Moving beyond deserving

I’m currently reading Dorothy W. Martyn’s book Beyond Deserving: Children, Parents and Responsibility Revisited. Dr Martyn is a psychotherapist and a Christian, and the book (based on play-therapy sessions with three children) argues for an approach for child-raising that goes “beyond deserving” in favour of grace and undeserved love.

Dr Martyn sets out the thesis of her book in the introduction:

Parental love, and, by extension, all mentoring love, is authentic and effectual in proportion to the degree that it transcends the commonly assumed principle of the circular exchange, that is to say, “this for that.” All true love is a stranger to that kind of thinking.

The “justice” idea of reward according to what is deserved is replaced by the much more powerful force of noncontingent, compassionate alliance with the essential personhood of the other, however small that part may appear to be, against the destructive forces opposing that person’s good.

She unpacks this thesis in an excellent lecture, The New Recipe (MP3, half-hour plus Q&A), from Mockingbird’s conference on “Grace in Personal Relationships” earlier this year. Three points which have stuck with me most clearly since listening to this lecture (and which I’ve tried to implement with my own children) are:

  • Avoid “if”s: “if you do this thing I want, then you’ll get this thing you want”; “if you don’t stop doing that, then you’ll suffer some unpleasant consequence”. This just reinforces the “justice-based”, “this-for-that” mentality that comes to us all-too naturally anyway.
  • As a corollary to the first point: rather than issuing “if”s where there is misbehaviour, Dr Martyn encourages us to “move on to the consequences very quickly”. Simply say, “That’s not how it’s going to be” and take the necessary steps to change the situation (e.g. taking away the stick with which the child is whacking their sibling…).
  • The aim is always to be seen to be on your children’s side – even if at times that means being on their side against their own destructive instincts. (This is what Dr Martyn is referring to above when she talks of a “noncontingent, compassionate alliance with the essential personhood of the other … against the destructive forces opposing that person’s good.”)

Dr Martyn’s book (along with Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, which I read earlier this year) has challenged me greatly in one key respect: we say (as Christians, and not least as Lutherans) that we believe it is grace that truly changes people; that the law can never produce real change, whether before or after conversion. And yet in the area of our lives where most of us have the biggest impact on nurturing and mentoring other people – that is, raising our children – we tend to reach for the law, mistrusting approaches based on grace as being excessively “permissive”.

How can we expect our children to believe us when we tell them about the life-changing power of grace, if what they see in our treatment of them reveals our true belief to be that it’s the law that really gets things done?

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9 Responses to Moving beyond deserving

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Hm. Obviously not a parent here, but it seems to me that one could easily carry both too far. Grace without law is licence, and law without grace is… horrific. And anyway, isn’t the family regnum mundi rather than regnum Christi?

    So take one example where families differ in practice (and with children a good deal older than your own, I know): some pay their children extra pocket money to do chores, others expect them to do them regardless, and yet more simply let their children grow up without ever doing any chores. The first is the only conditional statement—if you do your chores, you will get extra pocket money—but I think I could argue that it is the most gracious approach. Is grace always as simple as boiling things down to an aversion to “If … then …” statements?

  2. John H says:

    Phil: one thing Dorothy Martyn is keen to stress is this is not about permissiveness (= “licence”). Alfie Kohn probably goes further than Dorothy Martyn, but would still talk about the need to “work with” your children (rather than letting them run wild).

    isn’t the family regnum mundi rather than regnum Christi?

    Hmm. Isn’t marriage a picture of Christ and the church? But even setting that aside: grace is not God’s plan B; it’s an expression of what his love fundamentally is. Hence we should expect to see echoes of God’s grace in our ordinary loves, rather than seeing grace as belonging only in a special, narrow category of salvation.

    As for the pocket money thing: we’ve decided not to go down the “chores for cash” route on this. Alfie Kohn makes a persuasive case for extrinsic motivations (cash etc) tending to reduce intrinsic motivation. Example: children who enjoy reading enjoy it less (and read less) when told they will get a present if they read so many books.

    In the long run, we want our children to grow into people who help out because they want to be helpful, not people who always ask “What’s in it for me?” If that makes getting them to help with chores harder work in the short term, that’s a price worth paying.

    Though it’s interesting that our eldest, Thomas, went through a brief phase of asking “What’s in it for me?” in the weeks after we started using this more “unconditional” approach. He’d clearly picked up on the change, even if just unconsciously, and was testing out how the new dispensation worked.

    One final problem with the “law”, “do as you’re told” approach: it doesn’t work. At least, not with our children it doesn’t…

  3. Phil Walker says:

    Hmm. Isn’t marriage a picture of Christ and the church? But even setting that aside: grace is not God’s plan B; it’s an expression of what his love fundamentally is.

    Let me be careful here. God’s love for us is gospel; our love for God is law. Our love for others: law, or gospel?

    In the long run, we want our children to grow into people who help out because they want to be helpful, not people who always ask “What’s in it for me?” If that makes getting them to help with chores harder work in the short term, that’s a price worth paying.

    Ah, perhaps we’re in the area of different goals being reached in different ways. Another set of parents might see chores as not about being helpful, but another category entirely: an educational experience, about the way the world works, the importance of work, and the value of money. (Didn’t Paul have something to say about teaching people to work with their hands?) And crucially, it’s providing a loving situation in which children can learn those things *before* going into a world which doesn’t care about them.

    So that’s not to say your own decision on chores is right or wrong, but simply that there’s often more at issue in a choice like that than “just” family dynamics. I’m guessing you will teach your children about our law-driven world-at-large in different ways.

    (Is there also a Reformed/Lutheran thing going on here with a relatively higher tolerance for law on this side? I mean, we see law as the order of creation, so when law appears in natural life we can only be comfortable with that, since it is part of the created order which God pronounced to be very good. The other question is whether “grace” isn’t being used a little too loosely here: I thought grace was specifically demerited favour, and not merely unmerited?)

  4. John H says:

    Well, another point that’s hit home for me is that children are not short of opportunities to learn that the world “under the sun” is driven by issues of desert and things earnt. And – trust me 😉 – parents scarcely need to go out of their way to find opportunities to say “no” to their children.

    The other question is whether “grace” isn’t being used a little too loosely here: I thought grace was specifically demerited favour, and not merely unmerited?)

    I would say that grace is love regardless of merit. In the case of our relationship with God, that necessarily entails being demerited love/favour. But that still does not make “grace” (in that sense) some special category in its own right. Even if we define “grace” specifically as “demerited favour”, it is still a subset of “that love which continues to love whether it is merited, unmerited or actively demerited”.

    As for a specifically Lutheran vs Reformed angle: well, while I don’t know for sure, I get the impression that Dr Martyn is either an Episcopalian or Presbyterian of probably fairly liberal leanings. But perhaps one reason why her views resonate with me is that they see grace as an ongoing reality of life, rather than as something which picks us up, forgives us and then returns us to the care of the law – our “default setting” – until the next time.

    I know the latter is something of a parody of the Reformed view, and a long way short of the Reformed position at its (Heidelberg, dare I say semi-Lutheran) best – but not as much of a parody as it ought to be, alas.

  5. Phil Walker says:

    We agree that parental love should be unconditional. There is absolutely no question in my mind on that.

    There is a theological quibble over whether this can be called “grace”. But where we seem to be substantively disagreeing is whether within that context of underpinning and overarching unconditional love, there is room for conditionality and command. I just can’t see how there can be absolutely no room for those (especially given the way that love acts is structured by law, see 1 Cor. 13).

    How do you stop a child from running too close to a cliff without commanding them to stop running so close to that cliff? “Do as I say! If you do that, you may fall off and hurt yourself, or worse! You don’t want to find out by experience why I’m saying this!”

    How do you prevent a child from hitting his brother without the promise of punishment for misbehaviour? It’s all well and good: rather than issuing “if”s where there is misbehaviour, Dr Martyn encourages us to “move on to the consequences very quickly”. But what do you do to prevent repetitions? “If you do that again, then I’ll do this again.”

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  7. John H says:

    Phil: hopefully my latest post will clarify what I’m saying. In particular, Dr Martyn’s explicit distinction between an “assisting” model and “permissiveness”.

    So there’s no question of standing by and letting your children run off a cliff (even Alfie Kohn, who is far more militant than Dorothy Martyn about “unconditionality”, recognises the need to yell a command at them in that situation!).

    As I said: conditionality and commands are an inevitable part of the parent/child relationship. What I have found challenging – and I think this conversation has partly confirmed it – is being confronted with how parenthood exposes our true beliefs. Deep down, our gut instinct is that unconditionality and (human analogues of) grace are so much soft-soap that will just allow people to run wild and damage themselves and others, and that only the law and its sanctions can really influence how people behave.

  8. Rick Ritchie says:

    Discussing the theological concepts behind this subject is a good exercise. This is in some ways like going from pure math to applied math. Even where people agree on the pure math, knowing how best to apply it is another art.

    For instance, I believe in the doctrine of Original Sin. But how I apply my knowledge of that can be different from that of another Christian. I have been with Christian parents who speak of their children’s “evil” in ways that really bother me. While I would agree that the children have evil impulses, some of what they do to the inconvenience of their parents is not done out of ill will. A case in point. One mother once went into a long story of how her toddler unfolded a stack of clothes that she had just spent hours folding. I think, “And she knew how long it took me to fold them,” was said somewhere in this. I doubted the girl knew. Being aware of other people’s efforts is something that people generally get much later, if at all. Some of this might be attributable to self-centeredness. But I think there is a real developmental side to this as well, and this is probably a good place to follow the Catechism on “putting the best construction on things.”

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