Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Because I Said So!"

In Chapter 4 of The Family in its Civil and Churchly Aspects (1876), Benjamin M. Palmer treats the subject of parental authority. In a very insightful section, he adverts to the various features of the relationship between parent and child which negate, or at least minimize, the need for an appeal to raw authority. In other words, the relationship that obtains between parent and child contains features that make “Because I said so” less necessary. His illustration of this fact is in the following points:

  1. Children are minors for a long time. Inevitably, there will be conflicts of will between parent and child, but parent need not despair of training the child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord because time is on his side. Time is always an important factor in human affairs, but it is nowhere more important than in child-rearing. As long as a parent is consistent, there will be many opportunities to reinforce the lessons the child needs to learn in the way of obedience. As Palmer puts it, it is an unwise parent who approaches the training of his child's will by assault rather than by siege.
  2. Children are in a state of extreme dependence upon their parents. Parents are foolish not to use this fact to the advantage of training their children properly.
  3. Children are credulous. This derives from the previous point. During the most formative years of their lives, all knowledge children have comes from testimony. The second a child is responsive to observation, he is collecting information that will be the basis for knowledge. The child's credulity is the mechanism which allows this. Once a child gets older, this feature of his or her personality will be replaced by the use of reason. Combine this with the fact that children, by nature, have reverence for their parents (unless the parents, like fools unteach this), and a parent has an enormous power to wield under God for rearing children.
  4. Children as born at intervals. This fact carries so much weight that I will present it in Palmer's actual words: “The fact that they (i.e., children) are born at intervals, and at intervals sufficiently far removed to allow the full assertion of parental supremacy, is somewhat significant. The great practical error in family government lies in the almost universal overlooking of this idea; which, therefore, we express with none the less gravity because the reader will be likely to greet it with a smile. The grand fallacy consists in assuming that the child must know in order to obey, and therefore it must be waited on for the knowledge ere the obedience is exacted. It should obey without knowing. The will and the affections are in exercise before the judgment and the reason. These are to be met at the threshold. At the first dawn of intelligence the child should find itself under authority, and obey by the power of instinct. If the mastery is to be acquired after the will has developed itself in flagrant opposition to authority, the conflict must be proportionally severe, and rarely ends in the parent's acknowledged triumph. We doubt if a child was ever thoroughly conquered after two years of age. Nature has wonderful modes of teaching, if we are only wise enough to take her hint.”
  5. Older children influence the younger ones. The household is a unit. As such, there is a “first-born.” Palmer says, “It it is a cruel satire to say that two grown-up persons cannot manage one poor little weakling, whose only resource is to cry.” Now, if the work of discipline and proper training of the first-born is established, the work is lightened with the subsequent children, because, besides the work which the parents will repeat with child number 2, number 3, etc., the lessons are reinforced by the example of the first-born which is always on display before the younger children. Palmer notes how it is often remarked that domestic discipline becomes milder with the advancing age of the parent. He says that this is exactly how it should be. Parents have learn tact with experience. They should have learned which battles are worth fighting, so to speak. With the first-born, parents frequently overreact for fear that something bad will happen if they don't respond in a certain way. Experience proves this wrong, and they don't repeat the same steps with the subsequent children. But more importantly, this charge is often unfair. Palmer says, “large assistance derived from the trained obedience of older brothers and sisters will go far to explain the difference which is sometimes pointed at a trifle invidiously.”
  6. Children are under constant supervision. Only the most derelict of parents allow their young children to pass their time unsupervised. In infancy, parental supervision is the nearest thing to omnipresence a human will ever know. And because the parents' watchfulness is not one of suspicion, but of love, the child delights in the fact. This contributes to the child's sense of security and safety. This in turn, strengthens the child's natural trust in its parents, which increases the power of the parents' influence for shaping the child's character.

Palmer, returns to his earlier remarks on Colossians 3:21. He concludes, “We see, then, the import of the Apostle's words, 'Provoke not;' that authority is not all a parent has to wield, but influence as well; that when the sceptre of rule is stretched over the domestic state, there may be a cunning which shall wreathe it with roses, and conceal its harshness.”

In short, a parent may need to resort to, “Because I said so.” And when the parent does so, it is a legitimate appeal to authority ordained by God. But the need to such a naked appeal to power is not the only tool in the parents' tool-belt. Constant appeal to it will “provoke” the child, and result in discouragement. As Palmer puts it, Colossians 3:21 means that the child should “never be thrown into an attitude of antagonism to the parent.” Proper balance in wielding both authority and influence is the only way this command, and its counterpart, Ephesians 6:4, can be fulfilled.

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