Friday, January 10, 2014

When to hang in there and when to do something else

Recenlty, while visiting, J mentioned that some of the families in his ward choose, occasionally or regularly, not to send their children to nursery, generally because they perceive it as disorganized and chaotic and/or not very helpful to their child at this stage. He asked me what I thought about that sort of decision.

So I have been thinking about that. It seems to me that it’s related to the “flee into the wilderness” and “succor the weak” dichotomy that often raises its head in the process of raising children. How do you strike the balance between a) encouraging your children to hang in there and help and b) finding good alternatives that do not include participating if participation is damaging? And how damaging is too damaging? How do you tell when it’s time to do which?

As I look at stories of people in the scriptures I find that that sometimes the counsel is to hang in there and “strengthen the feeble knees”, and sometimes the counsel is to do something else. I think it’s important to note that in each of those situations was no change in the individual’s theology and never, in their creation of something else, bitterness, and always, charity and openness to partially or fully re-engage in an activity when directed. So I’m not talking about rejection or despair, I’m just talking about knowing when to hang in there to help and when it’s time to change the nature of your involvement.

I remember counseling with H. over the challenge of dealing with A.'s constant fascination with violence and anti-social disruption in quorum activities, with Y. over whether or not to continue attending Sunday school classes where behavior was destructive, with K. on how to respond to her children’s complaints about their seminary teacher’s obstructive and competitive methods, I remember my father having pleasant, thoughtful gospel discussions in the car in the parking lot at church when my brother protested that he hated his Sunday school class, I remember my mother worrying over children (not her own) in the Primary she served in who really wanted to learn but who were thwarted by the behaviors of disruptive and unkind classmates.

Those are all church examples, but the same sorts of dilemmas turn up just as frequently at work, in schooling, in politics, in recreation and in community service.

As a parent it is tricky. You want to teach your children how to cope with bad behavior, to be supportive of people who are trying to do good, and to respond to difficult situations with courage and charity. At the same time, you realize that your children are not as powerful and competent as adults. They are still learning and vulnerable. When to teach and encourage coping and helping skills and when to create an alternative to a situation that is damaging while still being supportive of the good people who are called to stay? Sometimes you will be inspired to do one, and sometimes you will be inspired to do the other.

I think that, whichever of the two you are inspired to do, in whichever situation comes up, there are certain gospel principles that will be essential to that decision.

First, there is the real need for your child to feel like his feelings, responses to the situation, and his protests are, in your opinion, legitimate concerns that you respond to with empathy. Whether the decision is to hang in there or to do something else, he needs to know that you have his back and think his ideas and feelings are of vital importance to you and that you consider them deeply. That requires careful listening without contradicting or minimizing what the child is saying. Empathetic listening is also important in considering the needs of the child rather than your own because choosing for your child based on your own feelings alone can be detrimental, even manipulative, to your relationship with the child. 

Second there is the need for the child to learn how to respond with charity. This he learns from you. This Nephi learned from his father’s response to the people in Jerusalem and his response to Laman and Lemuel. Sorrow for sin and no rancor towards for the people who harm, either on purpose or inadvertently is a godly skill to learn. If the decision is to hang in there, that means discussing how to respond with charity in bad situations. If the decision is to create an alternative, that means learning how to proceed on that new path without denigrating the situation that you are choosing not to participate in and being supportive of it in ways that are helpful to those who are still in it.

Third, the child needs to be a vital participant in the discussion of the problem and the creating and testing of solutions. He will need that skill as an adult. It is important that he be able to experiment and practice it with you.

Fourth, the child needs to learn the process of discerning personal inspiration, the process of making a decision and seeking spiritual affirmation, then, down the road, discussing it again with the Lord, making changes as inspiration and circumstances and strengths change. Inspiration to a certain course of action at a given moment is not to be taken as a permanent decision governing the rest of one’s life. If he learns that personal revelation is an ongoing experience with ongoing situations it will save him much frustration all his life.

When they are small, your children have very little experience and your part in making the decisions and helping them to cope or to create and manage an alternative will be huge. As they grow, their experience increases, they’ve started picking up on the principles you’ve been modeling, and the ratio of your involvement to their initiative slowly changes over time. The four principles, however, empathetic, respectful listening, charity, creative problem solving, and personal revelation for one’s own life and one’s own tasks always remain the same.

The goal is to raise children who, by the time they are adults, have learned how to deal wisely with difficult situations, how to evaluate carefully the struggles of others that make group work difficult, how to respond with charity to those who fail to do what’s needful, and how to determine when they have the resources necessary to pitch in and help and when they need to bow out and find other ways to do the good that’s not being done.

So, my answer to J.'s question would probably be another question: were those four principles part of the decision? The parent of a nursery child could use those four principles and make a decision to stay and the parent of another could make a decision to do something else using those same four principles, and both would be doing what was most helpful in the life of the child. And in that case, both would be wise decisions.

No comments: