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."