One of the treats about being a father and having children is the chance to watch yourself grow up all over again. Have you ever thought about it that way? I certainly have. Admittedly, life in 2010 is drastically different than it was in 1960s America when I was a boy, but the essence and wonder of childhood are primarily the same. Or is it?
There are many days when I catch a glimpse of Trent and Troy doing something that ushers me back 40 or so years. It might be the way they line up their Hot Wheels or the excitement they exhibit about skipping rocks at the nearby lake. Most importantly, I see it in their tender hearts. I see it displayed in their congenial temperaments. These snapshots conjure up memories of the innocent and quiet emotion that I harbored back in my grade school years.
But how different is their physical world than was mine? There are, of course, all of the obvious differences such as computer technology, the Internet, the ease of travel, and cell phones, to name a few. I remember scrambling for a dime to call my mom from a phone booth. Remember those?
Back when I was a kid, airplane travel was for the rich and famous. I became intimately familiar with the hot backseat of the family car in Southern California. By contrast, Trent and Troy have flown numerous times and ride in air-conditioned comfort on family vacations.
What about the cultural changes?
I’m reminded of the popular email that tends to make the rounds every now and again comparing the top problems that teachers faced in the 1940s with those of today’s educators. According to the list, back in 1940 the typical teacher faced (in order of severity) talking, gum chewing, running in the hall and making noise. Today? Drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, sexting and a rampant use of profanity top the list.
My generation of parents, otherwise known as baby-boomers, came of age during a time of great cultural experiment. Longstanding norms about sexuality and drugs came under fire, were questioned and, in some instances, overturned. According to a host of experts during the time of my adolescence, children were best raised without firm rules. In fact, a prevailing viewpoint was to oppose any form of structured discipline.
Ironically, this was the era and sentiment that gave rise to the founding of Focus on the Family. In 1970, my friend and Focus on the Family’s Chairman Emeritus, Dr. James Dobson, published his first book, Dare to Discipline. The runaway bestseller was basically written in response to the popularity of permissive parenting, perhaps best illustrated in the work of the late Dr. Benjamin Spock.
What has come of it all? How are today’s heirs to this new style of “free” parenting doing?
A friend recently forwarded to me an article about a book by Ron Taffel titled, Childhood Unbound: Saving Our Kids’ Best Selves—Confident Parenting in a World of Change. Dr. Taffel attempts to answer the question of whether or not today’s children are all that different from those born in the 1960s and 1970s. He writes:
The debate over whether anything is truly different . . . has ended for me. From my twenty-five years as a counselor to children, teens, and their parents, as well as from over a thousand talks in schools, churches, synagogues, and community agencies around the country, I am convinced that not only are kids’ lives qualitatively different today from those of earlier eras, but that parents today are uniquely different, and therefore the parent-child relationship has fundamentally changed as well.
There’s so much to unpack and discuss within those two sentences. I couldn’t possibly do the topics justice here. Instead, let me ask you a couple of questions: Do you agree with Dr. Taffel’s main arguments? How different are your children as compared with you when you were a child? As compared to your own mother or father, how different are you as a parent?
Dr. Taffel serves up some provocative material for discussion. Of today’s youth he suggests:
Kids of all ages are now a bundle of contradictions: they exude entitlement, back talk shockingly, negotiate endlessly, worship celebrity, do ten things at once, conduct independent lives online, and engage in high-risk behavior at younger ages. Yet, they are also far more open with their parents and each other than kids in prior generations, are strikingly generous and empathetic, and care deeply about ethical issues. In addition, their high-speed multitasking is preparing them for the demands of the future.
Granted, Dr. Taffel is painting with a broad brush. Not every child is a “me-monster” (to borrow the phrase of Brian Regan, a favorite comic). Nor is every parent a pushover. At the same time, I think it’s appropriate to ask what are you and I doing to help turn the tide?
For starters, Jean and I are very careful and deliberate about drawing distinctions between our roles as mom and dad, and Trent and Troy’s roles as our sons. While we encourage conversation and discussion, we don’t believe in treating our kids as adults and giving them autonomy and authority reserved for their parents.
I sometimes wonder if one of the biggest mistakes parents make today is assuming our kids are more mature and discerning than they really are. For example, a colleague tells the story of a brother who lets his 7-year-old son watch MTV. When asked whether he was concerned about the images, themes and overall appropriateness of the network for a young boy, the father replied in surprising fashion. “Oh, he’s a good kid,” he said. “He knows we don’t approve of bad language. He knows enough to ignore the bad and appreciate the good.”
That approach runs in stark contrast to Paul’s advice to the Ephesians when he urged them to “Be imitators of God” (5:1).
Focus on the Family is a great resource for parents who want to raise their kids in a biblical (counter-cultural) manner. Our PluggedIn online is especially valuable with regard to making sound, biblically-based entertainment choices. It’s my prayer that as mothers and fathers we parent in a way that’s pleasing to the Lord, not simply palatable to our children.
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