Writings by Cole Huffman


Underbearingness

I don’t know that parenting in general is any better or worse than it’s ever been. We all recognize I hope that some of the best parents have rotten kids and vice-versa; that within the same family one can find a child who is a credit to his parents but his sibling is not—see Cain and Abel, for example, from the Eden East subdivision. Parenting has been a very human experience since even antediluvian times. And as such it is, among the varied ventures of life, one of the most resistant to glib formulas.
That is not to say there is no tried-and-true wisdom to commend to all parents. Consider this axiom: If you expect respect from your children they will render it. We’ll immediately think of exceptions to this, living as we do in an age of simple yes-but retorts to every rationale. But really now: Aren’t you doing your child a comparatively better service to expect him to respect you? How he or she treats you directly correlates to how he or she will treat others. Laissez-faire parenting is not only weak but weakening.
In a word, my pastoral responsibility to parents is to encourage them. Understand “encourage” in this context to mean enabling their courage. James Dobson was right: Parenting isn’t for cowards.
For the parents I share church and school communities with, I don’t fear their making mistakes of overbearingness—overbearingness being a kind of false bravado whereby I’ll show my kids who’s the boss and what’s what and that’s that. I see some of that around and it saddens me when I do. Paul says bullying-as-parenting is precisely the best tactic for embittering a kid (Eph. 6:4). Whatever the short-term gains in respectfulness and obedience, one is landing the helicopter squarely on his or her children’s shoulders, pinning them under overweening expectations so that one can prove something to himself usually. This is, in St. Benedict’s words, rubbing too hard to remove the rust and crushing the vessel. What Benedict told his abbots translates to parenting too: “Let [the parent] so arrange everything that the strong [kid] has something to yearn for and the weak [kid] nothing to run from.”
But for the parents I share church and school communities with, I fear more the mistakes of underbearingness. I just made up the word, but underbearing parents expect too little from their kids. These parents permit sass, demandingness, ingratitude, untimeliness, inattentiveness, and other overtures of disrespect. It’s the parent that aw-shucks shrugs at his child’s rudeness (some of these kids, Eddie Haskell-ish, are polite to every other adult but their folks) as if nothing can be done about it, as if everybody’s kid is boorish and we just have to laugh it off. Teenagers! What can you do?
Underbearing parents put themselves at their kids’ beck-and-call in ways that aren’t good for the kids. Earlier this school year my son’s football coach sent an email out to parents seeking to rein in our Fed Ex Ground service to school for every little thing the boys were forgetting. He also noted that the office staff was dismayed by the tones of voice some of the boys were using toward their moms (like Napoleon Dynamite barking at Kip to bring him some ChapStick). If the underbearing parent finally does stand up for him/herself, the dignity of the stand is often debased by a frazzled display of pent up self-disgust, since most parents realize implicitly they should not tolerate the intolerable or suffer the insufferable.
Our children need the formation of our discipline, yes. But our children also need to learn to discipline themselves. The earlier we expect this from them the better it is for them. It killed me to see her tears, but this is why I refused to retrieve my daughter’s spelling book from her classroom a couple of weeks ago, even though I have a key to the room (her school meets in our church building). It cost her valuable points on an assignment, but she has to learn to be responsible for her stuff—and herself.
I retrieved my aforementioned son, a ninth-grader, from a class event recently. The event, a Christmas party, was held at a stately home and the kids all looked nice. At the designated pick-up time I pulled up in the cove to find a good number of my son’s male classmates in the driveway and yard, wrestling and chasing each other. It wasn’t hooliganism, granted, but it also wasn’t the venue for that kind of horseplay. I expect such from my younger son’s Junior Kindergarten class. As I probed my older son about the evening on the way home, I learned the same kind of stuff had gone on inside the house too. I was embarrassed for the girls in his class, and felt bad for the hosting moms who were subjected to it.
That a lot of those boys didn’t show the appropriate decorum at that event is the evidence of their immaturity. And immaturity is synonym for undisciplined. I think a 15-year-old boy ought to be young man enough to know how to conduct himself at a nice party. Furthermore, he ought to be young man enough at 15 to personally care about how he comes across. That’s the fruit of self-discipline: self-respect and self-restraint, recognizing what it’s time for and not (Eccl. 3). But boys, and girls, need their parents to both emphasize and expect this from them. It won’t occur by osmosis.
It was either my junior or senior prom. There was one nice restaurant in my Alabama hometown, and some buddies and I took our dates there for dinner. Somehow we neglected to tip our waitress. Since it was a small town word got back to our parents of our mistake, probably that night. To their enduring credit and our enduring benefit, none of our parents went to the restaurant themselves to pay the tip. Instead we each of us were confronted by our parents and sent back to the restaurant the next day to render the neglected tip and offer personal apologies to the offended waitress face-to-face.
Perhaps that waitress shouldn’t have made such a fuss? Maybe, but I’m thankful she did for what I picked up in self-discipline. It was probably the first time I realized just how responsible I was for me. I’m trying to pass the same along to mine. But sometimes it feels like too many of my parenting peers are running out on the check.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:40 PM