Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
You’ve heard of helicopter parenting. You’ve met tiger moms. But what about python parenting? They do more than restrict freedom; they constrict life out of their children.
The way constrictor snake breeds squeeze the life out of their prey can give us goosebumps. Is it possible, however, that some Christian parents may unintentionally be squeezing the life out of their children in the name of safety or success?
While my kids are all under four, we’ve tried to do the opposite of the constrictors: loosen our grip as they’ve gotten older. Sure, my three year old is not allowed out my sight for any extended period of time (and certainly not in a public place or park, for safety concerns), but we try not to smother him as much as we did when he was a six month old.
We love to snuggle our babies tight and keep them safe, but also recognize that they need space and freedom to explore their environment free from constraint. Even Hazel, at 22 months, is beginning to become her own little person. Once the impulse to put things in her mouth subsides, she too will be allowed a greater degree of independence. With each little milestone, each little display of maturation and responsibility, we try to reward them with a little extra dose of freedom.
I’m sure we won’t always get the recipe 100% right, but as a guiding principle it’s our aim. We’ve all seen people who neglect this principle and the results are terribly sad.
The older our kids get the more important it is that we increase their freedoms. Particularly as they get into the teen years. The two most common errors we can make are the following:
Too Strict: Probably the most common way to parent like a python is to limit our teenagers freedom to such a degree that they have no opportunity to make mistakes. Out of a fear of injury or making a mistake we can make our grasp on our children so tight they never have an opportunity to learn from their own mistakes.
Trust is a two way street.
If we want our teenagers to trust us and our decisions as their parents, let’s show them enough grace to trust them to make some of their own decisions now. Age eighteen comes up fast, and once they arrive they are legally allowed to brave the world alone. If we show them that we trust them and start dispensing that trust early on in their lives it will result in a healthy parental relationship.
A great honor for a father (or mother) is to have a platform in his adult children’s lives. The platform changes as children grow. With adult children we serve more as coaches and confidants than chaperones. But the switch doesn’t just flip the day they turn eighteen. We have the potential to shatter our platform early on by ensuring that we never give our teenagers any freedom. And that freedom includes the freedom to fail.
Our kids will make mistakes. It’s an unfortunate side effect of living in a fallen world. We may be able to keep them from being exposed to the sin in the world (at least for a little while), but we can do nothing to prevent the sin that resides in the hearts of our children. If we show them that we trust them to make wise decisions as they grow in wisdom and years, they are more likely to extend us the trust necessary to foster healthy communication.
It’s inevitable they will mess up, they will sin. What’s not inevitable is whether or not they will trust you to speak into their lives after they sin. If they’ve experienced the two way street of trust in their home, they may come to you and ask for help and input. If you shatter their trust, they may turn to fools for counsel (Prov. 13:20). Worse yet, they may refuse to repent.
Too Scheduled: The second and less obvious way we can parent like pythons is to constrict our children with activities. This can be less obvious to our kids (they’re too busy to think about their lack of freedom) but grows from the same root: fear of their failure.
While the strict parent creates false security from sin by refusing to allow their teenager any freedom, the scheduled parent marches to the beat of “if I just keep my kids busy, they won’t have time to sin.” This too, is a snake-like way to parent.
We’ve all heard the cliche “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” It isn’t devoid of truth (it’s cliche because it captures well what experience has often proven), but it makes a terrible north star for parenting.
If we aren’t careful we can seek jam-packed schedules as a false savior from sin. We can enroll our kids in Monday night karate, Tuesday night piano lessons, Wednesday night Bible study, Thursday night sports, and Friday night dance recital. Then the weekends are used for Church and sports outings. This might seem like a great way to keep your teenagers on the right path, and for a season it may work. But what is this really teaching your kids?
That their worth comes from their performance.
This is an anti-gospel message. And it’s a work (remember, any work that’s not Jesus’ work is a false gospel) that is easy to throw the wrench into. What sort of lies are we telling our kids about God if we trap them into a frenzy of activity? If they fail in their endeavors or get injured, they are no longer valuable. They will never seize the opportunity to rest and may look down upon those that are less productive than them. They will see no need for the savior who offers them rest (Matt. 11:28).
Our teenagers need space for rest, social lives, and yes, even unstructured time to unwind without a determined goal in sight (video games aren’t all bad in this regard). It is possible they may use this idle time to sin, but busyness is no way to guarantee they won’t sin.
The Garden Example
When we look to our heavenly Father as an example of parenting we gain some much needed perspective. We only get three chapters into the Bible when God’s children, Adam and Eve, disobey him. Are we to then conclude that their Father had failed them in his parenting? By no means.
Let us then not live in fear that we will fail in our parenting. It is inevitable that our children will make mistakes, but let’s give them the freedom and trust to make them on their own and not push them to resent and rebel against us by trapping them in a prison of restrictions or a prison of performance.
In the garden, God gave his children a long enough leash to choose whether or not they would obey his loving counsel. He didn’t hover over them saying “no” at every moment. He also didn’t setup a seven-day regiment of activity as a smokescreen to mask his distrust of them. He instituted a day of rest for them.
Still, they disappointed him, as will our children. But he loved them enough to pursue them after they failed and make a way to restore the relationship.
Temptation will come knocking on your children’s door. If they recognize you as someone that loves them, trusts them, and has given them freedom they are more inclined to see temptation to sin as the slavery that it is. But if that old snake (Rev. 12:9) comes looking to tempt them, following him might look like freedom (Lk. 4:7; 2 Cor. 11:14). When we constrict our children too tightly, they’ll have difficulty telling the difference between you and the serpent.