Last weekend, I launched a series of talks under the title “The Under Protective Parent.”
The thesis was simple: there is much talk in our day about avoiding being “over protective,” but little to no talk on being “under protective.”
It’s a significant cultural question.
Let’s go back a few decades.
In the 1930s and 40’s, parents and families were conventional, strict, focused on appearance. Then, in 1946, came a book titled Baby and Child Care by a man named Dr. Benjamin Spock, an American pediatrician.
A book which continues to shape us to this day.
Building off of the field of psychoanalysis, Dr. Spock told parents to loosen up, back off, and let the child go. Be more flexible. Treat them as individuals. While he admirably called for love and affection, he often paired that against discipline and control.
Tell your child they are special, loved and unique.
Don’t ever spank them.
Feed them whenever they are hungry.
Don’t try and put them on a schedule.
By 1998 it had sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into 39 languages. Many critics felt that the proof of his advice was in the pudding. They quipped, “What do you get when you raise a generation on the permissive ideas of Dr. Spock, saturate them with rock and roll, introduce them to drugs and alcohol, overshadow them with the threat of nuclear holocaust, and then tell them that God is dead?
Whether that was a result of new parenting styles, or simply the way of the world, the parenting pendulum had swung. From hands on to hands off; from discipline to persuasion; from moral authority to moral influence. And while we may have backed off from some of the more radical ideas Spock put forward that our parents and their parents embraced, here’s what stuck:
The one thing you don’t want to do as a parent is be “over” protective. And we’ve attached all kinds of pejorative words to it:
But it sends a very strong message by insinuation: it’s wrong to be over-protective, but it’s not wrong to be under-protective. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a mistake in being loose, in playing fast and free, in not protecting enough.
Because the one big parenting sin is protecting too much.
In a world of sexting and Facebook, bullying in schools and internet porn, the Jersey Shore and OC, cutting and hooking up, is it time for hands off or hands on? Time for more Spock, or something else?
Nobody wants to raise kids who are so sheltered that they are socially arrested or incapacitated, or have a parenting style that’s so heavy-handed that it invites resentment and rebellion.
But in our fear of being over-protective, we’ve been under-protective.
We let culture dictate what is normal; if “everyone” is doing it, wearing it, seeing it, going to it, or listening to it, then we feel we will be doing our child damage if we don’t go along.
But parenting by “everyone” is madness.
And if we do it, we’re putting our children’s very childhood at risk.
The assumption with parenting is simple: your children are immature and need your maturity. Yet some parents are more eager to be liked, or accepted by their kids, than they are to be parents to their kids.
So instead of being active, they’re passive.
And in so doing, they drop their protective guard.
The very idea of childhood is that there is a time when a young person is sheltered from certain ideas, experiences, practices, expectations and knowledge. They are sheltered from adult secrets, particularly sexual ones. Certain facets of life - its mysteries, its contradictions, its tragedies, its violence - are not considered suitable for children to know. Only as they grow into adulthood are they revealed in ways that they can assimilate psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.
This is why for years the books that were read in the fourth grade or seventh grade or ninth grade were chosen not only for their vocabulary and syntax, but because their content was considered to contain fourth, seventh or ninth grade information, ideas and experiences.
But when the line between the adult world and the child's world becomes blurred, or no longer exists, childhood disappears.
So we let our eight-year-olds watch Modern Family or Glee;
...we let our girls dress provocatively and begin dating at ridiculously early ages;
...we ignore the fact that our kids have lied to get on Facebook (you have to be 13), or even lied for them;
…we let “godaddy” commercials come and go without comment, or even changing the channel, while watching the game with our sons;
...we have no idea what Rhianna, Katy Perry or Lady Gaga is singing to them on their iPod;
…and we don’t screen friends.
So am I saying that children should be naive? With all that is in within me, yes! That is what childhood is for. A time for wonderful, beautiful naivete and innocence.
So what should a properly protective parent do?
It’s not complicated:
Be informed, involved and in charge.
To be informed is to know what is going in your child’s world. You know what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with.
To be involved means that you are part of their world. You are not a spectator, you’re a participant.
To be in charge means you are leading their world, creating their world, shaping their world.
This is the difference between being simply a mother or a father,
...and being a parent.
James Emery White
Benjamin Spock, Baby and Child Care.
Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood.
To obtain an mp3 file of the first talk in this series, go to “Resources” under www.churchandculture.org.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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