I let my daughter watch ten minutes of Barney last night. I needed to trim her bangs, and she—at one and a half—gets a little nervous about me putting scissors near her eyes. Ten minutes and a successful trim later, it was time for supper. I pulled the iPad off of her high chair and settled her at the table, amidst protests of “Barney… hands… [indistinct syllables] Barney!”
“Barney… hands… [same indistinct syllables] Barney!” This was repeated for oh, I don’t know, a hundred takes—before, during, and after her meal, between her bath and her bedtime, and first thing on waking this morning.
Here’s the amazing thing: she hadn’t seen an episode of Barney in three or four weeks before last night. Then in ten minutes, her heart and mind were utterly re-captured. When I gave in this morning and put on the rest of the episode (thinking Perhaps she needs closure), my mistake was confirmed and redoubled. It was over in thirty minutes, and then she cried like her heart was truly broken.
She refused food and drink. She shunned the opportunity to play with blocks on the floor with Mommy. She was chastised for her attitude and straightened it out briefly. Then she lifted her face to me again, whispering Barney’s name as her eyes filled with tears of despair.
Poor little daughter… she doesn’t yet understand that there will never be enough Barney to satisfy. Barney will always end before you want him to.
I am the problem
I was just helping to lead a group study with some teen girls at my church a few weeks ago. During one meeting, every single person (myself included) self-described as an “addictive personality.” Meaning that we all considered ourselves especially prone to uncontrolled excess in specific areas like eating and screen use.
This reminds me of a story about Chesterton. Apparently, in response to a person who wrote him a letter asking “what is wrong with the world today?” he sent back this note:
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
This is the phrase that keeps coming through my mind as I ruminate on parenting towards self-control. I am the problem. Not only is my child bent in such a way that her brain wants Barney—not once, but a hundred times; I am bent in such a way that my brain wants Seinfeld—not once, but a hundred times. Not only does she want all of the cookies cooling on the counter—I want all of the cookies cooling on the counter. Her desires, in some areas of life, have no bounds, and in some sense it runs in her blood.
Like most parents, I’ve already started a baleful mantra in my mind: “Oh, I hope she can just do what I say, and not what I do!” But the more I consider the everyday virtues like diligence, kindness, and self-control, the more I feel certain that these basic human objectives operate largely under the force of habit, and are in many ways ‘genetic’.
They are genetic in the sense that they run in the blood of Adam. But they are also genetic in a practical, common-grace sense: whatever I wish were the case, my children will pick up more habit from what I do than from what I say.
You’ve heard that obesity tends to run in families. You know this experientially, too. Doctors agree that while some of the factors in play are truly genetic conditions like slow metabolism, the main cause is just family habit. Parents eat in front of the TV? Kids grow up to do the same. Parents never cook? Kids never learn to cook. Parents don’t set foot outside? Kids don’t spend time outside. While it’s not an ironclad rule (of course, many healthy parents have unhealthy kids, and vice-versa), it’s enough of a pattern that medical journals and sociologists alike have taken note.
Clearly, the buck stops with me, and with my husband. And clearly, I want to cultivate family habits that encourage self-control and temperance. Why? Not because my main objective is to raise a child who isn’t addicted to video games—or even whose entire range of personal appetites are regulated. Such a child would still be in desperate need of the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Habits and appetites
I want to cultivate habits like these simply because habits matter. When a person’s life comes under the lordship of Christ, every part of his life comes under that lordship. He begins to see the blessings attendant on a heart that is filled with love instead of hate, forgiveness instead of vindictiveness, peace instead of destruction, joy instead of despair, patience instead of impatience, kindness instead of meanness, gentleness instead of roughness, and self-control… instead of gluttony and greed.
A habit is not a fruit of the spirit, but when the habit is in place, it does a lot of work for us. When we are used to denying the self in these everyday, human things—enjoying ice-cream instead of bingeing on it, or taking a family walk outside when what we want to do is sit down with Instagram—we will have more energy left over for the more meticulous matters of the heart, matters that also require self-control. Perhaps this is a principle of faithfulness—if you can be faithful in the small matter of going to bed on time, you’ll be better fit for the kind of faithfulness that denies the self and takes up a cross.
There is also the matter of appetite alteration. My daughter didn’t have an appetite for Barney until she was fed some several times in a row. Before Barney, her favorite activity was blocks on the floor. I want to raise kids who like to read and play outside, because those are wholesome activities, good for body and mind in a way that video games simply aren’t. This is very different from wanting to raise kids who know that they should play outside, and so doggedly choose to play outside, even though they hate playing outside and must constantly turn their minds from the fact that there’s a video game inside they wish they were playing.
Ultimately, what you want is a kid who is actually playing outside and enjoying the play the way it was meant to be enjoyed: gleefully, loudly, thankfully, and with one’s whole self—but with a light hold that is prepared to lay down the bat and go set the table for dinner when that time comes. Every heart is different, and every personality too. One kid wants TV all the time, another won’t stop reading. One is obsessed with sports, and another, left to themselves, would eat an entire pie in one sitting. Temperance is a comprehensive discipline—it means that all of the pleasures are taken in the right time, in the right place, in the right amount.
My desire is simply this: I want my children to learn by pictures, and not merely words. I want them to have good examples in the way me and my husband take our pleasures. Long before they are able to describe it, long before they notice, I want them to simply absorb through watching: Appetites must be regulated. The flesh will always want more, more, but this is the right way of enjoying.
Let them remember me ladling out the pasta for family dinner this way: gleefully, loudly, thankfully, and with my whole self—but with a light hold that is prepared to lay down the fork when the time comes.