Watched a TV programme last night about four 'out of control' teenagers being taken off for two weeks' special teatment. None of them seemed that different to some of the regular customers I met on our CYFA Venture 1985-2001 but they all had one thing in common - they either lived with at least one step-parent or a single parent.
I really wanted to see a session for the parents. Don't tell your daughter she can't see her boyfriend and then hand her the car-keys. Don't demand cuddles. Don't tell them you want them to say, 'I love you'. Don't smother but do discipline. No point in having rules if it doesn't matter if you break them.
Rather arrogantly, as usual, it put me in mind of a piece I wrote for the Church of England Newspaper about five years ago. I've given it a face-lift and it follows:
I became a father on January 31st 1980. Despite nature’s nine months preparation it was still a shock. Broken waters on the bedroom carpet at six o’clock in the morning; ten hours later nearly nine pounds of son.
First few days were all hospital visiting and gooey eyed relatives while partner recovered from injuries that would have sent a soldier home from the battlefield with a commendation for bravery. Saturday February 9th it hit. Everyone had gone home from visiting and the now three of us sat in the lounge of our home and us parents realised that we didn’t have a clue. As parents of infants you spend most of your time waiting for them to need something. In the meantime you enjoy the break. We didn’t know that yet. We were the first of our generation to have children.
The next six weeks were the longest of our lives. I think my wife got the best of the baby, enjoying daytime with him. If I raced home from work I could do the bathing and spend the evening nursing a colic sufferer. It was hell. It lasted six weeks but seemed for ever.
Twenty-five years on and I have survived parenthood. I have largely enjoyed my developing relationship with my sons (a second was born in 1982) and count them as my friends above all. If you had offered me, in 1980, the relationship I now enjoy with them, I would have taken it. I have no regrets. Some occasional awful days – oh yes, but no regrets.
What great Christian insights, what words of Godly wisdom, do I have on being a father? Tough call. I once filled in a survey for a church organisation planning a parenting kit. They asked where I learned my parenting skills. ‘Roseanne’, was my reply. If you have no TV then all you need to know is that it championed parenting by sarcasm.
Of the serious things I have to say number one is this. The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother. Given a choice between spending time with sons or spending time with partner, for me it is she who wins every time. I love her. My sons have a stable family life because of that. I do take my boys to matches, to gigs and the cinema. I did spend the best part of many evenings being their transport department before they became more independent. Sometimes, when their mother is out, we eat junk food, drink beer and watch a DVD she wouldn’t like. But she comes first.
Secondly, I’ve been liberal. By and large I’ve allowed my children more freedom than most, set few rules about homework, sided with the boys when schools were being particularly petty on discipline and said very little about bedtime. When they were younger I smacked them and almost always regretted it afterwards. By and large I looked for alternative methods of discipline.
I remember one fascinating conversation with the older lad when he had broken a window. I asked him what a lenient parent would do? He suggested stopping his pocket money until he had paid up and grounding him for a week. ‘Blimey’, said I, shocked, ‘…what would a tough parent do?’
‘Chuck me out’.
Some of his friends were harshly parented. I reckoned that if sins were genuinely repented of then punishment should be used minimally. After all, no-one grounded me when I broke a window. And an insurance company paid.
When younger son was seven I gave him £2 to buy some sweets. I expected change. He came back with no change but some presents for me. I was furious. Their wise mum counselled me to accept the spirit of generosity intended. Great advice. That boy is now one of the most generous people with his money I have ever met. He seemed to spend most of his earnings from his first Saturday job on friends’ birthday presents.
This liberalism has extended to my Christian discipleship of my own children. Always feeling awkward at the sight of children at protest meetings, or out with Jehovah’s Witness parents, I took my children to church until such time as it was safe for them to be left at home if they wished. They wished. If they are to discover the beauty of the Gospel they will do it themselves. I will not hold back from telling them about my beliefs, warts and all. In fact if you knew some of the things about my spiritual life that my kids know you would probably seek your wisdom elsewhere. But I will not, indeed cannot, force them to have my faith. I won’t give them less freedom than God gives me.
My own Dad died in 1999. He was a fundamentally good man whose own father died when he was eleven. Dad had no role model for his parenting skills and he did quite well, particularly when I was a teenager. He was not a follower of Jesus, yet I became one. God does this sort of thing.
In Leaving Home, Garrison Keillor said, ‘Selective ignorance (is) a cornerstone of child-rearing. You don’t put kids under surveillance: it might frighten you. Parents should sit tall in the saddle and look upon their troops with a noble and extremely nearsighted gaze.’
That spirit, combined with openness, means that my sons, whilst no more likely to try drugs than anybody else’s, are I believe several times more likely to tell me about it afterwards. In our house we discuss things. We don’t shout, we don’t condemn and we are really enthusiastic for each other’s successes.
I didn’t want them to go to university if they didn’t want to. I don’t want them to make up vicariously for my short-comings (although the one season that big son and I played in the same football team and won the league was special). I don’t want them to live with me for ever. Parenting is about doing yourself out of a job. Readers of this blog will know that one has gone; one remains.
Many parents find the Bible’s command to children to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1) a licence to be demanding. They fail to read on to verse four requiring fathers not to exasperate their children. Honouring your father and mother was important in the days of the Commandments being given to Moses. In the absence of a state pension how else would your children learn to look after you when you were old unless they saw you look after your parents as they came near to the end of their days?
So love the kids’ Mum, love Jesus and tell the children why you do if they ask. Be as liberal as you dare. No guarantees though. Adolf, Slobodan and Idi’s dads probably tried hard too.