Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thoughts on Authority and Servant Leadership

Dr. James Dobson and Gary Ezzo are two current proponents of authoritarian parenting, a way of thinking which implies that parents must maintain their authority and use punishment to discipline away any perceived challenges to that authority by their children.  (For a specific commentary on problems with Dobson, see Dare to Disciple; for problems with Ezzo, see ezzo.info).

I've been wondering lately what would become of us if God held that view of authority for Himself.  After all, He is the ultimate authority, and we are all His children.  We challenge His authority every day in myriad small and big ways, "in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone" to quote the Lutheran liturgy I grew up saying on Sundays.  

The answer is clear: as the liturgy goes on to say, "we justly deserve your [that is, God's] present and eternal punishment."

And yet, as the hymn in Philippians 2 beautifully states,

 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
 6 Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
   he humbled himself
   by becoming obedient to death—
      even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, New International Version)

God did not consider his authority something to be grasped, but humbly came to earth to save us and show us a better way to live.  Could it be that God's will for my use of parental authority then may be different than the vision put forth by authoritarian parenting experts?

Yes, in fact, Jesus instructed his followers to use servant leadership in Matthew 20:

Servant Leadership Parenting?
25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, New International Version)

Positive Parenting requires a servant attitude.  It can seem like more work to get off my butt and make it happen by setting my child up for success and helping her comply when necessary.  By contrast, punitive parenting experts offer visions of quick compliance to commands the parent issues from across the room (whether it works out that way in reality is another matter). 

Crystal Lutton, in her article "Manager or Leader?" explains:

When first learning about Grace-Based Discipline (GBD) many people ask this question, “Does it work?” My answer has become, “What do you want it to do?”
Parents who are stuck in the management style of running their home will find themselves frustrated with implementing GBD. It is easier to smack your child than to stop what you’re doing and help them work through a conflict. It is easier to send your child to their room to “think about it” than it is to implement active listening and reflect feelings. It is easier to yell at your child than to go to them and make something happen. If you want to remain a manager in your home you will likely prefer the punitive methods because they are easier and create a false sense of having well-managed your home. After all, you did something about it.

Of course punishing children is unpleasant work, and is usually not a "once and done" situation where a child will never repeat the behavior they were punished for ever again.  No matter the teaching or training technique, children need repetition.  So, because teaching takes repetition and punishing children is unpleasant, it often happens that parents who lack positive discipline tools swing to the permissive (a word I'm using here to mean saying something but then not enforcing it) side of parenting until they get so fed up that they become angry and perhaps harsher in punishment than they may have been otherwise. 

Regardless of whether you want to keep punishment in your toolbox or not, every parent can benefit from learning positive parenting techniques to help eliminate that punitive/permissive swing.

Reflecting Feelings as Servant Leadership
I'm currently going through a book discussion group on How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.  Chapter One is about helping children deal with their feelings by simply acknowledging them, without denying them or downplaying them, or even giving advice or excessive pity. 

We have a chance to practice this skill every night at bedtime.  For example, last night C threw herself to the floor in tears because the bathroom door had been closed when she wanted it to be open.  To us it seemed like no big deal, and it was almost comical that she was so upset about something so trivial. 

We could respond by trying to hush her and saying, "Whether the door is open or closed is not important enough to cry over."  But experience has shown that a response like that only increases her upset and our frustration. 

We could respond by rushing to open the door and cater to her wish.  Experience has shown that at bedtime when she is tired, she will often then be upset that the door is open, or find another thing to fuss about. 

Our best response is to say "You wanted the door open, and Daddy closed it.  You are upset that the door is closed."  And let her finish having her feelings about it while we are there offering calm and loving support.  Often, fits over trivial things are just an outlet for a child to express a bigger, scarier frustration (see Patty Wipfler's Hand In Hand Parenting fr more on this).

Yes, it takes a servant leader's heart to take the time to see what my child really needs, to admit that although it seems trivial to me, it is important to her for some reason, and to take the time to be present with her and allow the fruits of the Spirit to be made manifest in my relationship with her.

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