Works-For-Me Wednesday: Sometimes it’s best to leave children alone

wfmwheader_4.jpgI want to be cautious with the thoughts I wanted to share today, because they could so easily be misunderstood.

The Bible teaches it is the parents’ responsibility to train their children. Deuteronomy 6 speaks of teaching the word and ways of the Lord; many verses in Proverbs give instructions about discipline; Ephesians 6:4 tells parents to bring children up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and there are other passages as well. Usually, especially in this day and time, if parents make errors in discipline it’s along the lines of not disciplining or training enough, at least in my own experience of 23 years as a parent and what I have seen in others, especially in the trends over the last 30 years. (I do want to write a post about that some day. I know I’ve said that before — I even started to one day but realizedI needed to wait until I had time to deal with it as carefully and thoughtfully as possible.)

But sometimes conscientious parents (and teachers) err on the other side of the scale, that of disciplining too much, of nagging a child constantly, of seeing every little thing as A Really Big Deal and a Major Character Issue. The same verse in Ephesians that tells us to bring children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord tells us not to provoke them to wrath. That doesn’t mean that our training will never make a child angry — most anyone will deal with some anger when not getting his or her way. But sometimes our parenting style in itself can result in an angry child rather than a godly, obedient one, or lead to discouragement, rigidity, an over-nervousness, or even outright rebellion in children.

This concept of over-disciplining first dawned on me when I read an excellent book several years ago titled Hints On Child Training by Henry Clay Trumbull, who wrote it 1890 when he was 66 years old. Mr. Trumbull is known as a pioneer of the Sunday School movement and is an ancestor (great-grandfather, I believe) of Elisabeth Elliot. Here are just a few excerpts from the chapter “Letting Alone as a Means of Child Training.”

Not doing is always as important, in its time and place, as doing; and this truth is as applicable in the realm of child training as elsewhere. Child training is a necessity, but there is danger of overdoing in the line of child training. The neglect of child training is a great evil. Overdoing in the training of a child may be a greater evil. Both evils ought to be avoided…

Peculiarly is it the case that young parents who are exceptionally conscientious, and exceptionally desirous of being wise and faithful in the discharge of their parental duties, are liable to err in the direction of overdoing in the training of their children. It is not that they are lacking in love and tenderness toward their little ones, or that they are naturally inclined to severity as disciplinarian; but it is that their mistaken view of the methods and limitations of wise child training impels them to an injudicious course of watchful strictness with their children, even while that course runs counter to their affections and desires as parents….

There are many parents who seem to suppose that their chief work in the training of a child is to be incessantly commanding and prohibiting; telling the child to do this or to do that, and not to do this, that, or the other. But this nagging a child is not training a child; on the contrary, it is destructive of all training on the part of him who is addicted to it. It is not the driver who is training a horse, but one who is neither trained nor can train, who is all the time “yanking” at the reins, or “thrapping” them up or down. Neither parent or driver, in such a case, can do as much in the direction of training by doing incessantly, as by letting alone judiciously. “Don’t always be don’t-ing” is a bit of counsel to parents that can hardly be emphasized to strongly. Don’t always be directing, is a companion precept to this…

Of course, there must be explicit commanding and explicit prohibiting in the process of child training; but there must also be a large measure of wise letting alone. When to prohibit and when to command, in this process, are questions that demand wisdom, thought, and character; and more wisdom, more thought, and more character, are needful in deciding the question when to let the child alone. The training of a child must go on incessantly; but a large share of the time it will best go on by the operation of influences, inspirations, and inducements, in the direction of a right standard held persistently before the child, without anything being said on the subject to the child at every step in his course of progress.

Thank God we can ask Him for wisdom: we surely need it!

This post is already too long, but a couple more thoughts I wanted to share are these: one of those times when it’s possible to overdo discipline is when we mistake a child’s immaturity and childishness for a discipline problem. Also, though we know our children are sinners and need correcting and training, a watching-like-a-hawk expectancy, just waiting for them to take a wrong step, can be very discouraging to them. Once when I was in college, one of the rules was that girls could not walk alone on certain areas of campus after dark, for safety reasons. I was coming from the bookstore or snack shop one night, looking for someone to walk to another area of campus with, when I spied my dormitory supervisor heading the way I needed to go. As I came down the steps to ask her if I could walk with her, she said, “You’d better not be about to walk away from here alone.” I can’t tell you how deflating and discouraging that was, to be trying to do the right thing and to feel smacked down, as it were, by someone’s expectation (with no good reason) that I was going to do the wrong thing. Yet we can take that same attitude with our children sometimes. We need wisdom and grace and the attitude of coming alongside them to encourage them to do right rather than standing over them with a stick just waiting for them to step out of line so we can correct them. I think if we meditate on how our heavenly Father handles us, that will go a long way in balancing discipline and grace in our parenting (or teaching or employing).

By the way, the book I mentioned is an excellent resource. Looking through it today made me want to read it all over again. A few other chapters are “Denying a Child Wisely,” “Training a Child to Self-Control,” “Training a Child Not to Tease,” “Training a Child’s Faith,” “Scolding Is Never in Order,” “Dealing Tenderly With a Child’s Fears.” Two of my other favorite books on parenting are James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline and Elisabeth Elliot’s The Shaping of a Christian Family.

For more Works For Me Wednesday tips, see Rocks In My Dryer.

14 thoughts on “Works-For-Me Wednesday: Sometimes it’s best to leave children alone

  1. Thank you for sharing this wisdom on childrearing. I have seen this book recommended several times and have been wanting to read it. I have three girls ages 4, 2, and 8 months. I have enjoyed looking through your site and I’m sure I’ll be back!

  2. I believe my husband and I are guilty of doing this with our 10 yr old son- so what do we do to correct it? I often find myself picking at things that I know are not real issues – but it has become habit – one I know we need to break.

    We are not a religious family – I don’t know if the book is very religiously based or not.

    I have to remind myself to let the little things go.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. This is great advice. One book that deals with this out of the religious context is “Parenting with Love and Logic.” The author uses parental training, along with allowing natural consequences of choices to train children. I recommend it for Kim.

  4. Mr. Trumbull sounds like he was a wise and kind man! I agree, we can do too much as much as too little. Mine all turned out great (they range from 17-25) but one thing I know I did too much of years ago was yelling. Really, it took me a long time to learn that after a while, you start sounding like one of the grownups in a Charlie Brown cartoon: “Waah, wahh, wahh, wahh.” I think kids tune you out. But if you set your priorities and concentrate on what means the most to you (in my case, respect comes way before a clean bedroom, for instance), then I think they start to listen more.
    And most important: don’t forget to share interest in the things your children like, such as games or sports. It is much easier to get him to listen to the things that are important to you if you set an example by listening to the things that are important to him!

  5. Oh, I love both Trumbull and Elliot. I am so very in agreement with you (I often have that very problem but try to make up for it by making sure they have a lot of opportunities to play on their own and do what’s right. ) I have been thinking a lot about this as I have found that overly supervised play also falls into this same category. Today we had a birthday party and instead of the usual party games we let them play–which they did and had a wonderful time–“the best party ever” as my kids said on the way home, wet and dirty but happy. In fact it is what wrote about for my WFMW. πŸ™‚

  6. as I tell Mr Wonderful you gotta pick your battles
    some things I feel arent worth worrying about

    and as I have been told repeatedly as if I dont you have to praise children when they go things

    James Dobson is good πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks for your thoughts! I stumbled onto your site from the News on WordPress. I look forward to reading Hints on Child Training. I also wrote down some of your recommendations on missionary and “saints who have gone before” biographies. I’ve been looking for some others to read. They are very inspiring to me, also. May God bless you and your ministry through the readership on your site!

  8. Thank you for sharing this. Since I’m doing this alone right now, I sometimes feel like everyone’s eyes are on me. I’ve also received some mean spirited comments about my precious son and I feel like everyone’s just waiting for him to do something so they can be justified in their opinions.

    I feel a lot of pressure to do an excellent job of parenting him so no one can say this trial has ruined him:(

    Actually that last sentence was a realization I had just now while typing it! Wow!

    Thanks for sharing! Truly! I think I’m going to link to you;)

  9. Pingback: The Covering~ for Single Parents » Blog Archive » Leave the children alone!

  10. One must pick which battles are most important and focus on them and become more relaxed with the little piddly stuff. I have been parenting for 39 years and have truly found that you can’t spoil a child with nurturing and affection………

  11. Thanks for the great post, Barbara. As a young parent with a new one on the way, this is a very helpful reminder to read. I really enjoyed Elizabeth Elliot’s radio broadcast while it aired. She was always so full of practical wisdom. Your post reminded me of that same balanced advice.

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