapy.

My wife and I have done some things OK in our parenting (kids are 15, 13, 8), and a lot of things not-so-well. The one thing we have tried to do well is to create an environment where they can come to us and talk about anything. This has already paid off, big time. Your #4 is especially powerful for that. People are scared of independent thought. I don't know where parents ever got the idea that independent thought was a scary thing. It makes it harder to let go later!

Thanks for your personal examples. The family is where the Spiritual warfare "rubber meets the road" as far as I'm concerned. If we lose the battle there, what else matters in our homes and marriages?

At 4/12/2006 10:47:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go raibh maith agat Padraig!

Maith thú!!
As always, brother, plainly said and full of good advice. We look forward to seeing you during the summer series.

Bail ó Dhia ort,
Alana Peterson
Pitman CofC

At 4/12/2006 05:35:00 PM , Blogger PatrickMead said...

Ciamar a tha thu, Alana? I'm looking forward to a reunion at Pitman. Greet all there for me. Slainte!

At 4/13/2006 01:34:00 PM , Blogger Dee O'Neil Andrews said...

This is a really good post, Patrick. Your own growing up years and mine sound very similar, although led in completely different circumstances in many ways in different times and places. But the essence of what you write about your growing up years and its effects and consequences are very deeply felt by me.

And your response to that upbringing in how you have and still are "raising" your children is nearly identical to my own. I use the term still raising your children, although I know they are 23 and 17, because I truly believe we continue in many ways as parents to "raise" our children for the rest of our entire lives after we have brought them into this world.

Maybe raise isn't the best word to use, but it is close. I certainly find that it is true for me in my relationship with my children although they have long been grown.

I am older than you by several years and had my children when I was very young, so my three are much older than yours. My older son David is now 42, my daughter Rebecca will soon turn 40 and my younger son Mark was 36 just this past Sunday (which I wrote about in my last Sunday's post - I don't know if you've had a chance to read it or not).

They continue to seek my guidance and counsel from time to time and to "learn" from me in many ways, some very subtle and unspoken even, I think. And I continue to learn from them and to be amazed in their beings and who they have come to be.

I, like you, told all three of my children from a very very young age that they could come to me with anything, no matter what, no matter how bad or irrelevant or inconsequential, any time and that I would listen to them and love them and would answer any questions they had - that we would face and deal with any situation that might arise - together.

I made myself as open to my children as I could be while they were growing up and living with me and still do. And they all know that and understand that, still. That they still can come to me with any problem or hurt or pain or anything whatsoever that life may deal them. And they DO come to me in all such times.

I am and will forever be their mother and their "safety valve." No matter what. With God's help I was able to bring them into this world and was able to help them find their way to who they were and what they wanted to do and I helped them do those things, even though, as you say, they chose things I would not have chosen for them.

I deeply identify with you about your son, I know. When my beloved older son David received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy at barely 17 and left home, I was very proud of him and he did well. But then he chose and was commissioned into the Marine Corps and that would not have been my choice for him at all.

But he did well and you know what kind of man he became from what I wrote over in Grace Notes back on Dec. 10 in "An Uncommon Love Found in 'This Hallowed Ground'".

You write wise words today Patrick and I hope you and Kami will be able to minister to many parents to help them better raise their children. It is our most important work on this earth, in my opinion, as parents. To raise our children well.

At 4/14/2006 03:57:00 PM , Blogger MomInStands said...

Thank you VERY much for that refreshing post. I have a 17 and 15 year old, and if I didn't have prayer and The Spirit to lead our family each day, I don't know how we would survive! I love your "parenting" philosohy, and plan on sharing this with family and friends.

At 4/14/2006 07:57:00 PM , Blogger carrie said...

Thanks for your thoughts! I have a 3 year old son. My husband and I feel that the reasons behind "no" are so important because that is the part that helps him make decisions on his own someday. It is so scary to think about the decisions he will have to make one day. I pray daily that we will instill in him the knowledge and the love for the Lord to make those crucial decisions. Thanks again for the advice and encouragement!

At 4/16/2006 08:51:00 AM , Blogger pegc said...

I enjoyed reading your post today. I agree with all your points.

It is interesting to me that most of the time when I said "no" it was because I was not in "tune" with my child at the time and it was "easier" to say no.

I think, as parents, it is so easy to just go through the motions without really thinking and pointing our kids in the right direction. That takes thought and effort and so many parents today are too tired to think and prepare.

My children are grown. I have a 30 year old with two of her own and my baby is 24 and about to be married.

These girls were six years apart and very different in personality. The first one you could tell to jump and she would say "how high." The second one you could tell to jump and she would look at you and say, "I don't want to jump. Why do I have to and what if I don't?" So, we had to learn a whole new set of parenting skills with the second one. There were times when I thought we had lost the battle and lost the child.

One of the points you made in the beginning is that we raise our children to be on their own. We had this idea. Our children were gifts from God, just visiting through our home. We had the idea that they were kites and we let the string out a little at a time while they learned to fly. It was so refreshing to see them soar as we let go of the string.

I am so proud of both of our girls and we did some right things and we did some wrong things. But purpose and thought were essential to every thing we did.

One example I have to share is when our youngest was a baby. We kept our children in worship with us, even though there was an attended nursery. My idea was it was my responsibility to teach my child the purposes of the goings on at the assembly times. I would take her out if she made too much noise and if she misbehaved, I would take her out and discipline her. We had people at church who shook their heads and tsk,tsk saying she was too young. She wasn't old enough to know any better. Yet, these same people commented and still comment today on how wonderful our children are! Go figure! They couldn't make the connection that those times led to these times!

We need to do better in the church on giving instruction and insight to raising kids for the younger folks of our "families" since there is no real instruction book on how to parent!

Thanks for your thoughts, always insightful.

At 4/19/2006 09:33:00 PM , Blogger salguod said...


I loved this post. I loved your earlier post about how family devos didn't fit within your philosophy. That was an encouragement to me as I feel the same way. So I'm glad to read this and I'm looking foward to more.

One thing I'm curious about is how this works, practically. Take your no bed time after 6 years old example. I have a 7 year old (and a 9 and 11, all girls) and I have a real hard time seeing her deciding when to go to bed, and me allowing it. I'm assuming that was coupled with some responsibilies and expecations. I'd love some insight into that process on a practical level.


At 4/20/2006 02:55:00 PM , Blogger Mark Phelps said...


Good stuff.



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