Dear Tristan: Be Powerful

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I told you that I think obedience, which many parents seem to see as the highest value for their children, is overrated. Today I want to share a bit more about why I believe that, and what I hope for you instead.

I believe in empowerment. I believe God created each of us with the power to make real choices that affect our relationship with Him and the way we live our lives during the time that He gives us. I believe part of my job as your dad is to empower you in much the same way.

The problem is that for much of history, including the history that is still being made to this day, the prevailing belief has been that powerful people can only obtain and maintain their power at the expense of someone else’s. The “power over” dynamic has shaped human history and culture as long as humans have existed . . . all the way back to Cain and Abel.

But there is an alternative. I don’t want to exercise power over you. I want to exercise power with you.

What does a “power with” relationship look like?

For my relationship with you, I hope it looks something like giving you real choices over what we do with our time and our lives together, giving you the ability to exercise your preferences even when they are not mine, and gently exposing you to the consequences of your choices in ways you can handle, so you learn how to make wise, informed, educated decisions about your life.

What does that look like in practical terms? I don’t know yet. I’ve heard ideas I find attractive from other parents who believe this is important: like allowing their four-year-old input on when she goes to bed rather than mandating a “bedtime,” or allowing their seven-year-old to research and choose a location for the family to spend their summer vacation.

In truth, though, it will probably look different by the day, and will look different even from other families who hold the same values your mom and I do. The key is that – as I’ve tried to explain in my last few letters – neither of us wants to exercise power over you . . . to bend your will to ours simply because we can. Instead, we want to exercise power with you . . . to teach you how to be a powerful person who is able to make wise, well-considered decisions about his own life.

It’s not going to happen all at once, of course. If you decide at age 10 that you think tattoos are cool and you’d like to go get one, I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen. What I will tell you if that situation arises is that a decision like that is fairly permanent – or at least fairly difficult to reverse – and that I’d prefer you wait until you’re 18 to make a decision with consequences that are that long-lasting. Then, if at 18 you still want a tattoo, I’ll drive you out to get one myself, even if I think it’s a bad idea at the time.

If, on the other hand, at age 10 you decide you want a particularly expensive pair of sneakers, even if my personal opinion is that they’re overly extravagant and a waste of money, rather than just telling you “no,” and rather than buying them for you myself, I will do everything in my power to assist you in finding ways to obtain the money you need to buy them on your own, through extra chores, mowing lawns, delivering papers or whatever courses of action are available to you to obtain for yourself the resources to facilitate your own desires.

It’s also not going to look the same for every decision. If you decide while you’re still living in my home that smoking marijuana is an attractive habit to adopt, I will explain to you that you are free to make your own decisions of that magnitude when you’re out on your own and the potentially drastic consequences of that decision affect only yourself, but a decision like that has legal ramifications for myself and the rest of our family if I allow you to engage in illegal activity in my home with my knowledge. Part of “power with” is ensuring that both your needs and mine are met to the best of our collective abilities to meet them . . . so I’m not going to overcompensate by letting your need to make your own decisions damage my need to protect the rest of my family.

In general, though, when I have the ability to do so without long-lasting, drastically harmful results to you and others, I want to empower you to make your own choices.

To me, that’s what “power with” looks like.



Filed under Things intended for my children that the rest of you get to read too

3 Responses to Dear Tristan: Be Powerful

  1. Kendall Jobe

    Your thoughts on obedience and empowerment and “power with” take me back to Genesis when the was only God, Satan, Adam and Eve.

    God emphasized obedience just for obedience’ sake.

    Satan was big on “powerful people can only obtain and maintain their power at the expense of someone else’s.”

    Adam, with pure obedience, would have turned out much different.

    Children obey your parents is a command from God. In my home, obedience is grown. Example: When children are young obedience is absolute, preferably with a snappy Yes Sir!
    From this they progress to about age 15 and obey because my example is what they want to follow, in other words, I am not performing “do as I say and not as I do” exercises.
    As a Dad, set the example, be a great leader for your children, conduct your life so that what you do is duplicatable.
    Children thrive when they have guardrails to guide them. Children obeying when done right by a Dad is a significant guardrail, a great tool for raising them right and something they thank you for when they are raised.

    Father of 12 children

  2. Kendall,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by, read, and share your thoughts!

    I’m not sure I agree with you that God in Eden was emphasizing “obedience just for obedience’ sake.” I think Genesis 2:15 makes it clear that God was asking Adam and Eve to obey his command not to eat from the tree – not for the sake of forcing their obedience, but to protect them from the consequences of the action He told them not to take.

    You are, of course, absolutely right that “Children, obey your parents.” is a command in Scripture. In fact, given that in Greco-Roman culture even adults were considered under the authority of their elder relatives, the command is even more far-reaching and binding in its original historical setting than in the ways we usually apply it today!

    But look at the overall context of Ephesians 6:1. If you read the passage in paragraph form as Paul wrote it, rather than with the chapter headings that were inserted later by transcribers, you can see the verse is a continuation of the thought Paul begins in Ephesians 5:21, where he outlines how all family members are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This includes several different relationships. The passage outlines how wives and husbands are to mutually sacrifice for one another, and yes, children are to obey their parents. But Ephesians 6:4 is just as important as the rest of this section: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

    Let me tell you, one of the most exasperating things in my own childhood was when my father would command me to do something and would give as his reason, “because I’m the dad” or “because I said so.” It was frustrating because I knew, even from a very young age, that was never the REAL reason. I think training and instructing my child in the ways of the Lord necessitates explaining to him whenever possible the real reasons behind what I ask of him, to the best of his ability to comprehend those reasons. Failure to do so, in my opinion, would mean I had failed to fulfill the command of Ephesians 6:4, which carries just as much weight as the command in Ephesians 6:1.

    That’s what I mean when I say that “obedience is overrated” – simply that obedience for its own sake is not the point. The obedience Paul commands is in service to the overarching goal of “bringing up children in the training and instruction of the Lord.” That’s the point, not forcing kids to obey.

    You’re right, I think, that some children “thrive when they have guardrails to guide them.” I was myself a compliant child of the sort you describe. Other children I’ve known, though, see such guardrails as something to test and kick against at every opportunity. I suspect it’s different for each kid, and as a parent my goal is to figure out the best way to relate to each of my children as individuals, as I assume you have needed to do with each of yours.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that the most important part of this whole equation is to lead by example. If you look back to my previous letter to my son, it was all about the examples he will choose to follow throughout his life, and how I hope that I can earn his trust as one of those examples. I really appreciated where you said, “As a Dad, set the example, be a great leader for your children, conduct your life so that what you do is duplicatable.” That is one of my greatest aspirations as a new Dad . . . to live my life so that my son (and future children) want to follow my example.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. Pingback: Dear Tristan: on expectations : heidi

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