All of you know who Adonijah is without my saying a word, so I won’t bother refreshing your memories – at least not just yet. But know this about Adonijah – he was abused as a child. No, he was not abused in the way you might be thinking, which is to say that he was not physically abused. Don‘t get me wrong – the physical abuse of a child is a horrific crime that happens more often than we might want to think. But there is a more prevalent form of child abuse – and Adonijah was the victim of it. The most prevalent incidence of child abuse takes the form of parents who are unwilling to pay the cost of engaging in healthy parenting.
When my twin boys were twelve and my daughter ten, just on the verge of becoming teenagers, I sat down to reflect on what I had learned about children. I came to some startling conclusions. I realized that parents’ seeming advantages of superior knowledge, experience, economic power and emotional equilibrium appear to give adults leverage in that ceaseless struggle for household control between parent and child — but appearance does not square with reality. Those advantages are largely illusory. Children are actually skillful adversaries in the campaign to undermine our status as their authority figures, and their techniques range from subtle manipulation to outright revolt. It may surprise you to know that children instinctively recognize that parenting is very hard work. They sense instinctively that good parenting requires an enormous exertion of energy, demands an intentional discipline of ceaseless commitment. Knowing this, children employ endless stratagems to convince parents that parenting them is not worth the trouble, and the best thing to do is to let them go their own way. At least at the superficial level, children want to be free to do what children want to do. And if parents yield to their children’s superficial desire, they commit an act of child abuse.
I have come to think of children as hostile witnesses in a courtroom. They may well tell the truth, perhaps the whole truth, even nothing but the truth, but they are virtually never going to tell the truth straightforwardly. They expect you to ferret the truth out of their unwitting self-revelatory comments. Let me offer a “hypothetical” situation from when my children were small: my son Mark was wailing on the rug, writhing in pain as he held his arm. Clara stood beside him holding a golf club. I asked, “Clara, did you hit your brother with a golf club?” She replied: “No. And besides, he hit me first!” Now Clara had told the truth, albeit indirectly. She had simply placed the truth somewhere between the denial and the self-justification. My role as a parent was to expend the energy necessary to discern the truth and to uphold the principle of justice. Children deem hiding the truth worth the trouble because they count on our not having the curiosity, discernment and strength of will necessary to pursue the truth and act justly. But we as parents must either pursue the truth ardently or we commit an act of child abuse.
Children are endowed by God with an amazing creativity guaranteed to get on their parents’ (and their grandparents’) nerves. That is to say, children can turn anything and everything into a game or a toy. I could say to one of my sons, ‘Please take my coat to the car,’ a simple request. The car may be parked only a hundred yards away. But within that hundred yards that child can do nine different things to that coat. Within seconds he will be trying to put it on backwards. He’ll put it over his head to see how far he can walk without seeing anything. If his brother is nearby, they will try to stick arms in different sleeves and see how far they can walk together. Within a hundred yards that coat will be transformed into a matador’s cape, a shawl, an Indian headdress, and maybe even a jump rope. Children never treat a thing for what it is. It is the nature of a child to turn everything into a game or an apparatus of amusement and entertainment. Children are programmed to create chaos. If you as a parent or grandparent want order and not chaos, you must impose order through effort and discipline.
Children are natural negotiators – which is to say, children are natural beggars. When parents and grandparents go with a child into a toy or a grocery store, they will almost always emerge with items that were not on the list. That’s why groceries put the candy and soft drinks near the checkout area. But children’s propensity for negotiating extends far beyond material possessions. A mom steps out the door on a nice summer evening and announces, “Children, it’s time to come in.” Do the children naturally drop what they’re doing and march right in? Of course not! That’s simply the moment when negotiations begin. “Ah, mom, just fifteen minutes more, just ten minutes more, just five minutes more.” Compassionate mom says, “Okay, fifteen minutes more, then come in.” The trouble with adults is, they think logically. The mom assumes that in fifteen more minutes those children will promptly come in, grateful for the extension of grace. That is not the reasoning of a child. The child is banking on the fact that mom is old and forgetful and easily distracted. That extra fifteen minutes could easily turn into thirty minutes with a bit of luck. And if the mom has the bad form to call out in fifteen minutes, “Kids, it is time to come in,” that’s when negotiations begin again, until the mom stomps her foot and says, “I SAID NOW!” Then they will come in, mumbling something about living in a prison camp. There are many parents who do not want to pay the emotional price of displeasing their children, of temporarily crossing their will, or paying the price of being resented and momentarily hated. But unless we as parents and grandparents are willing to pay that price, we commit an act of child abuse. Parents who constantly cave in amidst negotiations with their children think they commit an act of compassion. Actually they commit an act of abuse.
The first word out of the mouth of a toddler may be “Ma-ma,” or Da-Da, or, as was the case with one of my sons, “Ball.” But the most consistent words out of the mouth of any children aged six to sixteen is, “Not me.” Who tracked mud into the den? “Not me?” Who left the milk out of the refrigerator? “Not me.” Who left the car door open and ran down the battery? “Not me.” Understand that when a child says, “Not me,” the child doesn’t mean that the child didn’t do it. “Not me” means the child is invoking his/her constitutional right against self-incrimination. “Not me” means ‘I am innocent until you can amass enough overwhelming evidence to establish my guilt, at which point I am willing to plea bargain.’ The child is hoping that you as a parent won’t have the energy and strength of will to investigate, prosecute and punish. But we as parents and grandparents must exhibit that strength of will to investigate, prosecute and punish. We have a responsibility to impress upon our children and grandchildren a basic principle: Words mean something, and you must take responsibility for your actions. If we aren’t willing to accept that responsibility we commit an act of child abuse.
I realized that my own children tended to behave like those velociraptors in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
I mean by that observation that children constantly probe the limits of their boundaries to see where the weak spots are, so they can exploit them. In response, parents must communicate to their children the bedrock principle that actions have consequences. Words have meaning and actions have consequences. Too many parents confuse anger and frustration with discipline. Anger and frustration must never be equated with discipline. The mom in the grocery store whose child is acting badly may say in anger, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to ground you! If you don’t stop, I am going to put you in time out. If you don’t stop, you’re going to be sorry!” But the kid never stops, because he or she knows that is just the mom’s anger and frustration talking. That child has probed his/her parent’s limits enough times to know that there are no real consequences for misbehavior. The mom speaks out of frustration and anger, but she does not have a commitment to discipline. Many parents commit the sin of Adonijah’s father: they lack the fortitude to displease their child. Some parents never realize It is better to displease children through intentional discipline than to allow those children to grow up ignoring the basic fact of the universe that actions have consequences and destructive actions reap destructive consequences.
My generation, those of us who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, anticipated that when we became parents we would not impose much discipline upon our children because we tended to equate discipline with oppression. But we came to realize that if we didn’t care enough to impose discipline on our children, our children could grow up to be less than human, governed only the impulsive nature of their own will. We came to realize that we had a responsibility to communicate the message to our youngsters that in real life there are realities greater than one’s own individual will. The path to wisdom, the path to maturity, the path to growing in character, to maximizing one’s potential, begins with children learning to humble their will to the will of their parents, their grandparents, their teachers, their mentors, their coaches—and the will of the God. We must teach our children and grandchildren that there is great wisdom to be learned in not yielding to the impulse of the moment. In the 1960’s researchers at Stanford put a class of four-year olds to what came to be called, “the one-marshmallow test.” A researcher would say to each four-year-old, “I can offer you one marshmallow now, but I must leave the room for a few minutes to run an errand. But if you wait ten minutes until I return, I’ll bring you two marshmallows.” A dozen years later the researchers restudied those same four-year-olds, all now sixteen. They found that the “one-marshmallow kids” tended to be significantly more troubled as adolescents. Moreover, the “one-marshmallow kids” scored on average an astounding 210 points lower on the Standard Achievement Test than did the “two-marshmallow kids.” We have a responsibility to teach our children and grandchildren that it is often unwise to act on impulse, and there are profound values greater than their individual will. We must teach them that the path to wisdom is found in humbling their will to the guidance of their parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors – and their God. Such an act of spiritual humility is a necessary life skill.
Some years ago, I rose about dawn to take a run down a beach road. I saw a figure running ahead of me, pretty far down the way. I could still run pretty fast in those days, and I thought, “I’ll catch him.” But the runner reached his turnaround point before I could catch him, and he came back toward me. Only then did I realize that the person I was meeting on the road was my father, same form, same stride – only he was about twenty pounds lighter. I realized in that moment that often what we see in our children is ourselves coming back at us. Often what we find displeasing in our children is exactly what we find displeasing in our own personality. Our children often mirror our own flaws. If we want to improve the personality and character of our children, we must begin by investing the spiritual discipline to improve our own personality and character. We must be willing to invest in addressing our own weaknesses and destructive tendencies if we want to live as the proper paradigm for the children and grandchildren that we love.
We as parents and grandparents need to remember that our children and grandchildren are, consciously and unconsciously, soaking up impressions from us as to how they are to live. I think back to when my daughter was young and taking dance lessons, and one afternoon I had the privilege of picking her up from practice. She met me at the car saying, “Daddy, I need fifty cents.” Why? “Because I need it for a popsicle.” Standing beside her was her best friend, a friend whose family had gone through several difficult times lately. I said, “Does your friend need fifty cents, too?” “Oh, yes, sir.” I gave them the money and within five minutes these two little girls in leotards came out licking their popsicles. Clara hopped in the car, and as we were driving away, she suddenly rolled down the window and shouted to her buddy, “My Daddy really cares about you!” Best dollar I ever spent! I realized that, unbeknownst to me, my daughter was soaking up the spiritual virtue of compassion.
It is Father’s Day, so you are going to have to indulge me as I share a favorite parental memory. My boys were playing in a baseball game, and my son Stewart was on first base and his brother Mark was up to bat. Mark lashed a single to right field, and Stewart rounded second and headed for third. The right fielder made a surprisingly strong throw to the third baseman who applied the tag – only to find that Stewart was not where he expected him to be. At just the right moment Stewart had executed a perfect fall-away slide. (If you are not a baseball fan, you have no idea what I am talking about.) I’m not sure Stewart heard the accolades of his coach or the cheers of his teammates, but as he dusted himself off, he looked at the rail where he knew his dad would be standing, and his eye caught my eye – and we shared a slight nod. I thought, “This is parenthood: you impart to your children a certain skill that they can employ at just the right time; and you impart to your children spiritual principles that can inform and serve as the foundation of their lives for the rest of their existence.” And when you see your children embody those lessons and those principles in a single moment or over the course of lifetime, there is no more profound pleasure on earth.
Adonijah was the fourth son of King David. King David was wonderful warrior, an accomplished poet, a magnificently successful king – but he was a terrible dad! Adonijah grew up headstrong, violent, ambitious and vicious. Adonijah tried to claim the throne upon King David’s death and usurp the reign of Solomon, causing a tumult and rebellion in the kingdom that cost him his life. Certainly, Adonijah made his own share of mistakes, but he was also the victim of child abuse. David may have loved him, but he never parented him. How do we know this? Because I Kings 1:6 says, “And his father David never at any time displeased Adonijah by asking him, ‘Son, why have you done thus and so?’ ” David committed child abuse by neglecting to invest the necessary time and energy in his son to shape him through disciplined love. May we as parents and grandparents on this Father’s Day commit ourselves to resolving that this is one sin we will never commit.