Protect, Pamper, or Prepare?

My love for my children and grandchildren is deep. I would willingly give my life for them. You would do the same for yours.

God has implanted in every parent a deeply ingrained instinct to love, nurture, and protect their children. This God-given instinct is so strong that even strangers are compelled to protect children. Only the most depraved intentionally harm children.

Jesus reserved his harshest condemnation and warning to those who would harm children and promised blessings to those who lead them to Him:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea ...
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish ...
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away ...
Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 18:1ff;19:13ff; 10:42)

We love our children, desire the best for them, and will pay any price to protect them. This is good and holy--provided we know what to protect them from.

The Gravest Dangers our Children Face are From Within

Our children face many dangers: bullies, pedophiles, criminals, inattentive drivers, incompetent teachers, germs, the sewer of violence and immorality spewing forth from the entertainment industry, the Internet, ad infinitum. The list of spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical dangers is endless.

While our children certainly face many outside threats to their well being, we often ignore the greatest danger. The most prevalent and pernicious dangers lurk within our children's souls and within the warm embrace of their homes. THEY and WE are among the gravest dangers they face--not the only dangers, not the most obvious--but grave dangers nevertheless.

Danger 1: Danger from Within: The Dark Side

Anticipating the release of the new Star Wars film, my family and I did a marathon watching of all of the past episodes. In one of the most poignant scenes, young Luke Skywalker is being mentored by the great Jedi Master, Yoda. Before Luke enters the Dagobah Cave, Yoda warns Skywalker of the Dark Side--which resides within him. Describing the cave scene, Dan Zehr writes:

The use of the cave as a metaphor has long been a powerful symbol of what lies beneath the surface ... It is a metaphorical journey into the window of one’s inner self, and just as Luke explores the inner sanctum of the cave on Dagobah, he must also journey within himself to face his biggest fears ... he ... faces inner turmoil through the revelation of what he may become once he sees the visage of his face entombed in the black mask of the beheaded Dark Lord... When Yoda is asked by Luke what is in the cave, Yoda responds, Only what you take with you.”

"Only what you take with you." What young Skywalker takes with him into the cave is fear and his own depraved nature, which if not recognized and controlled will consume him just as it did his father Darth Vader.

Like Luke Skywalker, the gravest danger our children face is not what may befall them from the outside but what's lurking within them, an enemy that they will carry within them all of their lives. It is what our children take with them into life which is the gravest danger.

This is a mortal enemy. We expose our children to the gravest danger by refusing to recognize that they have the monster of evil, a Darth Vader living in them. At every moment it seeks to break out and to lead our children down a path of slavery and destruction.

Our children are far more likely to suffer both temporal and eternal pain and suffering as a result of their sins than they are from outside circumstances. How many lives have been ruined by pride, selfishness, lust, greed, and cowardice? How many reputations, families, and careers have been devastated by divorce, pornography, adultery, fraud, sexual perversion, alcohol and drug abuse, lying, cheating, stealing, and a host of other sins to numerous to list?

How many children have squandered their potential because of laziness? How many adults live lives of regret because of past laziness and poor choices?

We want to believe the best about ourselves and our children--but doing so is dangerous. The fact is that we and our children have an evil nature that will destroy us unless God graciously intervenes.

Minimizing this truth sets our children up for great moral, personal, and professional failures. For example, I've had parents tell me that "their children never lie." Really? All I can say is that a parent who makes such an assertion is self-deluded, lying, or deceived by their children's convincing lies. Everyone lies--including our children. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Every dark evil thing that we recognize in ourselves--if we are willing to see it--lives within our children.

Danger 2: Danger from Within the Home: Pampering and Protecting

A second great danger our children face is being unprepared for life. In his excellent book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller writes:

The loss of loved ones, debilitating and fatal illnesses, personal betrayals, financial reversals, and moral failures—all of these will eventually come upon you if you live out a normal life span. No one is immune ...
No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career—something will inevitably ruin it. No amount of money, power, and planning can prevent bereavement, dire illness, relationship betrayal, financial disaster, or a host of other troubles from entering your life. Human life is fatally fragile and subject to forces beyond our power to manage. Life is tragic.
After the Newtown school shootings in December 2012, Maureen Dowd entitled her December 25 New York Times column Why, God?” and printed a Catholic priest’s response to the massacre. Almost immediately, there were hundreds of comments in response to the column’s counsel ... The responses to the column were evidence that our own culture gives people almost no tools for dealing with tragedy ... People were left to fend for themselves ...
The end result is that today we are more shocked and undone by suffering than were our ancestors. In medieval Europe approximately one of every five infants died before their first birthday, and only half of all children survived to the age of ten. The average family buried half of their children when they were still little, and the children died at home, not sheltered away from eyes and hearts.
Life for our ancestors was filled with far more suffering than ours is. And yet we have innumerable diaries, journals, and historical documents that reveal how they took that hardship and grief in far better stride than do we. One scholar of ancient northern European history observed how unnerving it is for modern readers to see how much more unafraid people fifteen hundred years ago were in the face of loss, violence, suffering, and death.
Another said that while we are taken aback by the cruelty we see in our ancestors, they would, if they could see us, be equally shocked by our “softness, worldliness, and timidity".
We are not just worse than past generations in this regard, but we are also weaker than are many people in other parts of the world today.
Dr. Paul Brand, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon in the treatment of leprosy patients, spent the first part of his medical career in India and the last part of his career in the United States. He wrote:
In the United States ... I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it.

Our children need spiritual and mental toughness. Unfortunately, in our desire to shield them from all discomfort, inconvenience, and pain, we are raising weaklings, unprepared for the vicissitudes of life.

Plenty has been written about “helicopter parents”. A great danger facing our children comes from the loving home, from pampering parents. Pampering parents believe that love is protecting their children from discomfort, failure, and the consequences for misbehavior or slothfulness. Such children are bubble-wrapped to protect them from life's bruises and self-inflicted wounds.

Seeking to protect our children is understandable but when taken to the extreme it harms them. Allowing our children to experience mental, spiritual, emotional, and even physical pain is necessary to prepare them to be mature, resilient, competent adults. Allowing our children to experience and learn from pain and failure is also loving. To do otherwise, although well intended, is unloving because it does not prepare them for life. Our children become whining weaklings.

Pain Protects and Prepares Children

The life lessons taught through pain provide protection for our children. The body builds up antibodies and resistance to disease through the pain of illness and high fever. Children learn not to play with fire by being burned. They learn "to get up and try harder" when they experience failure in school rather than the parents doing their work for them or seeking to have them learn from their mistakes.

It may seem contradictory but pain can serve to both protect and prepare our children.

God Is Tough On Us!

God is our Father. God loves us. He loves us so much that rather than protecting his son from the horror and brutality of the cross--despite Jesus's pleas--he gave up his son to torture and death. God loves us more than we love our children and he loves our children more than we do. How do I know? Because every human affection--including love for our children--is tainted with sin. God's love is not--it is pure, steadfast, complete, and eternal.

Yet, despite God's great love for us, he allows us to suffer. As Tim Keller says, we experience "bereavement, dire illness, relationship betrayal, financial disaster, or a host of other troubles." God could, if he chooses, shield us from such pain. Because he is holy, wise, and loving, he doesn't. In fact, Jesus promised suffering:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

Why does God permit suffering in our lives? Because he loves us. As hard as it is to accept, understand, and believe at times, suffering is for our good--and-and our children's--in the long run. As Tim Keller notes, "Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us because God himself walks with us in the fire."

If God, our loving father, allows us to suffer for our own good, why do we suppose as fallen creatures that we know best by shielding our children from pain and failure? While we do not wish hardship upon our children, rather than wrapping them in bubble wrap, we should help them learn from such experiences so that they become strong, resilient, well prepared and mature adults able to handle life's inevitable trials and tribulations.

Pain and suffering builds character and drives us to God. Do we not want that for our children? The fundamental question that we must ask ourselves and answer with honesty is:

“Do we ultimately want comfort or character for our children?”

Ironically, if we choose the former, they will lack character, if we choose the latter, they will be able to take comfort in suffering knowing that "the testing of their faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that they may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Allowing our children to endure hardship gives them both comfort and character. Denying them lessons learned through difficulties robs them of both, comfort and character.

Shakespeare understood this truth as well. In As You Like It, he writes:

            Sweet are the uses of adversity,
            Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
            Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

Tough Teachers are Good for Our Children

Just as we as parents need to stop pampering our children, we must stop insisting that our teachers pamper them. Joanne Lipman in an insightful WSJ article praises the benefits of tough teachers:

I had a teacher once who called his students "idiots" when they screwed up. He was our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, "Who eez deaf in first violins!?" He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.
Today, he'd be fired. But when he died a few years ago, he was celebrated: Forty years' worth of former students and colleagues flew back to my New Jersey hometown from every corner of the country, old instruments in tow, to play a concert in his memory. I was among them, toting my long-neglected viola. When the curtain rose on our concert that day, we had formed a symphony orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.
I was stunned by the outpouring for the gruff old teacher we knew as Mr. K. But I was equally struck by the success of his former students. Some were musicians, but most had distinguished themselves in other fields, like law, academia and medicine ...
Now I'm not calling for abuse; I'd be the first to complain if a teacher called my kids names. But the latest evidence backs up my modest proposal. Studies have now shown, among other things, the benefits of moderate childhood stress; how praise kills kids' self-esteem; and why grit is a better predictor of success than SAT scores.
All of which flies in the face of the kinder, gentler philosophy that has dominated American [parenting and] education over the past few decades. The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students ... But the conventional wisdom is wrong ...
A little pain is good for you ... Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson gained fame for his research showing that true expertise requires about 10,000 hours of practice ... True expertise requires teachers who give "constructive, even painful, feedback." He assessed research on top performers in fields ranging from violin performance to surgery to computer programming to chess. And he found that all of them "deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance."

We are Called to Prepare our Children, Not to Pamper Them

God loves us. God is tough on us. God allows bad, painful things to happen to us--because ultimately it is good for us. The all wise, holy, good, merciful, compassionate, loving God is more concerned about our character then our comfort. We should do likewise.

To pamper and protect our children rather than to prepare them is not loving--it is harmful--and paradoxically does not protect them--it sets them up for failure.

God calls us to raise robust, strong, resilient children, not pampered weaklings.

Practical Advice

To raise strong children requires that we be strong parents and educators. If we are weaklings--giving in to our children's and student's whining and every demand, shielding them from the consequences of their actions--or inaction, we will fail them.

To raise spiritually mature, mentally tough, emotionally sound children:

Prayerfully and passionately point them to Christ as the Savior of their souls. Only Christ can save our children from their own depraved natures. Everything else is secondary. Unless Christ gives them new life--a new nature--the Darth Vader within them will destroy them.

Constantly nurture them in God's word. It is God's word that transforms and it is his word that gives comfort--not through the absence of pain and suffering--but in the midst of it.

Set high standards at home. Expect your children to do chores, to be respectful, to be a contributor to the family. The family does not exist to serve them; they are to be full contributing members of the family.

Allow your children to experience discomfort and delayed gratification. I once heard a mother complain to a school administrator because her child had to go an hour without a drink on the bus. The expectation was that her child should never experience thirst--or delayed gratification. Really? How will that child ever develop fortitude, perseverance, the ability to deal with discomfort, let alone real suffering? Don't always give them what they want, when they want it. Stop being your children's servant--be their parent and mentor. Love them, with tough love, not pampering.

Allow your children to experience failure. Failure is one of life's greatest teachers. It teaches them what they have not yet learned and mastered, the consequences of being unprepared, the virtue of resilience, the essential ability to pick one's self up and try again. When parents blame teachers for their children's failure, seek to intervene and avoid or minimize the consequences for their misbehavior, do their homework for them so they get a higher grade, etc., they will not be prepared for life. Life is hard. It takes hardy people to live life well. Our children must experience hard things to become spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically hardy.

Support tough teachers. Never support abusive teachers. But being tough and demanding, giving the consequences earned is not abuse, giving critical feedback--is loving and good four your children. Support such teachers in what you say at home, say in the car, and by your actions. Your children will thank you for it--and they will thank their tough teachers. In fact, you may want to request loving but tough teachers for your children!