Monday, January 4, 2010

Christian Parenting According to Susannah Wesley

Recently some friends and I were chatting about the different types of Bible software that folks use. The one I use is the same one I've used for many years now, and it serves me quite well. After that chat, I opened the software up and decided to browse through the library to find some things to read that I either hadn't read in a while or had never read before. There are a large number of things in the library and plenty of things I've not read yet. One of those things is entitled "(A Letter to John Wesley) By His Mother". I tried searching for that via google but came up emtpy handed. I've copied and uploaded the full letter here if you would like to read it.

As I read the letter and for a few days since then, it really disturbed me. My initial reaction was that John Wesley's mother, Susannah Wesley was quite similar to a spiritual drill sergeant toward her children. That may sound harsh, but initially I thought if all I ever knew of Susannah Wesley's parenting skills were what I read in this letter, it seems like a fair assessment. However, I want to be as fair as humanly possible because I realize that I may be the one in error here.

First, and probably most important for me to get my head around, is that the letter is dated for July 1732. This letter was written by a woman 278 years ago, in England. Times were different, culture was different, raising children was different and childhood itself was much, much different 278 years ago, than it is today, and in my experience. While it is impossible for me to know first hand what being a Christian mother was like in England in 1732, I can only speculate that how she raised up her children wasn't really anything out of the ordinary for Christian parents at that time. In our time if it seems excessively harsh (to me) then that's because (to a large degree anyway) I'm from a completely different era. A good friend reminded me that childhood itself was a much different experience for most children "back in the day". Kids were expected to contribute far more to the running of the household in past centuries than they ever are today. In our day, we have this idea that children should play, act like children, do silly things that children do, and have that "childhood experience". In days gone by, kids were helping plow fields, hunt, cook, sew, build, tend to the sick and more by the time they were 6-8 years old. This is a completely foreign concept to me in 2010, and probably to most everyone else as well. Six to eight year olds today are watching Sponge Bob and playing xbox. Most of them couldn't help do most of those things I mentioned, and most parents would never expect it of them, or even consider teaching them such things at such a young age. Granted, I know there are some kids who can do some of those things, but they are certainly the exception to the rule.

I think it was important for me to try as much as I could to first put my thoughts into the context of the era, to understand Susannah Wesley's mindset of raising her children. Equally important I believe would be for a modern reader to know Susannah's spiritual convictions and her own religious upbringing as well. We're all a product of our environment in one way or another.

I will only quote the sections that really stood out to me, but I would encourage you to read the whole letter as well. I would also quite gladly welcome your thoughts on this, as I attempt to understand Susannah Wesley's thoughts on raising up her children.

Susannah writes:

"When they turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly. By this means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had. That most odious noise of the crying of children, was rarely heard in the house. The family usually lived in as much quietness, as if there had not been a child among them."

Maybe it's just me, but as a mother of seven kids I have a hard time with the idea of a one year old baby (or younger) being taught to fear the rod, or to cry softly. Susannah's reasoning for this she points out was so that far more correction wouldn't be needed as they grew older. An honorable and good motivation to be sure. Maybe she just had really good kids, or maybe God was merciful to her and her family? While I have swatted many a tiny 1 year old hand for reaching for something dangerous, I could never spank a one year old baby, nor could I even begin to comprehend how you'd teach one to "cry softly". In my way of thinking and understanding the way toddlers think and understand, at a year old they are just too little to really process the discipline of a spanking (the rod). Most kids can barely walk at that age, and most aren't even speaking more than mama or dada. How then can they process "you disobeyed me and now you have to suffer the consequences via this spanking"? A swat to the hand and a firm "no" is simple enough for them to connect, but a real live spanking? And crying softly? I just can't get my head around that one.

Susannah writes:

"At six, as soon as family prayer was over, they had their supper. At seven the maid washed them, and beginning at the youngest, she undressed and got them all to bed by eight. At this time she left them in their various rooms awake. For there was no such thing allowed of in our house, as sitting by a child until it fell asleep."

I've read this very small passage several times. I believe her reasoning for this (as she states later in the letter) was to avoid any kind of indulgence of the child. However, I cannot imagine sitting by a child as they fell asleep being viewed as indulging the child. My mom did it with me at times when I needed her to, and I have done it with my own kids when they needed me too. In my mind it's a comfort and assurance to a child that just may need that extra comfort. For reasons I can't really put my finger on, this very small section of her letter really bothers me.

Susannah writes:

"In order to shape the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will and bring them to an obedient spirit. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children, proceed by slow degrees, as they are able to bear it. But the subjecting the will, is a thing which must be done at once and the sooner the better. For by neglecting timely correction they will be overcome with stubbornness, and obstinacy. This is hardly ever conquered later and never without using such severity as would be as painful to me as to the child. In the esteem of the world they pass for kind and indulgent, whom I call cruel parents, who permit their children to get habits, which they know must be later broken. Indeed, some are so stupidly fond, as in fun to teach their children to do things, which a while later they have severely beaten them for doing. When a child is corrected it must be conquered. This will not be hard to do if he is not grown headstrong by too much indulgence."

There is nothing here I disagree with at all, and in fact find great wisdom in it. However, just after this she writes:

"When the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies, and faults may be past over. Some should be overlooked and taken no notice of, and others mildly reproved. No wilful transgression ought ever to be forgiven children, without chastisement, less or more, as the nature and circumstances of the offence require. I insist upon conquering the will of children early because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education. Without this both precept and example will be ineffectual. But when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents until his own understanding comes to maturity and the principles of religion have taken root in the mind."

I've read this several times and have to wonder where she left room for the Holy Spirit alone to be capable of changing the will of her children. While I will agree it is critical to teach your children a healthy respect for authority (mom & dad first, as well as other adult authority figures), and while I will agree that it is very important to teach your children the principles of religion as she put it, it seems as if she put a great deal of emphasis on the works of man (parents, in this case) being the effectual catalyst for changing (subduing, conquering) the will of a child. I must respectfully disagree with this entirely. You can teach and train and discipline until you're out of breath and out of energy, but until or unless the Holy Spirit performs the supernatural work of changing a child's heart, that sinful, self-centered will of a child will most certainly still be there and with only "horizontal" repentance as they say. Repentant toward the parents (only because they do fear the rod) but certainly not repentant toward God. A parent can certainly shape a child's will with good and moral instruction, but it is the Holy Spirit alone that can truly change that will. Countless Christian parents can testify to the fact that "raising them right" doesn't always mean they will truly serve the Lord as they mature. Some do, by His grace, and some sadly do not. I think it's a dangerous thing to lay that responsibilty on the parents when it isn't the parents that have the power to inwardly change that rebellious will of a child.

Susannah writes (still speaking of the child's will):

"So that the parent who studies to subdue it in his child, works together with God in the renewing and saving a soul. The parent who indulges it does the devil’s work, makes religion impracticable, salvation unattainable, and does all that in him lies, to damn his child’s body and soul for ever!"

Again it appears she puts the emphasis on what parents do or do not do, as to whether that child will eventually come to serve the Lord with saving faith. We (none of us, child or grown) attain salvation by works or lack of them, it is the gift of God.

Susannah writes:

"Taking God’s name in vain, cursing and swearing, profaneness, obscenity, rude, ill-bred names, were never heard among them."

I don't mean to sound flippant at all, but as I read this the first thing I thought was "were never heard BY YOU". Unless Susannah Wesley had the most obediant, tender hearted, compassionate, sensitive children in the history of all children, I just cannot believe this. Maybe they had enough good sense and respect for their mother's sensibilities to never let that kind of talk be heard by their mother, but I would suspect they did speak this way even if in part, and on very rare occasions. Children are immature, and as such creatures do not have the wisdom or the self control in the area of taming the tongue, that a more seasoned, adult believer would have. Children fuss and argue and call other kids (including their siblings) rude names, they grumble and snarl when they have to do something they don't want to do and when they get angry sometimes they even say words they know they shouldn't say. When I read this I couldn't help but think of all the times I've heard parents say "my son (or daughter) would NEVER do that or say that". Then six months, a year or five years down the road their son or daughter is doing or saying the exact thing that parent said they'd never do. Sometimes we have this very unrealistic idea of what our kids are really like, partly I assume because we really want our kids to be good and respectable and honorable people that we can be proud of. Every parent wants that I think, but some just put on blinders as to what their kids are really like.

Susannah writes (speaking of the time of the fire that burned down their house):

"For some years we went on very well. Never were children in better disposed to piety, or in more subjection to their parents until that scattering of them after the fire into several families. In those families, they were left at full liberty to converse with the servants, which before they had always been restrained from, and to run abroad and play with any children, good or bad. They soon learned to neglect a strict observation of the sabbath, and got knowledge of several songs and bad things which before they had no notion of. That civil behaviour which made them admired when at home, by all which saw them, was in great measure lost, and a clownish accent and many rude ways were learned, which were not reformed without some difficulty."

I couldn't help but think about the first time my oldest daughter went off to kindergarten, when I read this. You raise up your child a certain way, and they learn their manners and develop good habits, and then the minute you expose them to a different environment where good manners and good habits are not the norm, they pick up on them so fast it'll make your head spin, if you had no idea it was coming. I had no idea it was coming, and wondered what in the world happened to my smart and well mannered little girl. For whatever social, sinful, psychological reason you can come up with, kids are just incredibly easy to influence, and especially by other kids, and even more so in bad ways. You don't need to coax and teach and train a kid to lie, tattle, talk back or fool around when they're supposed to be paying attention. These things actually come quite natural to children and if they are in a setting where lots of other kids are doing it, they feel right at home! Now of course this is not to say that all kids are like this all of the time, but all kids are quite naturally sinners and it doesn't take much to influence them to indulge in their natural desires. It must have broke Susannah Wesley's heart to receive her children back into her care and see that they'd learned all kinds of bad things that were common in other households where strict and rigorous routine in spiritual upbringing was not the order of the day.

I wonder, if I wrote a letter to my adult child about the way I brought up all of my children, if 300 years from now someone would read it and be completely befuddled about how Christian parents raised kids in 2010. Truth be told, the more I consider this letter overall, I'm truly in admiration of the way Susannah Wesley raised her kids. I think I'm even surprised at myself for coming to that conclusion. Obviously I disagree with some of her thought process and her application, but there is no question she'd disagree with mine as well. It would seem (from this letter anyway) her heart was in the right place, and her motive was to bring up her kids with a fear and admonition of the Lord.

I certainly can't fault her for that.

Graphic design by Carla Rolfe