“Free Range Parenting” (Part 3 of “Teaching Children Selflessness”) April 15 2018

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

As we learned in Part 1 of this blog series, we are caretakers, or stewards of the children the Lord has entrusted to us. While there are some days with our children that seem like they might never end (and maybe they think the same thing about us), looking back on it, we have them at home for a relatively short time.

It is interesting how metaphors are invented to describe parenting styles. We hear a lot about “helicopter parenting” (implying that parents can hover over them too much). Then there is “free range parenting.”  In fact, the State of Utah passed a “Free Range Parenting” bill just last month.

According to newspaper reports, “It all started when Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old ride the subway home alone (in New York City). She gave him a map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill and — just in case — some quarters for a pay phone call. Then she left him in the handbag section in New York’s original Bloomingdale’s. It was all his idea. He had begged Skenazy to just leave him somewhere and let him find his way back all by himself, until finally, on a spring day in 2008, she let him do it.”

To make a long story short, her son made it home safe and sound, thrilled with the independence he had been able to experience. His mom wrote an article about this experience in the New York Sun, which prompted all sorts of reactions on both sides, from “America’s Worst Mom” to accolades for allowing her son to learn through a little independence. She later wrote a book on this topic.

This reminded me of the time when Shashi was traveling and I took our two sons (ages 14 and 10 at the time) with me to Chicago on a business trip. I gave them instructions for how to take the train to downtown, with plans to meet them later in the day at the bottom of the Sears Tower. I was confident that they could take care of themselves, but I have to admit being a little nervous when it came time to hunt them down. Those were in the days without cell phones, so we didn’t really have a backup plan, but they survived to tell about it. And they got to make the “guess what we did today!” phone call to mom after we got back. You will just have to guess her response.

The new Utah Free Range Parenting law exempts from the definition of “child neglect” various activities children can do without supervision, permitting “a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities …” Those activities include letting children “walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.” The law does not say what the “sufficient age” is. Part of the idea is to get away from parents being “second-guessed” by child protective services when children are allowed to take on what Utah law now considers reasonable activities.

This is not an endorsement of any particular metaphorical parenting style. The Scriptures have ample (and often overlooked) instruction for how we can bring up children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). But these worldly metaphors did remind me of a biblical metaphor on parenting that is relevant to our “Teaching Children Selflessness” series.

God says in Psalm 127:3-5:

Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them ….”

Just as Jesus prepared His disciples for the day when He would no longer be with them, we have to realize that this day will come with our own children. And my, how that day seems to come quickly! “Little arrows” is a great metaphor for training and discipling our children, because arrows are not designed to stay in the quiver forever, but to be used for their intended purpose. At some point, we need to shoot these little arrows off into the world to achieve the purposes that God intended for them. However, the warrior is responsible for ensuring the arrows are straight and untwisted, checking the arrow for soundness, and then, for aiming the arrow in the right direction.

This is why the five steps of discipleship that Jesus used with His disciples - 1) teach them what and why; 2) show them how; 3) get them started; 4) keep them going; and 5) teach them to train others - are so powerful for us even today.  It is all about preparing them for walking with the Lord on their own.

While there is no guarantee that children will be godly when they grow up, we are to faithfully carry out our own God-given responsibility to train them up in the way they should go, so that when they are older, they will not depart from (i.e. not be able to escape from) the training (Proverbs 22:6), as we discussed in Part 1. There may be resistance. There may be extremely difficult challenges. There may be rebellion. But just as Jesus demonstrated love, selflessness, patience, etc. with His disciples, so also we have the privilege of learning and practicing these characteristics as we train/disciple our children, and to keep on praying for them as they leave home.

Even after they leave home, there can be opportunities for counsel – both parent to child and child to parent. If you read through the book of Proverbs, you begin to notice how often there is reference to the importance of being open to counsel. The character trait of “wisdom” in Proverbs is typically described as how we accept counsel and even reproof, not how we give counsel out to others. And this is often in the context of the parent/child relationship. For example:

  • Proverbs 13:1 – A wise son accepts his father’s discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
  • 3:11-12 – My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe His reproof, for whom the Lord loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.
  • 13:18 – Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, but he who regards reproof will be honored.
  • 15:5 – A fool rejects his father’s discipline, but he who regards reproof is sensible.
  • 15:31 – He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.
  • 12:15 – The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.
  • 10:17 – He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray.

This is a good reminder to children who are grown, up as well as to parents. Accepting counsel or even reproof means listening to things that are sometimes hard to hear, but it is also a sign of wisdom. But be mindful, as both parents and children, that we are ultimately responsible to follow the Lord’s direction, not that of a human.  And if a parent or grown child rejects a well-intended bit of counsel, keep in mind that they will be responsible for their decisions before the Lord. We are not responsible for the results.  And the result may be another lesson learned by either parent, child, or both.

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Steve Smith