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Imagine that your 5-year-old is playing with his toys when a neighbor child comes to the door asking your child to come out and play. Let’s imagine that you had established earlier in the day that you expected your son to put away his toys before he went out to play. So, you ask your son to put away his toys. The boy begs: “Mom! I promise I will put them away later. Please! Let me go out and play!”
What should a wise and balanced parent do?
- You might say, “Do you promise? I will hold you to it! Okay then. You may go out to play.” That parent is so anxious for good will that he or she sacrifices responsibility.
- You might say, “You may not go out until you have put everything away.” As the parent you send the neighbor child away with the words: “He will be out if he gets his cleaning done.” This approach emphasizes rules over relationship.
- You might hesitate. Your child begins to cry, “Oh, please, Mommy. I really want to go out and play.” Tears and begging. Mom, wanting to be kind, lets the child go. And the child learns that emotional displays can undermine parental resolve.
- You might say: “Son, I can see that you really want to go out and play! I will go get your jacket while you put away your toys. Maybe your friend would like to help you.” This approach honors the child’s feelings while still honoring the earlier agreement about putting toys away. The parent is neither a pushover nor a prison guard but a facilitator and encourager.
The very best parenting shows profound compassion and love for the child while still honoring responsibility and accountability. This is the balancing act in parenting. There are certainly times when rules and agreements may be adapted. Children may stay up late for special occasions, etc.
Each parent has a different natural inclination between guidance and nurture. You may be a great nurturer who does not adequately set and enforce limits. Or you may be a person who is focused on enforcing limits even if it interferes with your relationships with your children. Or you may be so anxious for peace that you surrender your good sense when your child becomes upset in the face of consequences. Or you may be some other combination.
All of us need to honor both core principles with our children. “And, ye [parents], provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
It can be remarkably difficult for frustrated parents to discern among effective consequences, resentment-creating punishments, and unhelpful manipulation.
Sometimes we justify harsh consequences because “children must learn the lesson.” I absolutely believe in the law of the harvest and that children who do not learn to be responsible for their behavior are likely to become irresponsible adults who have painful lives.
However, I also believe that many books and discussions are so completely focused on consequences, that parents forget about nurturing the relationship of love. We must not lose a sense of balance that respects both appropriate consequences and the loving relationship with our children that will promote their best development.
One of the core truths of research and the gospel, is that people grow, learn, and flourish best when their development is governed by someone who loves them dearly.
God also gives the law of love priority.
The profound statement by Urie Bronfenbrenner is foundational: “Every child should spend a substantial amount of time with somebody who’s crazy about him or her. There has to be at least one person who has an irrational involvement with that child, someone who thinks that kid is more important than other people’s kids, someone who’s in love with him or her and whom he or she loves in return.”
Research teaches that no control techniques work in the absence of a loving relationship. A person may use the most effective control techniques on the planet, but they will have limited effectiveness if the child does not feel loved.
What are the markings of proper consequences? Parents don’t overreact to misdeeds. They stay calm and helpful. Parents retain a spirit of good will and helpfulness. They ensure that the child takes on reasonable, developmentally-appropriate responsibility for keeping commitments and making repairs related to their behavior.
The real-world challenges often require the wisdom of Solomon; yet they are solved with a commitment to both essential processes: nurture and guidance.
Invitation: See if you can determine what your personal balance is between nurturing and guiding. Think about ways you can honor both processes in your parenting.
Recommendation: Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child provides excellent examples of nurturing while setting limits. Books by his students Faber and Mazlish also do this well.