Bad Parents! The New Yorker Scolds the “Helicopter Parent”

From Joan Acocella’s just-published New Yorker article entitled “The Child Trap: The Rise of Overparenting”:

helicopter-parenting“We’ve all been there—that is, in the living room of friends who invited us to dinner without mentioning that this would include a full-evening performance by their four-year-old. He sings, he dances, he eats all the hors d’oeuvres. When you try to speak to his parents, he interrupts. Why should they talk to you, about things he’s not interested in, when you could all be discussing how his hamster died? His parents seem to agree; they ask him to share his feelings about that event. You yawn. Who cares? Dinner is finally served, and the child is sent off to some unfortunate person in the kitchen. The house shakes with his screams. Dinner over, he returns, his sword point sharpened. His parents again ask him how he feels. It’s ten o’clock. Is he tired? No! he says. You, on the other hand, find yourself exhausted, and you make for the door, swearing never to have kids or, if you already did, never to visit your grandchildren. You’ll just send checks.”

The entire article is worth reading. A review of Hara Marano’s A Nation of Wimps and a few other recent works on “helicopter parents,” it raises questions that every Christian parent should consider, as do the books reviewed briefly in the article.

I’ve been surprised at the amount of secular-seeming, child-centered, sin-gratifying parenting I’ve seen in the evangelical community. One would think that Christians who have a robust doctrine of sin would govern their children accordingly, and teach them that they must deny their natural, narcissistic instincts, learn to revere their parents and other adults, and speak and act with decorum and wisdom. Instead, many parents seem to indulge the base instincts of their children, mirroring a more worldly style of parenting.

What does this look like? Like this: one’s child, as mentioned in the above quotation, dominates conversation. Children have little respect for adult interaction and constantly interrupt. Oftentimes, children run wild around the home. When discipline is attempted, often with gentleness of an extreme degree, the child erupts in volcanic fury, leaving the parent, who cares more for their appearance than for their child’s spiritual health, to try as best as humanly possible to placate the child’s wrath. This generally does not go over well, of course, leading to embarrassment on the part of the parents and awkwardness on the part of the guests.

This problem began far before the eruption, though today’s children “erupt” far more often than they used to (if I had regularly thrown public tantrums as a child, I would have met some alternate fury; used to be that parents did not allow tantrums to happen, period). This problem began with parents who have bought into the modern parenting culture, which so emphasizes a child’s self-esteem, needs, and wants that it essentially erases the traditional concern for the child’s heart and behavior.

This is a very bad situation. It compromises the unique character and witness of Christian homes and robs them of the chance to look different from secular homes and thus testify of a greater reality, a life-and-home transforming reality. It means that parents are not really the authorities but are held captive to the will of a dearly beloved little sinner (or collection of sinners). Many of the parents who practice this model love their children very much, provide a warm and happy home for them, and avoid the past mistake of all discipline and no love. But they swap out the old problem for a new one, failing to hold law and grace in balance.

I am a very young parent. I don’t speak with years of practical experience. But I do hope to raise my daughter in this balance of law and grace. Though I have an excellent wife who is a natural mother, I must not cede my daughter’s formation to my wife, as so many passive Christian fathers seem to do. As a father I must often personally shepherd my little girl and train her not to be narcissistic, not to throw tantrums, not to mess up other people’s homes, not to interrupt adults, not to act up in church but to sit quietly and listen, not to develop a short attention span through a constant stream of movies and tv that will handicap her for life, not to refuse to speak to adults when they address her, and much, much more. In short, I have to apply my healthy doctrine of sin to my sweet, lovely little daughter’s life. I must be gentle, but I must also be strong, both in tone of voice and in physical bearing. I must not be a weak or wimpy father.

A book that has proved very helpful in developing my understanding of biblical parenting is psychologistrosemond-parenting John Rosemond’s excellent Parenting by the Book. Rosemond’s exegesis is sometimes suspect, I don’t agree with all of his conclusions (spanking is a helpful device in my book), and he doesn’t provide a lot of source material, but he has tremendously helpful practical advice on biblical parenting, and he soundly refutes what he calls “postmodern psychological parenting.” Every parent–especially every young parent–should buy this book. My wife and I have read through it, chapter-by-chapter, and we have been thoroughly instructed and challenged by it. You will be too.

Here is hoping for Christian parenting that is anything but cultural, that testifies by its very character to a God who is neither all law nor all grace, but is a perfect balance, and a model for all who seek to raise their children well.

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  • Al

    How can Christians who believe in depravity . . . ? We have a whole country full, slight exaggeration there, of Christians who are ‘sound’ in doctrine. They just don’t practice any of it outside of the church, and possibly that is too generous a statement.

    We have a nice godly man in our church who just doesn’t seem to connect the dots between the various points of theology that he says he believes and other points of theology and also with the world. Upper story and lower story!

    Good reminder,here, not only about parenting, but about the larger call to live the life. I’ll speak with my wife about canceling the trip to our grand kids.

  • Mike Freeman

    Owen, call me when your daughter is four! ;-P

    I have a four (nearly five) year old son who, from the time he was 6 weeks, has been a constant struggle. We are consistent, we put him to bed early, we limit any TV time, we teach scripture. He has a great understanding of God, creation, sin, christ, and the cross. He has even trusted christ as his savior.

    However, most people that are with him for more than a half hour have to wonder what in the world we are doing. He constantly interrupts, he is impulsive to an extreme, and he wont let things go. Although we have never permitted any of this selfish behavior, he continues like the energizer bunny.

    At times, the judgmental looks and attitudes from my fellow believers has been too much to bear.
    While the points are well taken about permissive and passive parenting, remember that some may be doing everything they know to do right, with less success than others.

    I also have a 3 year old daughter. She is basically a piece of cake and obeys easily (comparatively speaking). Some kids are just more difficult, methinks.