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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Pendulum parenting

Finding a cure for wild swings between arbitrary rules

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

Monday my husband and I boldly go where we have never gone before: swing dancing lessons. And, seeing as we are about as adept on the dance floor as Steve Martin's character in The Jerk, it should, if nothing else, prove humbling.

Dancing may be unfamiliar territory, but, as a parent, there is another kind of swinging that is all too familiar. Wildly fluctuating between strictness and leniency, drill instruction and lethargy, I adhere to one, then another parenting style, often with an eye toward my maternal reputation and almost always without consulting the brain God gave me for just such occasions.

I tick in one direction when convinced by a well-meaning friend to feed my baby on The Schedule. I tock in the other when I find said schedule restrictive and subsequently nurse her every time she sniffles. I bake bread from home ground wheat, not because it has more fiber per slice, but because the ladies at Bible study do it. I then tire of the kneading, stock my shelves with white fluff from the Wonder outlet, and pray no one checks my breadbox.

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I expect militaristic discipline while the kids are sitting in Bible study, but at home ignore their bickering because I am just too worn out to turn off The Office and deal with it. Back and forth the pendulum swings as I hyper-react in my attempt to parent. Balance proves elusive, much like Goldilocks discovered in her search for the 'not too hard, not too soft' bed, but the kids are expected to obey, fickle parenting notwithstanding.

As the children grow, the arc of the swing increases. After all, only a few short years are left in which to imprint on their tender hearts what Christianity is all about, right? Matters of indifference and personal preference become as God-etched as the Original Ten as we fight over issues like going outside with wet hair, attending youth group, and wearing jeans that are one inch below the belly button.

Cords of love between parent and child unravel, sometimes beyond repair, over issues like the incorporation of the electric guitar into family worship, brushing for the ADA-approved full two minutes, drinking the milk in the bottom of the cereal bowl, 10 more minutes of computer time, soft vs. stiff church clothes, shaggy hair, hemlines, and the putting of elbows on the table. All of which are man-made rules having "indeed an appearance of wisdom, in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but [being] of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh" (Colossians 2:23). We bite the preschooler's head off for belting 'la, la, la' instead of the proper words to "A Mighty Fortress," and then wonder why he starts kicking the pew and pinching his sister.

If we sense that the moment they leave home, our kids will beeline it to the nearest convenience store for Camels, Michelob, and Hostess products, or if we ignore our child's arrogance, or closed spirit, or sullen attitude, or lack of faith because we have spent ourselves monitoring his Red #40 intake, we might want to reevaluate.

The question is: How can we stop ricocheting without falling into that most elusive of booby traps-relativism? Extremes themselves are not the problem: We want children who are totally sold out for Christ, passionate about their faith, devoted to purity, with an inexplicable love for the Body. What we do not want are capricious, uninformed, or knee-jerk rules that produce kids who think that wearing eyeliner under the lower lashes is on par with murder.

God's absolutes yank my hands from the parenting pendulum, freeing me from the dizzying ride between extremes, grounding me in majors and blessedly rescuing me from minors.

More than my girlfriends' approval or a maternal merit badge, I want my children to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. I want kids whose understanding of grace is not convoluted by mine. And I want them to distinguish clearly between God's rules and the ones that I, in my attempts to produce Über-Children, have created.

Monday we learn to swing dance and, whatever the outcome, for my children's sake, I pray I can limit the swinging to the dance floor.

-Amy Henry is a writer with five children

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.


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