Monday, September 10, 2007

The Danger of Raising Nice Kids

There are some books you read that are such a challenge to your thinking that they take a while to digest. For me, I can only read these books in bites - take a portion, mull it over, then dive back in once I've come to terms with it.

But there are other books that you can sail through because the author puts into words things you already believe but have never seen articulated. For me, "The Danger of Raising Nice Kids" by Tim Smith is one of those books.

It would be easy based on the title of his book to read into his message that nice kids themselves are dangerous or something to be avoided, that teaching manners and proper behavior are somehow not worthwhile. But that's not his point at all. The danger of raising nice kids is what often gets sacrificed in the course of engineering a pleasant exterior - the character that lies beneath. When we constantly harp on speech, dress, posture, facial expression, unquestioning obedience, grades, and a host of other performance measures, we - often unwittingly - communicate to our kids that that's all we care about, that as long as they front well (for our sake or for theirs) that's what matters. And, parents - often unwittingly - end up believing that outward appearances are also the goal, and their parenting becomes skewed towards it.

The result, Smith says, is a generation of Christian kids who have it together on the outside but lack character on the inside. They're not selfless, kind, compassionate, loving, authentic - they're only nice. They lack the equipment needed to change their world - which is the subtitle of Smith's book - "Preparing our children to change their world". That really ought to be the main title, since Smith spends more time on solutions than he does diagnosing the problem, but a title like that is bland and it also doesn't direct people's attention to the root of the problem: parenting for outward appearances.

In an age where hypocrisy and inauthenticity drive people away from the church, we desperately need to populate the church with a generation that is the polar opposite of that. Our kids need to practice what they preach - compassion, justice, mercy - and not just mouth those things while living lives that are virtually indistinguishable from those of their non-Christian peers. And Smith would argue that our kids are unable to walk the walk not because of willful disobedience or apathy, but because we haven't given them the skills to be people of character.

By and large, I think the church has gotten character education wrong. We methodically impart the difference between right and wrong; we exhort kids to make right choices (and indeed, "sin management" is the dominant theme if not the driving philosophy in most youth groups); but we abandon them on the playing field. We're the passionate coach who's high on motivation but neglects to teach the game. It's not just knowledge and attitude that drives character development, it's also skills. Without the skills to act according to morals and convictions, a child's knowledge and desire to do right stalls out. And skills, of course, are developed by practice. So, the book is full of chapters like"Showing Empathy", "Demonstrating Compassion", "Developing Discernment", "Courageously Setting Boundaries", as well as practical advice on how to listen, how to admit mistakes and be authetic yourself, how to develop vision and goals for your parenting, and how to impart consequences for misbehavior.

Smith's book is not a how-to manual - it's better than that. It challenges parents to re-examine both their methods - "What are we doing?" - but also their motivation - "Why are we parenting like this?" Moreover, "The Danger of Raising Nice Kids" points toward a revolution that needs to take place in Christian parenting: that parents would not view discipleship as an element of their parenting, but rather to regard parenting as an aspect of their discipleship. One view regards church and faith as a value-added entity: church is a fail-safe positive influence in competition with other priorities and activities, and the more exposure we can afford, within the constraints of everyday life, the better. This view over time outsources discipleship, placing church activity at the center of a child's spiritual development. The second view, that parenting is an aspect of discipleship, rights that imbalance. It brings every moment, every action, every situation into the realm of discipleship. There's no "God time" and then "the rest of life"; your child is being trained as a disciple of Christ 24/7. Your parenting, and all it entails - disciplining, monitoring, counseling, mentoring, affirming - is a purposeful part of that discipleship.

Tim Smith is delivering a message that's long overdue. We are privileged to have him visiting us at the end of the month. I hope you will make plans to join us Friday night, September 28, to hear him speak. Whether this is a book that will challenge you and take some time to assimilate, or one you will read and eagerly agree with, "The Danger of Raising Nice Kids" is worth a careful, thoughtful read. For those who want to dig deeper into the book, we're hosting a discussion group beginning September 20 and running Thursday nights from 6-7:30, during Coast Kids and the 4th-6th grade midweek program. (Your kids don't have to be involved in either of those programs for you to attend.) Led by Kathleen Sanders, this four-week series will unpack the vision of Smith's book, and best of all, after you've met together twice (the 20th and 27th), Smith himself will speak the very next night.

His appearance and all of the follow-up associated with the book spring from a conviction that is shared by our Children's and Marriage and Family Ministries that the home must be the center of spiritual development, and that whatever a church can do to make the home environment work is worthwhile. The book is available from our church bookstore or at this website.