Yes, our children and grandchildren are saints! Not saints as sweet, adorable, morally perfected little darlings, but saints as young disciples-in-training. You and I are the trainers. And we equip them from infancy on up.
In the brief paragraph you just read, I shared the most powerful tool we can use in equipping our young ones: Vision. Research indicates that carrying a positive vision for our children alters our behavior both consciously and unconsciously—which then shapes our children’s performance as a result. Children grow into the vision we carry. By degrees, they become what we imagine them to be. They raise or lower themselves to the words we use to describe them. Call them “trouble” and they will become so. But call them strong-willed and independent and they will become that instead. Call them “stupid” and they will act so. Call them “wise” and they will become discerning. Words matter. Expectations carried in and through our words matter. Our secret thoughts that drive our expectations matter. So—for my children, and now grandchildren, I spend time thinking about who they are. For each child, I form an image in my mind’s eye of the loving, empathic, kind, and talented “saint” he or she can become within the contours of his or her own growing personality style. I can feel that secret image—that vision—of sainthood driving how I interpret and interact with each one. I do believe that our children need to become “saints” deep in our imaginations. In our most secret imaginations. Biblically, they are saints.
Such a deeply internalized vision “in Christ” calls our children into the future. It magnetically pulls them forward to be transformed from one degree of glory to another into the image of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV) Central to that spiritual maturation is the equipping of their minds to deal with the tough side of life—as oddly celebrated on Halloween—and deal with it in a way as to counter the brainwashing by the world. (Rom. 12:2, NCV) As noted in the previous articles, we begin with young children “touching” the dark side and mastering it through play…not by running from it, repressing it, denying it, or dismissing it. As our children get older, we ultimately protect their minds with the truth. (Eph. 6:14, NRSV) Such truth-telling begins with affirming there are no ghosts hiding in their bedroom. From there, we equip them to always search for truth—truth no matter what— instead of contenting themselves to mindlessly watch television or repetitively scan smartphones and iPads, or indulge in the magical thinking of gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity.
Searching for truth. It’s the hardest thing to do in life. It takes courage. And it’s certainly not for the lazy. Truth requires a grand search for evidence. Learning how to get good evidence is a challenge. Just look at the tough task that scientists, historians, and our courtroom judges have in trying to adjudicate “truth.” As if that were not enough, according to the apostle Paul, we humans have this propensity to take the truths of God and turn them into lies. In doing so, he says, we arrogantly think ourselves wise, but become fools instead. And we don’t even know we’ve become fools. And God? Well, he lets us play it all out…to our own destruction. (Rom. 1:21, NIV) Importantly, in my profession, three-quarters of my clinical work is dealing with people’s defenses against truth. So, while equipping our children to search for truth is central to their growth in character, it’s very tough work. We’re fighting our own as well as our children’s ignorance about life. And we’re fighting our own and our children’s propensity to not face truth about God and ourselves. Have you noticed when you go to correct your child’s behavior he or she will tend to look away from you? Not looking is the way to not deal with self. And it begins at one, two and three years of age. Wow. No wonder the apostle said we saints see only a dim reflection of reality in life’s mirror. (1 Cor. 13:12, NCV)
If we choose to walk this road less traveled, however, then family life moves beyond the goal of making our children happy to the goal of equipping them to put on the mind of Christ to figure out what is going on around them. So everything that happens to them in life—everything—becomes our opportunity to equip these young disciples to figure things out for themselves. To figure out what’s rational and what’s magical; what’s wise and what’s foolish; what’s moral and what’s destructively immoral. We can take whatever confronts our children, rotate it 360 degrees in our—and their—imaginations, and discuss it. We can train our children to take what they are facing in life and throw it against their values to see how it falls out. We can dialogue with them about what is wise and what is not in the face of their reality. We can train them to go back and forth between what they’re confronting and how they think of their own discipleship—until it all sifts out in a way that makes sense to them (and us). Until they—and we—have understood it well enough. Until they—and we—have gotten direction. Until they—and we—have mastered it…and it hasn’t mastered them or us.
Television is in most homes. It delivers all manner of information, views on the human condition, and people’s views of reality. It is a powerful tool enculturating our children. So we have to wrap that tool with rich dialogue. We have to ask and answer the questions…out loud…with our children: What is that thing doing in our living room? Of what use is it to this family? How is this not useful, or even potentially damaging? I have no idea how wise or foolish such questions sound to you given how we all take the TV for granted. But social psychologists take such questions seriously. Research is showing us how the flow of information on television is a major contributor to Attention Deficit Disorder in young children and how violence on TV is desensitizing our children’s na scent consciences. But these questions—and more—are the same questions to ask of everything that is a part of our children’s world: cameras, video games, computers, the internet, smartphones, cars, as well as movies, places to hang out, or even friends.
When my children were growing up, we had a rule that we had to discuss television programs and movies. We asked questions like: What was the story’s impact on us? What were the writers and directors trying to stir in us? What were the producers trying to persuade us of? And so on…kind of like the old high school analysis of who, what, when, where, how, why. We’d “play” with the movie or television program through dialogue until we felt our children discerned enough about it. We didn’t give them our thoughts right away; they had to think first. Later, when my one son became a high school student, he routinely read magazines to analyze films and would then tell the family who the writers and producers were, what their agenda was, and so on.
My grandson (age 5) and I were watching amateur YouTube videos on my iPad. One was with a man dressed up as Spider-Man. The children on the video were being playful, pretending to kick the adult “bad guy” after he was down on the grass, giving up. While my grandson found it funny, I felt uncomfortable, thinking, “Good grief.” So I told him to turn it off. The not so funny consequence was that my grandson began imitating the “good guys” beating up on the bad guy…with me as the bad guy. I stopped him.
Then we discussed how such violence was wrong because the bad guy had already given up. I had my grandson talk this through with me.
This simple vignette illustrates what can be done to equip our children for most things, from the use of the internet, to video games, to watching The Walking Dead. On one hand, we have to get to know our children so we can judge what they can and cannot handle. My grandson imitating the actors on the YouTube showed he wasn’t mature enough yet. Stopping that video protected him. On the other hand, he had just seen the violence and it had already affected him. So we discussed how that violence went against the values he is being raised with. We also discussed how you treat a bad guy after he’s been arrested. This same approach is useful for watching The Walking Dead. We have to know our children, as well as our own limits. Some parents may choose that it is not wise for their children to watch that kind of violent program no matter what, just like they wouldn’t allow their children to watch pornography no matter what. That is clearly a sound option. There are just some things we really don’t want our children repeatedly exposed to. I didn’t want my grandson to keep witnessing children kicking the bad guy once he was down, even though it was obviously pretend.
The other option is to let our children watch The Walking Dead while paying close attention to what he or she does with it. If our children become more verbally or physically aggressive, then we know they’re not mature enough to handle it. The TV gets turned off. But—whether we turn it off after a short while or leave it on, we parents need to dialogue. Not lecture, dialogue. And dialogue at length…if we want them to learn to think for themselves. Once again, we need to discuss the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the program. We need to ask what such a program is doing to them—and us. We need to get them to figure out “who” is trying to teach us “what” through such displays of violence and death…if they’re teaching anything or just pushing the envelope. We may even want to use the zombies as an opportunity to discuss death and the resurrection. However we do it, instead of letting our children sit there like sponges soaking it all in—and we parents secretly getting upset but feeling helpless to do anything about it—we need to get them to react to what is being thrown at them. The TV is the culture’s way to feed our children. If we parents are going to let them sit at the culture’s dining room table to eat, we ought to at least teach them what they are eating and how best to digest it.
What if our teen refuses—refuses—to discuss things, calling it stupid, declaring that nobody else does it? Well, I hate to say it, but usually something’s been wrong in the family for a long time when a teen has such power that he or she feels free to simply refuse our directive. I’d encourage family counseling in that case. However, calling it stupid and pitching a fit is a bit different than outright refusal. In that case, we parents have to declare that that’s simply the way it is. Either we talk or there is no television. If the teen refuses, we’re back to family counseling to discover how it is that the child has acquired so much power.
This approach can be used for virtually everything. Take playing video games as another example. Games are big business, reaching well over $100 billion dollars so far for 2015. Smartphones and iPads and similar devices have made mobile gaming the fastest growing segment of the market. Psychologists are hired to help design reinforcement schedules, create excitement, increase anxiety at key points, and collect data. On one hand, the industry is producing training games for the military, FBI, and police. There’s even a Department of Homeland Security sponsored game called Disaster Hero designed to train children how to react wisely in a disaster. On the other hand, video games draw many children into addictive loops of magical thinking and mood-altering.
In family counseling, I can usually get the pre-teen or teen to buy into my suggestion. I first create a dialogue about gaming. We discuss the who, what, when, where, how, and whys of it. Then I ask the child, do you want the people at the company who designed this game, including a psychologist hired to manipulate your mind, to have control over how you behave and how you feel? The usual answer, believe it or not, is no. So then we set up a couple of tests. One is for the child to pick a certain time during a game to stop playing no matter what. The next test is for the child to take the proverbial deep breath and stop the game at the most exciting part. The child (and parents) quickly discover just how free or enslaved he or she is to the game’s manipulative design.
With the evidence in hand, we usually get the child to buy into the vision for freedom. In consultation with the family, we then set frequency and time limits that better protect the child. At the same time, we talk through how to mentally approach gaming that keeps him or her free. This actually becomes a paradigm or picture for how to handle all potential addictions, including gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, and promiscuity.
What do we do if we discover that our daughter has been hiding birth control in her dresser? I had one father say, “What can we do? I mean, I did it as a teen. I don’t want her to do it, but, you know, she’s old enough to hide it from us. Punishment won’t do any good.” And mom simply said, “I have no idea what to do.” Dad was right that punishment wasn’t going to be the final answer. But, sadly, he wrongly felt his own teen behavior should now silence him. Over the years, mom had not thought of her “job” as trainer, so when she discovered this evidence, she didn’t go into trainer mode. She didn’t know how. She felt helpless.
The paradigm we’ve been discussing can be used here. Parents need to set limits to protect their daughter—even if their daughter is quite capable of going underground. Requiring and modeling limits matters. Limits will still train her mind even if she secretly goes against them. And then—they have to dialogue. The parents need to rotate this issue of teen sex 360 degrees with their daughter. If they need to pull in their youth pastor and/or a family psychologist to help talk, so be it. Anything to create dialogue. It is only in dialogue that we parents have a shot at renewing her mind in Christ. Not lecture…dialogue. We got to get her to think.
The same kind of dynamic dialogue is how we equip our children to deal with suffering and death. Whenever they have to face death—perhaps through the suicide of a friend, or the death of a family member—that becomes the tragic opportunity to dialogue about Death with a capital “D.” And an opportunity to anchor their discipleship in the physical resurrection of Jesus. That means, however, that we parents have to have the courage to talk directly about such dark matters.
Halloween is all of life—with its magical thinking, projections onto life and people, evil within the human heart, and life’s dark side with suffering and death. Equipping our children to deal honestly with all these—and use all of them to grow up in Christ—is the heart of discipleship. We parents and grandparents have three major tools to equip them. Vision that mobilizes our passions and drives our expectations for our young saints. Limits that guard them until they are mature enough to deal. And rich, 360 degree dialogue that transforms their minds from one degree of glory to another into the wisdom and character of Jesus Christ.
May it be so in our parenting and grandparenting.