My husband and I cut our chops in vocational ministry by serving teens and college students. So long before we brought home a baby of our own, we saw the kind of parent/child conflicts that can tear apart the strongest of families. Because we paid our way through grad school in part by “housesitting” in some homes that came with kids while parents traveled, we had a solid dose of parenting experience before we ever got started. There was the toddler who cried the entire weekend because he had separation anxiety. There was the daughter who took off to go camping with the boys’ baseball team. And I can’t forget the drug-using son who jumped out his second-story window, broke into his brother’s car, stole it, and took it four-wheeling in the river. The next morning, he swaggered up the front sidewalk as if nothing had happened.
Other people’s kids had shown us that parenting could be tough. And during those fifteen years before we brought home our own child, we also saw that parenting fads came and went. So when it came time for us to parent, we wanted a guide with timeless advice and that was flexible enough to cover life’s complexities. And an experienced parent gave us a great recommendation. At one of our baby showers, the mother of three shared a devotional thought that stuck with me. She said, “Feel free to read the parenting books and gain what you can from them. But for truly timeless wisdom, go to the Book of Proverbs.”
It helped that we understood how proverbs function–as wise sayings, not promises. They can even seem to contradict each other, like our own proverbs do: “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” and “Many hands make light work.” But it’s this very flexibility—which leaves room for personalized wisdom—that we have needed.
Are you ready for the proverb that has helped us most? Train up a child in the way s/he should go . . . (Prov. 22:6).
Do I hear you groaning? Doubtless you’ve heard this verse over-quoted, twisted, and misused. Me, too. But it has still helped. A lot. Because “in the way she should go” has given us the freedom to personalize the training for our daughter instead of the faceless-generality, generic child the experts had to write about. Ours was different. Daily we have had to ask for wisdom, and often that wisdom has led to going against the traditional grain.
For example, most kids figure at an early age that a relationship exists between cause and effect. Ours did not. Most kids eventually catch on that they want to avoid time out. Ours simply added to her crimes by running out of that corner. Most kids like happy surprises; ours hated any change in the schedule unless it came with a full-day’s notice. And all this meant we have not been able to go with generalized advice. We’ve needed to parent our daughter in the way she’s needed parenting.
Because of her difficulty connecting cause and effect, she had no real sense of time. So we ended up letting her take more than a year to earn the Barbie car she wanted via chores and good behavior. (I don’t mean the miniature car that Barbie would sit in; I mean the kind preschoolers drive—that costs more than $100.) Others advised us to go for a smaller goal, one that would bring our girl more immediate gratification. But all she really wanted was that car. And she did not see a problem with waiting a year. She understood only that we were saying “no.” So eventually we went with the motivator that worked for her. And you should have seen her smile when she drove that pink car down the sidewalk for the first time—eighteen months later.
Also, every expert I had read said, “never spank when potty training.” If it was taking a long time, they said, chill out—the kid will figure it out before college. So we tried being chill. We tried staying home for weeks to keep on schedule. We tried it all. All. For months . . . and months . . . Eventually our daughter was big enough to practically change her own diaper. I’m not exaggerating. And we reached the point at which she was going to be kept out of a program that would benefit her because it disallowed kids still using diapers. And I saw our situation for the power struggle it was. Maybe other kids needed their parents never to go there. But I was training up this child. And I knew her well enough to see that defiance was at the root of our issue. A couple of swift swats on the bottom of a stunned child pretty much instantly put an end to our months of potty-training issues.
We found out when our daughter was seventeen that, as it turns out, she literally does not process life like most other kids. When the geneticist who diagnosed her met with us, I wept when he said, “You have been wonderful parents.” I hadn’t realized how much doubt was telling me, “Surely that many experts can’t be wrong” while over and over I’d felt I had no choice but to go against conventional wisdom. But sometimes a parent just knows.
So as it turns out, my favorite parenting expert is Solomon. Yeah, he had some problems with his family life. But he still figured out that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). And he knew “one size fits all” was lousy parenting advice. Definitely seek counsel. We’re glad we did. But know that the best expert, the one most capable of sifting through and personalizing what your child needs is a prayerful, involved, attentive you.