Friday, December 04, 2009

The Magical Non-Existent Formula For Perfect Children

There was much driving over the Thanksgiving break, and thus much discussion that ensued. A good portion of the conversation eventually shifted towards how to raise children in a way that maximizes their chances at turning out "right."

We examined anyone and everyone that we knew who had children who either went crazy or turned out to be responsible people and faithful Christians. The majority of our analysis focused on the parents rather than the children. We were a bit limited because we knew mostly came from observation. Most of the time we had no direct contact with the parents on these sorts of matters.

We spent a lot of time talking about how we were raised. Harmony's family was heavily involved in church activities, which is a plus, but as we discovered, was only a slight plus. Harmony's parents talked God and Bible very frequently, and Harmony's parents' children turned out to be fine young ladies. JunkMale's parents largely left spiritual teaching up to the church. In my opinion, bad idea. When I entered college, my Bible knowledge was woefully inept. It is much better now, but still not on par with Harmony, who lived and breathed it in her environment while growing up.

We also examined strictness to see if it was a factor. Harmony's parents were stricter than most of her friends. A good degree of strictness does seem to correlate with a higher probability of kids-not-going-crazy. Several families of Harmony's friends were much less strict than Harmony's, and a good number of children from those families went a bit wild (or in some cases, still are wild).

Let us speak of a family we are more familiar with. This family has two daughters separated by 9 years (the second daughter was perhaps a surprise, but I am not sure), and some pets. The older daughter went through the church life but apparently the family did not really talk spiritual at all outside of church. I'm uncertain whether or not the father attended with them; he might not have attended, or might have attended elsewhere. (no doubt that is a factor in itself) The older daughter had somewhat of an existential crisis once when she realized "Why am I even here? Do I really believe in God?" "Luckily," she got involved with a good church group in college and improved her life henceforth. Her sister apparently had no such luck and is probably some sort of atheist. She almost never attends church and probably has no sense of Biblical morals or ethics. Harmony is the one who's more familiar with this family, so I asked her if she thought the two daughters were raised any differently, since one turned out fine and the other turned out less fine than her sister. The conclusion was that sometimes it's a matter of circumstance, or "luck."

There is no magical formula though, as you all know. But if there were, it would probably consist of good family relationships, spiritual teaching by the parents, a not-too-strict-not-too-lenient-but-just-right level of strictness (which might even vary depending on the child, who knows), and circumstances. I put the "circumstances" in there because there are some people we know who seem to have done things right but their children have put them through lots of stress.

What is the composition of your magical mythical formula? Did you ever go through a crazy period? What led you to enter and exit that crazy period (assuming you have exited it)? Do you think anything would have prevented you from going crazy? I would appreciate your inputs.

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9 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Harmony

    This was a very interesting discussion we had. I'm looking forward to seeing what other people think. It bears repeating that obviously it's impossible to use a formula to produce perfect children, but all we're looking for are trends.

    We had a hard time coming up with good examples of boys where we knew the family dynamics. There's one particular family we know of that had two sons who had every temptation in the world to go bad, yet neither of them did. I would love to find out what their parents did right.

  • Alan

    Very interesting topic. Here are a few of my thoughts:

    1) Parents can completely blow it, and the kids can still be converted later in life. But the odds seem to be pretty long against it. A child may become so entrenched in unspiritual life that it becomes very unlikely to change.

    2) There is some benefit to being exposed to other more spiritual families and other influences in the early years. That doesn't make up for a lack of spiritual direction in the home, but it's better than nothing. Attending a spiritual church in early- to mid- childhood can instil values that can bring a person back in later life, if presented with the opportunity.

    3) Obviously the best solution (the one God clearly wants) is for the family to be deeply spiritual and to train the children to be deeply spiritual. That is also no guarantee that the kids will turn out "right" but I'm sure it gives them the best chance.

    4) I'm familiar with a very spiritual family with two boys (currently in their late teens) and a younger sister. All three have turned out great at this point. I think the basic formula they followed is the same as Harmony's family. Of course there are different dynamics with boys but what is right and wrong remains the same, and the imperative to do right is equally compelling for both genders.

    5) I don't view 'strictness' as a continuum from lenient to strict. You don't get to choose how much sin you will allow. Either you permit sin or you don't. Of course there still will be sin in any case, but you don't just ignore it, and you don't just accept it.

    6) I think the key is teaching kids "why" some things are forbidden. The ultimate reason has to be that God said so. You can then speculate as to why God said so, but your speculation is not the ultimate reason. When God has told us why he said so, that is obviously the best explanation of why -- but still, it is wrong, first, because God said so.

  • Harmony

    Those are very good points. As far as strictness goes, I think you're right that sin shouldn't be tolerated. But then there's some disagreement as to what is sin. Here are two examples:

    1) You did not allow me to dress in some of the clothes that my friends' parents let them wear. But you did not make me wear dresses all the time, either. To some people, the clothes I was allowed to wear would be sinful.

    2) I was not allowed to watch a lot of the TV shows or movies my friends were allowed to watch. But you did let me watch TV, which is considered sinful to some.

    I'm sure the parents who let their children watch those other programs or wear the more immodest clothing didn't think they were winking at sin (although I think that in many cases they probably were).

  • Alan

    Ok. My previous comment really only addressed strictness in relation to sin. There is also the question of better vs worse (or safer vs riskier). Some aspects of the TV question are of that type. On those items I'm sure we were stricter than many parents.

    OTOH, I've seen many parents give in to their teenagers' sinful desires in an effort to be cool, or at least not to be too un-cool. A lot of parents in my generation feel compelled to help their kids to be cool in a worldly sense. I think that is a terrible mistake.

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    Very interesting, and sometimes controversial, topic.=)

    I think strictness is important because standards, limits, and boundaries are important, but one mistake I have seen parents make is to focus on rules and being strict at the expense of joyful relationships. Joy is a vitally important component of good family life.

    On the hand, of course, are those parents who want all to be laughs, grins and giggles and do not set firm boundaries, and this is equally problematic.

    I think it is at the outside of possible, but not extremely likely, for parents to really do everything right and have their children turn out truly badly.

    I come to that conclusion from the point of view of being the child of parents everybody else thought were wonderful godly people who were doing a great job- and who were not. There were people who thought they knew my family *very* well who would use us as an example of how a family could be very godly and do most things right and still have kids who rebelled. When I was younger this made me very bitter and angry. Now it only makes me sad. But it also makes me somewhat cynical whenever I hear of a family where the parents were fine, upstanding godly folks who did everything right but their children have rejected all they hold dear and live in rebellion. I always wonder what went on that we do not know about.

    On the other hand, while I know that it is quite possible to raise godly children who attend public schools, because I have seen people do it, I also believe it requires far more of parents to do this. I admire those parents who successfully manage it, but I think it's a lot easier if you homeschool.

  • JunkMale


    We were hoping that you would comment on this topic, so thank you. If you don't mind me asking, what are you doing differently from what your parents did? (after all, you do not appear to have had any major insurrections so far) Along those same lines, in what areas do you think they went wrong in raising their children?

    (we agree, it seems like homeschooling will be easier than institutional schooling, where you have to undo all damage done during all hours spent away from the parents)

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    We have had no major, or even midsized insurrections so far. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for the youngest two.=)

    I can tell you where my parents went wrong, but it won't be very helpful to you, unless you, JM, are violently physically and verbally abusive as well as a hypocrite and you, Harmony, would be inclined to pretend these things were not happening and could not be altered, and it was all part of biblical commitment to offer nothing more than sympathy when these things happened.

    I don't think you are. If you are, then stop.=)

    The thing is, nobody else thought my parents could possibly be like that, either. Keep in mind my father was a preacher *and* a social worker. He was actually a very effective mentor with deeply troubled kids, so long as they weren't related to him.

    He was also a skilled manipulator and people mostly thought he was a wonderfully funny, smart, interesting, and godly man. He was funny, smart, and interesting. He was not godly, but he was so good at the manipulative part, that you pretty much had to be related to him to see the other side.

    And since I know from personal experience just how shockingly different a parent can be at home when nobody else is watching from how they behave in public and how the other adults perceive them to be, I am cynical when somebody says, "Well, so and so was a godly parent and look how awful their kids turned out."

    Maybe they were all that wonderful, but I have my doubts, and the only thing that removes them is when the young person actually says that the parents did a great job. Maybe that's not fair, but in my position as the preacher's brat, I have had a lot of conversations with other preacher's brats and elder's brats, too, and I know that my situation, sadly, is not as unusual as it should be.

    And the thing is, it is also not fair to the erring children to take the parents' word for it when they tell you how wonderful they were as parents, how much they tried, but gee, alas and alack, kids will just go their own way.

    So... that part of my experience is not helpful for your personal parenting.

    Things that might be helpful:

    Firm rules, that have been carefully thought out so that they are not merely parental whims.

    Joy, games, fun times, playing together.

    Being willing to apologize when you are wrong.

    Letting children talk to you when they think they have a better idea (just make sure it's polite).

    Lots of prayer.

    Not being afraid of hard questions- my older children all, to my surprise, listed our willingness to discuss evolution and creationism and other issues with them when they were quite young as one of the things they most appreciated about our parenting- that, and that we never said the ideas we disagreed with were stupid.


    Parental limits- we do spank, but because of my experience with my parents there were actually predetermined limits- one swat for lying, three for lying to get somebody else in trouble, for instance.

    Be careful about the things you are earnest and intense about- Cindy at Dominion Family has talked about this before, and I touched on it here.

    Those of us who home-school and do all these other outside the culture things can be prone to an over-earnest zeal. There is no sense of proportion. We are just as zealous to eliminate sugar as we are to eliminate lying and we are as zealous to prevent immorality as we are to prevent the reading of a stupid book, and when everything is approached with the same intensity, this is a hill to die on approach, children draw back and reject some of those things out of what I think is almost a sense of self-preservation. It's like making them drink from a fire hydrant.

  • JunkMale


    (seems like these comments are turning into an interview with the DHM, but if you don't mind, I don't mind.)

    Given the toxic environment in which you grew up, what are factors which you think might've helped put you back on a better track? From reading some of your blog posts on the exploits of your youth, it seems as though you were turning out to be quite a troublesome one, if you don't mind me putting it like that. But something seems to have righted the ship and I would like to hear your thoughts on what that possibly could've been. (even if it's the "I completely want to be the opposite of my parents" line)

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    what are factors which you think might've helped put you back on a better track?

    A genuine conversion and relationship with God.

    Marriage to a much better man than my father (although this was largely accidental rather than deliberate care on my part).

    A gospel meeting centered on family issues back in the 80s. The preacher was Mike Biggs and he was fantastic.


    From reading some of your blog posts on the exploits of your youth, it seems as though you were turning out to be quite a troublesome one, if you don't mind me putting it like that.

    I don't mind you putting it like that. You don't know the half of it- the half I would never put down in writing on a blog. It was pretty awful.

    But something seems to have righted the ship and I would like to hear your thoughts on what that possibly could've been. (even if it's the "I completely want to be the opposite of my parents" line)

    Conversion, a real relationship with the Living Lord. Neither my husband or I wanted family lives like the ones we grew up with, but that desire is not enough without the aid of the Holy Spirit.

    In the late 80s I was at a lady's bible class where we were talking about what we wanted for our children, and one lady said something about wanting them to grow up and love the church. I said no, I wanted mine to love the Lord.
    She said it was the same thing. I don't think so.

    I think you cannot really love the Lord without also loving the church, but you can love the church without loving the Lord- it makes a difference which is first.