Fatherhood: Learning it the Hard Way

As a parent, who hasn’t said to their child, “don’t touch that!  It’s hot!”?

Maybe it was your toddler reaching for the hot eye of a stove. Or maybe it was a pan of brownies that just came out of the oven. Or if you’re me, maybe it was a shiny external exhaust pipe of a fancy looking sports car.

As a five-year-old walking through a parking lot, I was captivated by the exterior exhaust pipes of a car that looked like it was straight out of the Great Gatsby. My parents told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t to touch the still-hot pipes.

Once I heard that I wasn’t supposed to touch them, I immediately knew I wanted – no, needed – to touch those pipes. I waited until my parents went around the corner and grabbed the shiny metal with my five-year-old hand. To no one’s surprise but my own, the outline of the metal pipe burned onto my hand and left me running to my parents for help.

I remember my parents asking me why I had touched it. I can’t remember my answer. And, I remember them taking care of my hand as best they could.

I also absolutely remember the make, model, and color of that sports car.

Why is this worth thinking about? Well, I have been thinking for a long time about how best to help my children grow up to be adults.

When my children were very young, everything in my being wanted to protect them. I wanted to protect them from themselves, from each other, from other children and from anything and everything in the world that might hurt them. This is normal and right. This is our job as parents of very young children.

But as they grow up, our ability to follow them around and physically stop them from doing certain things is not as absolute as it once was. They go to school, they go to various activities., eventually they drive cars. We just aren’t able to be as physically present as we were when they were little. We can’t follow three feet behind them waiting to stop them from touching the light socket with a fork. (And yes, I did that too. I have a very healthy fear of electricity to this day.)

In short, they have more independence and more free time to make mistakes and bad decisions. And quite frankly, since they’re responsible for making more of their own decisions, and they aren’t particularly experienced at making them, many of their choices will be bad, at least at first.

The question is not whether we stop our children from making bad decisions. The question is whether we should let our children suffer the consequences of those bad decisions.

For example, my child received a bad grade in math. Predictably, she told me it couldn’t be her fault. I did some investigating and found out that the math teacher was new and inexperienced. After digging further, I found out that the school was receiving complaints about her from a lot of students and in fact, the school wasn’t going to renew her contract. Armed with that knowledge, I created the narrative at our house that the bad grade wasn’t my child’s fault, it was the teacher’s fault. I think I even suggested that the school should round everyone’s grade up by some amount to reflect a more appropriate grade.

In my mind, I justified my narrative, thinking I was supposed to protect my daughter from unfairness and wrongdoing, but the truth is I wanted her to be happy. Happy in life, happy at home, happy with me and just generally happy so that we could return to a happy, comfortable home life. If I’m really honest, I just wanted to avoid the conflict of having to deal with the situation. But I sacrificed a lot to get back to my own comfortable status quo.

By making the grade about the teacher and not her, I made my daughter a victim. In trying to remove the natural consequences of her bad decision (not studying), I was preventing her from feeling the disappointment of her math grade. But most importantly, I removed her responsibility for the failure. Effectively, my child no longer responsible for her own grades.

I was literally stopping the learning process.

Allowing our children to suffer consequences of their bad decisions is much harder. It is not a happy place for either the child or the parent. I’m not talking about anything that is fatal or final. But instead, I’m referring to something akin to letting “children sleep in the bed they’ve made.”

Back to my example.  After my terrible job of parenting the math issue, the same child started her first year of high school. Before the first day, I told her that her grades were just that: hers. And that whatever she made, she made. I would love her no matter what. But that they were her grades.

After the first nine weeks, she came home with her report card. It was more of the same– marginal grades with little or no effort.

However, my wife and I reacted differently this time. We simply reiterated that the grades were hers. She was a little taken aback. I don’t think she really believed that we were just going to let her coast along and give a mediocre effort. We didn’t scold her or give her a long lecture on why grades were important. They were simply hers and she had to own them. I think she was stunned.

It wasn’t a trick. It wasn’t some kind of psychological gimmick. It wasn’t a means to an end.  It was simply a recognition of the facts. And the fact was that I couldn’t make her do well in school. She had to want to do well. And if she didn’t want to, she wouldn’t. It was as simple as that.

Strangely, the next nine weeks showed significant improvement in her effort, though the grades themselves were only up a little. Now we had a new problem; our daughter was clearly getting frustrated that the results were not coming as quickly as she would like given the amount of effort she was putting forth, and the pressure she was putting on herself was intense.

So I called up the high school I went to some twenty years before and asked for a copy of my high school transcript. Suffice it to say my high school transcript had almost all the letters in the alphabet on it and wasn’t intimidating anyone. I showed my transcript to my child and told her that grades are not the entire story of who you will be or what you will become. (This would have been a great place to tell her that her identity was in Jesus Christ and that as a child of God that could never ever be lost.  But I missed that opportunity.)

Her anxiety left almost immediately.  Whatever fear she had was gone.  I think by looking at my transcript she realized that dear ole Dad had effectively failed high school, in spirit if not in letter of the law. And he had survived.

Over the next semester, she continued to try harder and she even asked to go see a tutor every week. Her grades progressively got better and her confidence grew. Once the fear of failure was gone, she came to learn that her effort (and a little help from a tutor) was the driving force behind her grades. So, her lesson came in at least two parts. The first was that the grades really were hers, and we were going to let her fail. Only then could she deal with the real issue, which was a fear of failure.

Our house wasn’t a very happy place for the first part of this.  My daughter certainly wasn’t happy. It was hard for her. She was in an uncomfortable place. She was having to learn something new, and it was tough.

But I think sometimes that’s the only way we can learn: the hard way, by failure, whether it’s a five-year-old boy touching an exhaust pipe or a high school girl learning to study.

And with some distance from the event, it makes more sense. Our theology as Christians is a theology of the cross. In shorthand, God is always working under his opposite. His plan of salvation is found in the crucifixion of Christ where God brought about victory through death. That is not only true of God’s salvation of you and me but is also true of life itself. It’s how we grow into mature adults.

The Good News is that God is with us always, especially in our failures. One of my favorite portions in all of the Bible is 2 Corinthians 12;9, where Jesus says to Paul as he suffers with the consequences of his own personal failings, “My grace sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” God doesn’t look away from the messy parts of our lives. He is in the midst of them, and He is working to bring His purpose to pass.

In fact, Martin Luther believed that God does His most profound work in messiest parts of lives.  Looking at the crucifixion we see the worst of humanity, and yet God himself was working on our behalf to save us from death and give us eternal life.

If he can do that, he can do everything our children need.

Hewes Hull is a native of Birmingham, Alabama where he currently lives with his wife, Trent.  They are the parents of three adult daughters.  He and his family are members of The Church of the Advent in Birmingham.

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