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The Guilted Parent

Life offers us very few guarantees. We would like to thing, for instance, that all our efforts at our career would guarantee us success and wealth.  Or, that the time we invest in spiritual pursuits would insure us against troubles and pain in this life.  Or, that the investments we put into the lives of our children would promise us perfect kids who become perfect adults and in return raise perfect grand kids.  But there are no guarantees.

The problem lies in our constant search for those guarantees. We want a secret formula: put this into your life or your kids and this will be the result.  We want magic talismans: quote this Bible verse, pray this prayer, do these spiritual things and this will be what you see.  So, we run from book to book, conference to conference, in an effort to find the magic bullet that will kill our fears about the future.  While self-education and awareness is wonderful, there is no formula, talisman or bullet that will guarantee us against failure and disappointment.

No where is this more evident than in the frantic efforts of many Christian parents. Believing that a child enters the world tabula rasa (with a clean slate) upon which the parent can determine the outcome of a child, these parents go through all sorts of spiritual and mental contortions to do so.  The problem arises when a child does not “turn out” as expected.  This places a considerable amount of guilt upon the parent (and sometimes the child as well).  The rest of the Christian community looks upon the wayward or prodigal child and blames the parent for doing something wrong or not doing something right.  There is not a lot of grace or mercy available for parent and child.

It is faulty think that says the parent can always produce the child. It is a lie that guilts a parenting into believing that good “christian” parenting will produce godly children.   There are instances that we are all aware of where even under the best parenting and spiritual guidance a child has self-determined to go his or her own way completely contrary to how they were raised.  At the same time, there are plenty of instances where a child has come through and come out of a background that is filled with all kinds of social and spiritual problems and obstacles to be a success materially and spiritually.  This defies the psychological determinism that plagues so much of our Christian philosophy and theology about parenting and families.

It is the lie of psychological – or spiritual, in this case – determinism that has produced all the Christian formulas and programs available today. They each offer their own guarantees to raising successful kids as if child-rearing and child-training were a trouble-free, risk free endeavor.  In a B.F. Skinner-like approach, a Christian parent can produce godly children as if they were planting a garden or training a family pet.  One only needs to throw in a few well-placed Bible verses.

Thus, Christendom has produced the guilted parent; an impossible weight of legalism towards the parent-child relationship. It is as if the Bible was a parenting manual filled with formulas and spiritual laws that, if carefully followed just right, would produce guaranteed outcomes.  Thus, if the child did not turn out “right,” then it can only mean that the parent screwed up somewhere and did not follow exactly the prescribed formula or spiritual law.  The guilted parent syndrome is not helped by the “testimonies” of successful and winning parents who have raised obedient, respectful, compliant children who live faithful Christian lives with no missteps or disappointments.

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I have known parents who have carefully read and faithfully followed all the advice of Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Yet, despite all their frantic and careful studies, they had a child(ren) who seemed determined to live a life completely opposite of their parents’ values and lifestyle.  I have other friends who systematically followed all of the rules from Growing Families International and their Growing Kids God’s Way curriculum with seeming success, until one of their children did not seem to respond to their carefully crafted efforts.  Both of these parents were at a loss and suffered under a load of guilt and shame for the outcome of their kids.

It is interesting to note that even in Scripture, some of the most successful people of God were followed by ungodly children. At the same time, some of the most wicked characters in the Bible produced righteous children who did incredible things for God.  Finally, if one were to measure God’s success as a successful heavenly Father based upon the actions and activities of all of his children, by the measurement of the material commonly marketed to Christian parents today, he would be a failure!

This has been our experience within my family. My wife, Kelly, and I are well-educated (both with Masters Degrees).  We have read the books, watched the videos and listened to the speakers.  Despite having our home full of books and constantly reading to our children, we have two children out of our four who had a very hard time learning to read and so don’t like to read.  Imagine this from a child who has a father with a personal library that numbers over 3,000 volumes.  Doesn’t make sense according to the formula we were given about helping our children become “readers.”

We also have always been involved in church, spiritual pursuits and openly talked about spiritual things with our children. We read the Bible, prayed around the dinner table, regularly included prayer for missionaries and surrounded our lives with very spiritual people.  We have not done this perfectly, but we have done it to the best of our capability and knowledge we had at the time.  Nevertheless, we have one child who has chosen to live a lifestyle with a set of values that are completely contrary to how he was raised.  Again, this doesn’t make any sense according to what we have been told all these years.

As with so much of our modern Christianity, and much of humankind’s approach to God in general, we have reduced life with God to a formula rather than faith. Like the legalistic religious rulers of Jesus’ day, we have made our own set of laws about parenting that are too heavy for many to bear.  We leave those who are not able to perform according to these rule and regulations outside “the ark of safety” to drown in their guilt and shame.  But Jesus came to introduce a different way.

Living according to these “Christian parenting laws” only proves our failure. The apostle Paul reminds us that “the Law brings death” – and that can apply to just about any spiritual law or legalistic religious system.  Only faith in what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection can bring life to parents who have children who are spiritually and morally wayward.

  • It is a faith that believes that his grace is sufficient for all our sin and their sin.
  • It is a faith to believe that the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is still able to work in their lives and return them to the heavenly Father’s household of faith.
  • It is faith that believes that God graceful and merciful intervention can make up for all of my – or anyone’s – parental mistakes and short-comings.
  • It is faith that believes that the spiritual seeds that were planted at one time in a child’s heart will one day mature into a harvest of righteousness despite what fruit or weeds might be apparent there now.
  • It is faith that believes that God’s love as heavenly Father is greater and more abundant than my earthly parental love.
  • It is faith that believes that God accepts me even as a mistake-ridden and faulty parent to my children.
  • It is faith that believes that just as God’s unconditional love accepts and embraces me; it will also accept and embrace my child no matter where they may be on their own spiritual journey.
  • It is faith that believes that the same God who is our righteous and holy judge is also our merciful and loving counselor.

It is time to set the guilted parent free. It is time to replace formulas with faith.  It is time to reject psychological and spiritual determinism with a trust in God’s power to do what we ourselves cannot guarantee; which is children who worship and serve him.  Let the guilted parent be set free.

These thoughts came about as I finished reading “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today (January 2010, Vol. 54, No. 1).  There is a follow-up interview with Donald Ratcliff by Katelyn Beaty that the reader may want to see.  Some of the terminology and ideas that are in my Blog came from Leslie Fields article.  Follow the link to see the complete article.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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This is for all my friends who are parents.  While it is written from the mom’s perspective, even dads can appreciate this humorous perspective.  [author unknown]

When I was younger, I remember receiving the inevitable homework assignment to write an essay on “something I am thankful for.”

Then I’d spend a lot of time sitting in my room trying to figure out just what in the world that could possibly be, and I’d end up writing down everything I could think of from God to environmental consciousness.

But after having children, my priorities have clearly changed:

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful to have been born the USA, the most powerful free democracy in the world.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for Velcro tennis shoes. As well as saving valuable time, now I can hear the sound of my son taking off his shoes — which gives me three extra seconds to activate the safety locks on the back seat windows right before he hurls them out of the car and onto the freeway.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for the recycling program that will preserve our natural resources and prevent the overloading of landfills.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for swim diapers because every time my son wanders into water in plain disposables, he ends up wearing a blimp the size of, say, New Jersey, on his bottom.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for fresh, organic vegetables.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for microwaveable macaroni and cheese — without which my children would be surviving on about three bites of cereal and their own spit.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for the opportunity to obtain a college education and have a higher quality of life than my ancestors.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful to finish a complete thought without being interrupted.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for holistic medicine and natural herbs.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for pediatric cough syrup guaranteed to “cause drowsiness” in young children.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for all of the teachers who had taught, encouraged, and nurtured me throughout my formative years.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for all of the people at Weight Watchers who let me strip down to pantyhose and a strategically placed scarf before getting on the scale each week.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for the opportunity to vacation in exotic foreign countries so I could experience a different way of life in a new culture.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful to have time to make it all the way down the driveway to get the mail.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for the Moosewood Vegetarian cookbook.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for the Butterball Turkey hotline.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for a warm, cozy home to share with my loved ones.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for the lock on the bathroom door.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for such material objects as custom furniture, a nice car, and trendy clothes.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful when the baby spits up and misses my good shoes.

BEFORE CHILDREN: I was thankful for my wonderful family.
AFTER CHILDREN: I am thankful for my wonderful family.

[author unknown]

Sharp Edges Sign

Sharp Edges Sign

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Bottle feeding: An opportunity for Dad to get up at 2 am also.

Defense: What you’d better have around de yard if you’re going to let the children play outside.

Dumbwaiter: One who asks if the kids would care to order dessert.

Family planning: The art of spacing your children the proper distance apart to keep you on the edge of financial disaster.

Feedback: The inevitable result when the baby doesn’t appreciate the strained carrots.

Full name: What you call your child when you’re mad at him.

Grandparents: The people who think your children are wonderful even though they’re sure you’re not raising them right.

Hearsay: What toddlers do when anyone mutters a dirty word.

Impregnable: A woman whose memory of labor is still vivid.

Independent: How we want our children to be as long as they do everything we say.

Look out: What it’s too late for your child to do by the time you scream it.

Prenatal: When your life was still somewhat your own.

Prepared childbirth: A contradiction in terms.

Puddle: A small body of water that draws other small bodies wearing dry shoes into it.

Show off: A child who is more talented than yours.

Sterilize: What you do to your first baby’s pacifier by boiling it and to your last baby’s pacifier by blowing on it.

Storeroom: The distance required between the supermarket aisles so that children in shopping carts can’t quite reach anything.

Temper tantrums: What you should keep to a minimum so as to not upset the children.

Top bunk: Where you should never put a child wearing Superman jammies.

Two-minute warning: When the baby’s face turns red and she begins to make those familiar grunting noises.

Verbal: Able to whine in words

Whoops: An exclamation that translates roughly into “get a sponge.”

(author unknown)

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Six married men will be dropped on an island with one car and three kids each for six weeks.

Each kid will play two sports and take either music or dance classes.

There is no fast food.

Each man must take care of his three kids, keep his assigned house clean, correct all homework, complete science projects, cook, do laundry, and pay a list of “pretend” bills with not enough money.

In addition, each man will have to budget money for groceries each week.

Each man must remember the birthdays of all their friends and relatives and send cards out on time–no emailing.

Each man must also take each child to a doctor’s appointment, a dentist appointment, and a haircut appointment.

He must make one unscheduled and inconvenient visit per child to the Urgent Care.

He must also make cookies or cupcakes for a social function.

Each man will be responsible for decorating his own assigned house, planting flowers outside, and keeping it presentable at all times.

The men will have access to television only when the kids are asleep and all chores are done.

The men must shave their legs, wear makeup daily, adorn themselves with jewelry, wear uncomfortable yet stylish shoes, and keep fingernails polished and eyebrows groomed.

During one of the six weeks, the men will have to endure severe abdominal cramps and back aches and have extreme, unexplained mood swings but never once complain or slow down from other duties.

They must attend weekly school meetings and church and find time at least once each week to spend the afternoon at the park or a similar setting.

They will need to read a book to the kids each night and in the morning, feed them, dress them, brush their teeth, and comb their hair by 7:00 a.m.

A test will be given at the end of the six weeks, and each father will be required to know all of the following information: each child’s birthday, height, weight, shoe size, clothing size, and doctor’s name. He also must know the child’s weight and length at birth, time of birth, and length of labor; and each child’s favorite color, middle name, favorite snack, favorite song, favorite drink, favorite toy, and biggest fear. He also will know what they
all want to be when they grow up.

The kids vote them off the island based on performance. The last man wins only if he still has enough energy to spend quality time with his spouse at a moment’s notice.

If the last man does win, he can play the game over and over and over again for the next 18-25 years, eventually earning the right to be called Mother!

(author unknown)

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A new and joy-filled season in parenting is when one gets to car shop with and for his or her teenagers.  Afterall, their unrealistic expectations are rooted in youthful optimism.  Any sense of the actual cost to operate a vehicle flies higher than a bald eagle on a warm updraft.  Who wants to worry at the very moment of selecting their image-maker-dream-come-true vehicle about such mundane things as maintenance, oil changes, tires, insurance, yearly license and registration fees?  Well, the parent, for one.   Therefore, one of the duties of parenting is to gently but firmly bring them down to the reality of terra firma.

My oldest daughter, Cara, has been so very fortunate to be saved from such painful developments.  We were saved from the excruciating painful process by a friend who gave her a 1980’s vintage Dodge Shadow.  Since I was a pastor – which meant an income just above the poverty line with no benefits – she knew the reality of getting any vehicle at all was slim.  So, she was overjoyed to have one to call her own.   It had been well-maintained and, while it did not rank high on the coolness factor, was her own transportation.  She had a certain amount of freedom that she would not have had sharing our family vehicle.  I was happy for her.

Unfortunately, the day came when the old Dodge Shadow ‘gave up the ghost.’ Its death could not be avoided.  Whether due to the mileage or the harsh North Dakota winters, it stopped running and became a driveway ornament.  This launched us on a mission to find another vehicle for her.  She had a job and school.  Coordinating those activities with her mother’s needs and my own was going to prove a nightmare.

One day, while her oldest brother, Gareth, who was on military leave from Afghanistan, and I noticed a baby-blue 1971 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with a “For Sale” sign on it.  It was parked by the Firestone store on George Washington Way in Grand Forks.  You couldn’t miss it.  The seller wanted $1,000 for it.  It looked in good condition.  It had more chrome on it than 100 of today’s vehicles put together.  The bumpers could have been used to weigh ship anchor for the U.S.S. Enterprise.  It was, truly, a thing of beauty.  Gareth and I kidded one another about buying Cara THAT car.

Now, before you judge my daughter or my family of being to proud to drive around a 1971 vintage anything, there were some practical reasons for not considering it seriously.  First, the gas mileage would make operating it prohibitive.  The plus side would have been that she could never get very far with it.  But we could not really consider something that would take a budget slightly larger than the Lithuanian’s annual GDP to operate each month.

Second, my daughter is 5’6″ and 115 lbs.  It would have taken three or four Grand Forks phone books just to get her to be able to see and drive.  We did not have that many phone books.  The plus side was that she would have been surrounded by more heavy duty metal than our troops go into battle with today in their Humvees.  They just do not make cars like that anymore.  The number one cause for auto body repair in North Dakota is hitting deer crossing highways.  The bumpers on that vehicle would deflect a small buffalo.

Anyway, Gareth and I had a good chuckle talking about and picturing Cara behind the wheel that 1971 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.  The reality of it was that the car deserved to be owned by someone who would appreciate the cars vintage, make, and model.  It would not have gotten the respect in our family that it surely deserved.

Nevertheless, I could not help myself one day when Cara and I were driving up George Washington Way and saw the car parked alongside the road.  I saw a moment for some fun.

Hey, what do you think about that car?” I said pointing out the baby-blue Cadillac.

What?  That big one? It’s kinda’ cute.  I like the color,” replied Cara kindly but a little guarded.

You’re brother and I are thinking about getting you thatWhat do you think?” I said, pushing the idea a little more.

I don’t know,” she hesitated.  “It’s kinda’ big, don’t you think?”

Yeah,” I agreed.  “But you’d get used to it once you drove it around for awhile.”

There was a bit of a frightened look on Cara’s face now.  “I don’t know, dad.  I don’t think I want something that big.  It’s bigger than a boat!  I mean, what about the cost of gasIt’s going to suck a lot of gas.  I won’t be able to afford to drive it.”

My sweet daughter.  She’s thinking real practical.  Fear will do that to you.  But I could not just let this go.  So, I fibbed a bit to draw out the drama of the moment.

Yes, gas will be more but insurance will be cheap.  Well,” I continued, “your brother’s got the guy’s phone number and is going to get a hold of him today.  He’s probably calling him as we speak.  The guy wants a thousand dollars for it.  We’re going to see if he’ll take seven-hundred-and-fifty for it.

What!?” Cara exclaimed in a somewhat frantic voice.  “Dad, don’t let him do it.  I can’t drive that!

“Ah,” I thought.  “She’s taking the bait.”

“What do you mean, Sweetie?” I asked.  “You’re brother is offering to buy it for you with his military pay.  He wants to do this for you before he heads back to Afghanistan.

WHAT?!! Are you kidding me, right now?” came a more desperate plea.  “No, dad.  Don’t let him do it.  I’ll hate that car.  How will I drive it around town? I won’t be able to see over the steering wheel! How am I going to be able to park it?”

Of course, these were all good points.  But, at this point, I am having too much fun and I am having trouble not smiling or breaking out into laughter.

Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, 2009

Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Well, you better call Gareth,” I said.  “He’s supposed to try and take care of it for you today. He was really wanting to do this for you.  I think you better talk to him.  I mean, after all, Sweetie, it’s a free car.  He may be a little disappointed.

By now, I could tell Cara was conflicted.  She needed a car.  She appreciated the idea of her brother buying her a car.  But just not THAT car.

Now the tears flowed, “Dad, I can’t do it.  Can’t you talk to him? I won’t be able to drive it.  How about if you drive it and I drive your car?”

What?” I objected.  “No.  That would be your car.  Besides, you’d be way safer in it with all that metal wrapped around you.  I wouldn’t want to drive it.  I do too much running around.

But, dadWhat am I going to do? I’ll be scared to drive that thingPlease, won’t you call Gareth and explain?”  Cara pleaded.  “Please?”

No,” I calmly replied.  “That won’t be necessary.  I’m just kidding.  We weren’t going to guy you that car.  How would you drive something like that?”

WHAT!?” Cara exclaimed.  “Are you kidding me, right now? You are kidding me, aren’t youDad!”

By this times the giggles and guffaws had over taken me and now I was in tears from laughing so hard.  I am sure that other drivers on George Washington Way must have been wondering what was going on in our car.

Dad!  I can’t believe you!” Cara protested indignantly.  “You were pulling my leg all along?”

Through tears and laughter, I answered, “Yup.  And, boy, I really had you going, didn’t I? That was priceless.  You should have seen your face.

Wiping the tears from her eyes and with some relief, Cara replied, “Yeah.  Well, I wouldn’t have driven that thing.  You or mom would have had to drive it.

But, Sweetie, what about all that chrome, and those big bumpers, and all that metal surrounding youIt would have kept you really safe.  And, you know, your safety is my main concern.”

Now she looked at me with eyes that said, “You don’t think I’m going to take anything you say seriously from now on, do you?”

I wiped the tears from my eyes and continued chuckling to myself.  What a priceless father-daughter moment.  At least to my way of thinking.  She probably claims to be scarred for life from it.  I, however, will cherish it.

Still to this day, whenever I see a 1970’s vintage, lots of chrome, big-bumpered car, I think back to that moment.  Like this last summer when I visited the Cool Desert Nights Car Show in Richland, Washington.  There were so many beautiful old cars.  But the ones that made me pause the most were the 1970’s vintage Cadillacs.  There I stood smiling from ear-to-ear with a tear in my eye.  Some experiences are just worth living again and again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Again, this is something that did not originate with me.  It is funny to read aloud.  Someone passed this along to me in 2007.  Like others like this, I enjoy rereading it and sharing it every year with my friends.  It brings out the holiday spirit in me…

Dear Santa,

I’ve been a good mom all year. I’ve fed, cleaned, and cuddled my two children on demand, visited the doctor’s office more than my doctor, sold sixty-two cases of candy bars to raise money to plant a shade tree on the school playground and figured out how to attach nine patches onto my daughter’s girl scout sash with staples and a glue gun.

I was hoping you could spread my list out over several Christmases, since I had to write this letter with my son’s red crayon, on the back of a receipt in the laundry room between cycles, and who knows when I’ll find anymore free time in the next 18 years.

Here are my Christmas wishes:

I’d like a pair of legs that don’t ache after a day of chasing kids (in any color, except purple, which I already have) and arms that don’t flap in the breeze, but are strong enough to carry a screaming toddler out of the candy aisle in the grocery store.  I’d also like a waist, since I lost mine somewhere in the seventh month of my last pregnancy.

If you’re hauling big ticket items this year, I’d like a car with fingerprint resistant windows and a radio that only plays adult music; a television that doesn’t broadcast any programs containing talking animals, and a refrigerator with a secret compartment behind the crisper where I can hide to talk on the phone.

On the practical side, I could use a talking daughter doll that says, “Yes, Mommy” to boost my parental confidence, along with one potty-trained toddler, two kids who don’t fight, and three pairs of jeans that will zip all the way up without the use of power tools.  I could also use a recording of Tibetan monks chanting, “Don’t eat in the living room” and “Take your hands off your brother”, because my voice seems to be just out of my children’s hearing range and can only be heard by the dog.

And please don’t forget the Playdoh Travel Pak, the hottest stocking stuffer this year for mothers of preschoolers. It comes in three fluorescent colors and is guaranteed to crumble on any carpet making the In-law’s house seem just like mine.

If it’s too late to find any of these products, I’d settle for enough time to brush my teeth and comb my hair in the same morning, or the luxury of eating food warmer than room temperature without it being served in a Styrofoam container. If you don’t mind I could also use a few Christmas miracles to brighten the holiday season. Would it be too much trouble to declare ketchup a vegetable?  It will clear my conscience immensely.

It would be helpful if you could coerce my children to help around the house without demanding payment as if they were the bosses of an organized crime family; or if my toddler didn’t look so cute sneaking downstairs to eat contraband ice cream in his pajamas at midnight.

Well, Santa, the buzzer on the dryer is ringing and my son saw my feet under the laundry room door.  I think he wants his crayon back.  Have a safe trip and remember to leave your wet boots by the chimney and come in and dry off by the fire so you don’t catch cold. Help yourself to cookies on the table, but don’t eat too many or leave crumbs on the carpet.

Yours always…..

Mom

PS: One more thing…you can cancel all my requests if you can keep my children young enough to believe in Santa.

(author unknown)

Balsam Flower Hillside, April 2002

Balsam Flower Hillside, April 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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