Open letter to young parents

I follow a number of parenting blogs to stay in touch with parenting issues for those with young children. These bloggers often comment about melt downs in the grocery aisles and other issues related to strong willed children. They lament the challenge of parenting while looking for assurance that their methods of child rearing will help their children grow into happy, successful, and well balanced children. They also look for those who share and empathize with their struggles even as they sign up for parenting courses, or read new books on the topic. I empathize.

Their struggles with parenting remind me of what Bonnie Miller McLemore, writes about Parenting in, In the Midst of Chaos:

“Today children are as much about “difficulty, admiration, trouble, and tension” as they are about “celebration, admiration, and passionate attachment. (This confronts adults with) many more challenges as well as many more pleasures than any idea of childhood has done before”… Those who thought of children as innocent didn’t have to take them as seriously as thinkers, doers, companions. Now we must. What is required now is not just a shift in our understanding of children. Rather, we must consider how our new regard for their complexity is expressed as we practice our faith within the daily rounds of family life. Children are active agents and participants in the practices of faith, even if they bring their own perspectives, capacities, and insights. Now we must figure out what this means for our lives.

No wonder parenting seems to have gotten so much harder! As a an aside, I remember my mother saying the same thing to me thirty some years ago, and her amusement at all the choices I offered my children. Now I catch myself wondering about the many choices children I have contact with feel entitled to make. Hmmm? I guess they are being active agents. 🙂

As I ponder this, I mix in my connections with an Old Order Mennonite Community that is patching its life back together after having its children seized by Child and Family services because of allegations of child abuse.  A lot of counselling, restorative work, and healing has gone on and most of their children are now back in their homes.

Since their one room schoolhouse reopened last September, after a closure of 18 months,  I’ve been honoured to serve as their educational consultant and support for their teacher, who also happens to be an Elsie. As I do so, I am struck by great differences in our lifestyles.

I am amazed at how compliant and happy their children appear to be as all eight grades in one classroom do the same art project (which often involves different ways of colouring inside the lines) or memorize poems of different lengths that reinforce the socio-religious values and expectations of this group. To my eyes, it seems like a easier way to teach and raise children, even if  it requires the organizational feat of teaching multiple grades at once. I thought they would be dealing with all kinds of reintegration issues, but, for the most part they are playing and working together happily.

These children’s manners and attitudes reflect parenting and educational practices  that make my deceased mother’s seem modern.  But, as long as they stay within their own community, and as long as adults don’t abuse the power that world-view accords them, these practices serve them well and help form persons with a strong sense of group identity and amazing skills for co-operation.

I wonder how the differences in these ways of raising children are influenced by the meta-narratives we live by. Their big story is shaped by their people’s understanding of the biblical story. Living in harmony with their understanding of this story gives their lives direction and purpose. This includes learning submission to what they understand as God’s intentions for our world and conforming to very clear expectations of disciplined classroom behaviour. They’ve got a pretty clear idea about authority structures and the give and take needed to make their traditional community function smoothly. This can and does also lead to problems, but their problems are different than those that prompt the many  parenting blogs.

I suspect that one of the greatest factors which make parenting so challenging in our modern western world may be the lack of meta-narratives in our lives. We have become so individualistic; have made so many choices in shaping our lives to be the best that they could be, that the sense of justification for our actions resides within ourselves, rather than in a larger story and its inherent values. And that is a small and shaky place, always open to doubt and second guessing; especially when children loudly affirm wishes that dash the parent’s hope for a conflict free day.

Perhaps that is why these parenting blogs abound. By sharing their stories they are creating a new narrative, one in which it is normal to be dealing with defiant children who are having melt downs over matters that appear trivial. They also put those meltdowns into a broader perspective.

When I do a workshops on classroom management, which has some similarities to parenting, I talk about the importance of an internalized sense of authority. Whether as parents or teachers, we are in leadership roles. Our life experience and training give us both responsibilities and privileges in those roles.  As the “in loco parentis” clause made very clear to me during my educational training, teachers actually carry the legal responsibilities of parents while their pupils are on school property. We also have the right to determine fair boundaries and appropriate choices for the children in our care. The first weeks of classroom life were always exciting and intense as a new classroom community took shape. Even as I sought to understand and appreciate each child, I also made it clear that they could trust and rely on my leadership in ensuring that our classroom was a safe and creative learning environment for everyone. That meant I had the right to challenge their behaviour if it was interfering with that goal.  It also meant that I was content to live with their temporary unhappiness when they were being pulled back into line with that goal.

That kind of sense of responsibility/authority is what I wish for parents as they face the complexities of parenting children in today’s complex world. Peace be with you.

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About Elsie Hannah Ruth Rempel

As a young senior whose life could easily have ended in a nasty car crash in 2012 I live with an extra dose of gratitude to God, humanity, and the wonders of our human bodies. I am a passionate advocate for ministry WITH children and seniors in the life and ministry of the church. I started working in Faith Formation with Mennonite Church Canada in 2002. Thinking and writing about faith helps me see God at work in all kinds of surprising places. I'd like to be remembered as one who encourages others to live into God's good dream for our world. My book, Please Pass the Faith: The Spiritual Art of Grandparenting, is one big way I'm trying to share that encouragement with my peers. This blog is another way I'd like to engage people who care about growing in faith across the generations.
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