Something Better than Verbal Waterboarding Your Child

As I reflect upon the days of my parenting, I wish that I had better known and seen the difference between wise counsel that lovingly confronts error with a smidgen of righteous anger, and drowning my kids with words, words, and more words. What I call, Verbal Waterboarding them to death.

I wish I had:

1. Listened more, talked less. True, at times they didn’t talk – which is what was frustrating. But their silence and their reason for it, was not a cue for words, words, and more words – glub glub, sputter sputter!

2. Been much slower to anger, for the anger of man does not produce much righteousness in the home. In the face of real rebellion, sometimes I would either go passive-duh, or adopt a scorched earth policy. No middle ground for patient understanding and dialogue, or patience for the sake of patience.

3. Said what needed to be said, then ask, “Did you hear what I said? Tell me what I said,” then close my mouth. The desire to know for certain that they adored my words with real conviction was a lost cause; I can’t see the heart. I know that. But as a parent, we so desperately want to. So frustrating. The temptation is to just keep pouring and pouring and pouring words until we get some satisfactory response. Strange: drowning my kids with words took their breath away. No wonder they couldn’t respond.

4. Spanked more, talked less. I think it was the futile attempt to avoid spanking when it was deserved that led to verbal waterboarding them. When I saw that waterboarding was not working, sometimes I would spank as a last resort, but by then, my body temperature was so high that if I accidentally said, “flame on,” the house would have burned down.

5. Prayed more for the eyes of their heart to be opened to receive life-giving words. I spent more time talking to them than talking to the Lord about them.

6. Permitted just a little more disagreement without fearing their total rejection of me. As a parent, I tended to think at times that if I don’t hold them down to what I believe is right and best in the gray areas of life, then they’ll lose their focus on the essentials; dark gray leads to light gray and light gray leads to lighter gray and before you know it, they’re so far away from the truth that they’ll never find their way back. This reasoning is like Barney Fife saying that one piece of bubble gum paper thrown on the side-walk leads to a street full of gang-bangers. Maybe, but unlikely.

7. Allowed them to say dumb things sometimes, without immediately getting all worked up about it. God allowed Job to talk and talk and talk and say a lot of dumb things, then God verbally water boarded him: “Be quiet. Stand up. Time for me to do the talk’n now.” Sometimes we rob our kids the joy of finding out how “smart” they are by prematurely cutting off their super-duper ideas. Sometimes the best thing to do is allow them to apply their “wisdom” and see how things turn out.

One time I did do this successfully by God’s grace. Joshua and I disagreed over the first car that he would purchase. I explained briefly that “this 89 Camaro RS” is not going to turn out well . . . but it’s your choice. It’s got too much power for traction in snow, drinks the gas, and has the suspension comfort of a cheap go-cart with wooden wheels. He bought it and after a year, hated it. Life Lesson Learned without verbal waterboarding, and he got to scratch his muscle car itch and get it over with.

8. Had warned more often: “I’m not going to keep talking to you and talking to you about this until you get it. There comes a time when it is best to stop giving wise words if all you do is trample them into the ground (Matt. 7:6). I’m going to leave you alone in your foolishness. If you want to talk – I’m ready. If you end up damaging your life but you see the error of your ways and you want to return – I’m here, but if you . . . mmumpwa – mmumpwa – mmumpwa wa (from Charlie Brown’s classroom).

See how easy it is for me to just start talking and talking and talking – I hear those gasps for air!

That’s it. Just reflecting. Hope you take it to heart that there is a difference between offering wise counsel and torture: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear” (Prov. 25:11-12). I’m still working on applying this to other areas as well. So pray for wisdom, pray for your children’s hearts, and learn to speak wisely and calmly (read and pray Proverbs).

Understanding Your Teenager’s Doubt

Below is a brief essay that was written by one of my professors in seminary. It is dated, and a little long for a blog post. But possibly the Lord will use it to encourage a parent, a teen – and anyone who has doubts. Enjoy!

Understanding Your Teenager’s Doubt
By Jerram Barrs
Professor of Christianity and Contemporary Culture
Covenant Theological Seminary 

Psalm 10 begins with the words, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you always hide yourself in times of trouble?” It begins with a complaint, with a doubt or question. There are many such doubts expressed in this psalm and in other passages of Scripture. As we read these words we should consider for our own lives if it is appropriate to express doubt oneself or to allow one’s children and teenagers to express their doubts.

I have three sons who are all in their twenties now. They began expressing questions and doubts about all sorts of things before they were five years old. All children express questions and doubts and at times these doubts are about the Lord and about Biblical faith. This is an issue with which anyone who has ever been involved with young people needs to wrestle.

Doubt Seen as a Danger Signal
Many people see the expression of doubt as a danger signal. A young person or adult with questions and doubts is perceived to be in danger of losing his or her faith. Sometimes it is assumed that a person’s spiritual life is in poor shape, that he or she is struggling with doubts because that person is not very committed to the Lord or just being rebellious.

If doubt is perceived as a danger signal, then it is probable that one of the following unhelpful reactions will ensue:

One of the most common responses to doubt is to tell a person, “You simply need to pray more and double your devotional reading time.” Francis Schaeffer used to call this “loading everything onto the donkey of devotion.” We could all do with more prayer and reading, but this proposal does not necessarily approach the particular problem with which the doubter is dealing. Schaeffer continued with his illustration by saying, “when we load everything onto the donkey of devotion, the donkey will eventually lay down and die!”

Another unhelpful response is to become acutely anxious about the spiritual well-being of the young person. This simply adds further unease and discomfort to the doubts and questions with which the young person is struggling. The child thinks, “Now I’ve made somebody unhappy with me, or somebody anxious about me.” That makes the doubt more difficult to resolve.

In other situations young people are challenged to repentance, as if repentance were the solution to the problems of doubt. A Covenant Seminary student was met with this response during her college years. She took a literature class from a Marxist professor who raised questions that in turn brought up doubts in her mind about Biblical Christianity. So she innocently went to her pastor for help. Her pastor’s response was to tell her to get on her knees and repent. That did not help much, to say the least. It made her think, “I’m not going to talk to him about anything that I’m struggling with.” He basically told her that her problem was her sin and that the issues on her mind did not need to be addressed.

The fourth unhelpful response is to assume that the child or young person simply is not busy enough. A young person is treated as if he or she would not have these doubts if life were more full of useful activities. So parents just load on more chores to keep the child out of trouble — and perhaps even some punishment which might drive the doubts away. Perhaps the most extreme response I have ever seen to the expression of doubt is that the teenager is actually thrown out of the home. This happened to a young German woman, a teenager who came to stay with us at L’Abri*. She had expressed some doubts in a personal diary, which her mother read and then showed to her father who was a pastor. He declared her “rebellious” and “reprobate” and cast her out saying, “You are no longer our daughter, nor are you a child of God.” She was one of the most difficult and troubled people I have ever tried to help. Her parents said it was clear that she did not love God or belong to Him so they made her leave their home.

If you do not think people really respond to doubt in such ways, I can assure you these are real examples. After working with L’Abri for 20 years and having had thousands of young people come to stay with us from Christian homes and churches, I have seen how often these things happen when a young person is doubting.

Causes of Doubt
When we encounter a child (or adult) who is struggling with doubt it is helpful to ask questions in order to understand the cause of the particular doubts. The following is an outline of some of the more common causes:

Many of the doubts with which young people struggle arise from the pain of their own personal experience.

*    One fairly typical example is the divorce of parents, often or invariably including the absence of the father, at least for long periods of time. Marriage and family are intended by God to be a picture to a child of God’s faithfulness. When a marriage breaks up a young person is being given false messages about the trustworthiness of God, their heavenly Father. It is almost impossible for a child to go through the breakup of their parents’ marriage or the abandonment of one of their parents without doubting the love of God in a very deep way.

*    Another cause for doubt comes with severe sickness or even the death of someone who is loved by the child. Death is abnormal. It is a consequence of the Fall and children need to be taught that. But no matter what teaching they have received, they are going to experience death as an abnormality. Death will inevitably cause questions and doubts because it is the ultimate expression that reality is not the way God intended it to be.

*    The experience of personal abuse or abuse of someone the child knows can be a source of doubt. As a freshman in high school, one of my son’s friends told him how she had been severely sexually abused. He was not really old enough to handle that. He was just fifteen and one evening he came in our bed and just wept and wept. Finally he managed to share with us what he had been told. Such an experience, even in the life of a friend, causes doubts and questions in a young person — and it should. Why do such things happen? This is going to raise doubts and questions about the goodness of God.

*    Young people can also experience doubt associated with disappointment caused by a poor performance academically, in sports, or some other activity. Problems in this area can be increased by parents demanding standards of success that are too high, especially when a parent’s love is given or withheld as a reward for success or a punishment for failure. Inevitably this causes all kinds of tension and doubts in the young person’s mind.

Other doubts arise from observing and experiencing the general reality of the brokenness of life in a fallen world.

*    We can be completely sure that many young people have experienced doubt as a consequence of last year’s terrorist attack on this country. All over the country, not only young people but many adults too, are experiencing deep doubts and questions because of what happened on September 11, 2001, and the quite appropriate anxieties that have followed.

*    As children learn about the terrible plight of people around the world, both now and at different points in history, this may raise questions and doubts. For a child who is learning about such things for the first time in some depth (such as the Holocaust), it can be very harrowing and can cause very serious questioning.

*    Doubts may arise as a person learns about the involvement of the church in the evils of the past. It is very challenging, for example if you are an African-American, to learn about the involvement of churches in slavery. Historical events such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or persecutions in the 1700s in France are also disturbing. Along these same lines today many young women experience doubts because of the low view of women and the mistreatment of women that has often been a reality in many churches.

Finally doubts and questions arise because of the intellectual climate of the culture in which we live. By “intellectual,” I do not simply mean high scholarship. I am referring to the intellectual climate of both scholarly and popular culture.

*    The intellectual climate is thoroughly naturalistic. Even though the overwhelming majority of Americans say they believe in God, almost our whole culture acts and speaks as if God were not active in this world. You do not turn on the news and hear about what God is doing. You hear about what nations, movie stars, and people on the street are doing. This is not only true for the media. Christian believers often speak as if God were not active in the affairs of this world. We sit in a naturalistic chair as we look at the world, rather than in the supernaturalist’s chair seeing that God is constantly at work in our own personal lives and in the history of this world.

*    All religions are regarded by the general culture around us as basically different paths to the same end or as the varied colors making up a rainbow. People believe that Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are all different ways to the same God. Or they believe that religion is basically a sociological phenomenon.

*    The most fundamental tenet of postmodern culture is to deny that there is any truth that can be known. This is the most skeptical generation that has ever lived on this earth. Skepticism is communicated in much popular music, as well as in schools and universities.

*    We live in a culture that is morally relativistic. Christians are regarded as arrogant for holding strong moral convictions. That is challenging for a young person growing up in this society. It is challenging for anybody to have your friends regard you as arrogant because you have particular views on topics such as abortion or sexuality. It is very challenging to try to hang on to firm moral conviction for a young person in this culture.

*    The Bible is simply regarded as a human book full of errors. This is widely taught in schools, film, television, music, and literature — and even in many churches. A young person (or adult) who tells friends that he or she believes that the Bible is inerrant and true in all that it affirms will be greeted with incredulity and mockery.

Appropriate Responses to Doubt
What are appropriate responses to doubt, whatever the cause? Instead of responding with alarm, we can help a young person when we:

Express sympathy. Doubt is the right response to much of what happens in this broken world. I tell people, “I struggle with that too, and I am a seminary professor. I struggle with doubts.” If you are a parent, pastor or youth group leader, make it a habit to express your own doubts and struggles. Children and teenagers need to see that Christianity is open to dealing with doubts, questions and problems. Set an example of vulnerability. They need to see that you find life difficult sometimes, that you have questions, that you have doubts. This is comforting to them.

Show Scriptural expressions of doubt. Help the young person see that Scripture itself encourages the expression of questions and doubts. There are many Psalms that are filled with doubt and questioning. And the Psalms are given by God as the Church’s prayer book. The book of Ecclesiastes starts with “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes is still my favorite book of the Bible because it deals seriously with the problem of absurdity and meaninglessness. For me, one of the turning points in becoming a Christian was going to a friend’s apartment for a Bible study on the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes. Up until that moment in life, I thought the Bible was just a book of fairy stories and legends that had absolutely nothing to do with reality. I saw that it is actually dealing with the kind of problems with which I and other people wrestle. So help the young person see that Scripture itself encourages the expression of questions and doubts.

Ask questions that will help you uncover the cause of particular doubts the young person faces. Jesus constantly asked questions of those who came to Him, seeking to uncover what was really going on in their heart and mind. Francis Schaeffer used to say, “If I have only an hour with somebody, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking them questions so that in the last five minutes I will have something to say which really speaks to them. Instead of speaking past them, I want to speak to them.” So ask questions.

Take the doubts seriously and answer them at the deepest level you possibly can. Obviously if a five-year-old comes to you and says, “How can God be good when Grandma just died?” you would answer that in a different way than you would answer a 15-year-old asking the same question. But in either case, you must answer the questions seriously. We are forbidden by Scripture to say “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jer. 8:11). So try to answer at the deepest level you possibly can. This may mean you need to say, “I do not know how to answer that question right now. But I will go and do some study on it.” No honest questioner minds a person saying that. When I went back to serve at the English L’Abri after graduating from Covenant Seminary in 1971, I would sit at the dinner table with people expressing all kinds of doubts and my knees would be knocking as I thought, “What am I going to get asked next?” Many times I would have to say, “I’m going to have to think about that one. Maybe tomorrow we can talk about it.” And I meant it. You need to be honest when you do not know what to say. You need to show enough respect for the doubter that you are willing to prepare a special study to help answer their questions.

When we take doubts seriously it encourages a young person to see that Christianity is indeed the truth, that it is not afraid of the hard questions, but rather can stand up to any challenge. This builds confidence in the Lord and in His Word, preparing the young person for the trials ahead that life invariably brings. Throughout life people will ask hard questions. Because the Christian faith is the truth, because this Word is the truth, you can take those questions seriously no matter how hard they are, and you can answer them out of compassion and love.

In the end, there are two things that must be behind everything we need to remember about facing doubt. We need a deep conviction that Christianity is true and we also need to love others enough to try to understand them and to take their doubts and questions seriously.

* The L’Abri communities are study centers in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., where individuals have the opportunity to seek answers to honest questions about God and the significance of human life. L’Abri is a French word that means shelter.

Empty Nest Syndrome?

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Since our daughter was married this summer, making that the last one to fly the coop, many have asked, “So what’s it like to be empty nesters?”

It’s been 27 years since we’ve been this alone, and since I’m a pastor who reads books on marriage, and who pays attention to the stats, I’m aware that this year is supposed to be one of the hardest on my marriage. Understandably so – I get it. You can’t lie about the stats, they are grievous for sure! And I know that I can’t bank on yesterday’s grace – I need even more for today. But there are a few things to keep in mind so that when they’re gone, it won’t feel so empty.

First, here is an extended definition of the Syndrome:

“Since a young adult moving out from his or her parents’ house is generally a normal and healthy event, the symptoms of empty nest syndrome often go unrecognized. This can result in depression and a loss of purpose for parents, since the departure of their children from the nest leads to adjustments in parents’ lives. Empty nest syndrome is especially common in full-time mothers.”

It’s true, a real feeling of loss takes place when they leave; it would be strange if mom and dad didn’t feel and experience a real sense of loss, even with tears. But that’s not the problem. The problem for the marriage is not the loss of the kids, but the loss of the marriage while raising the kids. It’s exactly what the above paragraph revealed: “. . . loss of purpose for parent . . .” That is the problem – it’s making parenting primary and the marriage secondary. No wonder then that when the purpose of parenting is gone, so is the marriage.

HEAR THIS ALL YE PARENTS RAISING YOUR KIDS: There is no investment of time, energy, money, sports, education, dowry or annuity, that you can pass on to your children that has the ability to make them feel important and loved than like a marriage that thrives after they’re gone! If your marriage does not survive, no amount of sacrifice and investment over the years will compensate. If your marriage does not survive, you are stealing from your children’s future happiness; there aren’t enough piano lessons to buy, or football seasons to play, or coloring books to color with your children, to overcome the emptiness that your children will experience if you split.

So I beg you, with all of my heart:

1. Work harder on your marriage than your children. They don’t need everything that you can give. All my parents gave me was a pile of rocks to play on, a lake to swim in, some grape vines to swing from, and a shot-gun to shoot squirrels. But now, I don’t have any of those things – they’re gone. But what I want most, I have by God’s grace: an old porch with my mom and dad still in love with each other. That’s what you want to give your kids.

2. Raise your children. Don’t worship them. Children are a blessing from the Lord, not idols to extend yourself or supply a lost identity of yourself. Your children are not yours – they’re on loan from God.

3. Believe that if you pursue your marriage in front of them, they will be healthier and happier. Which means, guard your dates and learn to say, “I’m sorry, but she/he was my wife/husband before you were my child. And she/he will be mine long after you’re gone. We have to protect our time alone so that we will have something to give you in years to come.” They may not understand now, but they will.

4. Forge a complementary wall of solidarity. I say complementary, because as male and female we are equal but different, and we have different roles to fill. We complement each other because there are things that each must and can do that the other can’t. I say solidarity, because mom and dad must work together and not allow their children to divide and conquer. This will be impossible apart from prayer and vigilant focus on Christ. One spouse will be more permissive and the other more disciplinarian. Mom and Dad, go to the bedroom with the Lord and settle this. Then come back out and together, lead your children, or spank them. But don’t let them get between you, not in bed and not in the living room.

5. Finally, cultivate open and un-defensive communication. If you don’t, once the kids are gone, there will be little to talk about. It’s hard work to go on a date and not talk about the kids. I remember. But you have to work at it now. Also, I’ve seen the results of hypocrisy in marriages: true feelings are suppressed at the expense of the marriage. It’s risky to say, “I want to talk about my feelings when you say/do _____.” But risk it! If you don’t learn to rock the boat now, and endure some painful storms, you will not be able to overcome the wretched silence when the kids are gone. For crying out loud, have a decent fight once in a while.

If you happen to be reading this and you’re in a marriage that looks like it will not survive the empty nest syndrome, or it already fell prey to it, here is the best advice I know to give:

a. in front of your kids, don’t demean your ex.

b. in front of your kids, own your contribution and say sorry.

c. in front of your kids, say a few things that their mom/dad did well.

d. if you know Christ, in front of your kids, pray for your ex.

e. if you know Christ, believe that God’s grace is greater than your sin – ’cause it is!

BTW, to answer the question above about what it’s like to be empty nesters, my answer is, “I don’t know. It feels more like a hot tub! Isn’t that what the good Lord intended?” (Prov. 5:18, 19)