The youngest boy came home from his first day of school with a heavy backpack and a curious smile. He dropped the bag from his shoulders to the ground with an extra-dramatic thud then took out the hefty packet that his teacher gave him that day. “These are our rules” he said with wide eyes.
“How many rules are there?” I asked as I set the table.
“Thirty-seven” he responded, over-enunciating every syllable.
“Thirty-seven?” I clarified.
My husband chimed in from his office down the hall, “Thirty-seven rules?”
Over dinner we took a look at them with his two brothers. Five sets of eyes reading them over. What started as curiosity became entertainment. The rules included how to say thank you when papers are passed out and how long to clap (and with which part of their hands they should clap) when a peer does something deserving praise in class. There were details about how to walk and how to talk, how to sit and how to stand. The boys looked at one another, astonished, then burst into laughter.
Please don’t think that we were encouraging disrespect, though I can read my own story that way as well. We were simply dumbfounded by the weight of so many detailed instructions for a class of twenty 10-year-olds. As we slipped his packet of instructions back into his bag, we encouraged Asher to do his best to honor his teacher and his friends by obeying her rules at school.
Two weeks later I walked into my oldest son’s High School math class (Somebody hold me, I just said “High School!”) It was back to school night and I held a yellow half-sheet of paper with a short bell schedule directing me when and where to go to meet all of Caleb’s teachers. It was his freshman year and I was equal-parts thrilled and nervous as I walked up the stairs and down the hall. His first period teacher, Mr. Pete, was waiting for us with a smile. I sat down and looked over the syllabus before me that included another list of rules. This time there were only three. And they didn’t even look rules, more like a vision statement, a mantra, or a simple list of virtues.
Respect, Responsibility, Resourcefulness
When the bell rang, signifying the start of our first period meeting, my son’s teacher sat on the desk at the front of the class and introduced himself. “My name is Mr. Pete, and I’ve always wanted to be a math teacher,” he said. “It’s all I’ve every wanted to be. My dad was a math teacher and now I am one too, and I love it.” I couldn’t help but believe him. ”I only have three rules,” he said. “These are rules for them, but they’re also rules for me. First of all, I will respect your student, and they are asked to show the same respect for me. Second of all, I will take my responsibility to teach them very seriously. I will do my job. And I ask them to be responsible to do their job — to learn. Finally, because there are so many of them and not two of them are alike, I’ll need to be resourceful in my teaching. I will have to come up with creative ways to engage them and instruct them. Likewise, they will need to commit to being resourceful as well. If they don’t understand the day’s lesson they need to get help and learn it on their own, or find me during office hours.”
There were other things he said in the minutes that followed, but I was stuck thinking of those three simple rules.
Back when I started homeschooling our oldest, over a decade ago, I decided to not make the “Three R’s” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) the ultimate goal of my days. Though my children would need to do those well enough, I was determined instead to focus on teaching them to be men of virtue. My personal goal for them was (and remains) that they grow to embody these “Three R’s”: respectful, responsible, and resourceful. I realized that night that I had forgotten my own simple creed and was grateful for the reminder.
When you prioritize a few simple virtues, you won’t need thirty-seven rules.
Later that night, my husband and I talked it through. “After all these years of parenting, which teacher are we more like?” I asked him. “Do we correct every little thing they do wrong? Everything that even slightly annoys or offends us? Or do we have just a handful of rules that feel more like an invitation to grow up? We both recognized immediately that we tend to be more over-bearing than less.
I’m slowly but surely making my way back to those three powerful words. I’m revisiting a book I read awhile back entitled, MOTHER & SON: The Respect Effect, by Emerson Eggriches. Similar to his first book, LOVE & RESPECT, (which is an incredible resource for husband’s and wives) this one focuses on the relationship between mothers and sons and the respect they need from us as they grow up into men.
But I’m not just reading words… I’m choosing to speak fewer words too. Each day I’ve been sensitive to notice my overly critical tendencies. I’m trying to hold my tongue — 33 times out of 37 possible issues each day. I’m choosing fewer issues to make an issue of! Fewer battles — fewer hills upon which to die. Needless to say, while it’s hard to learn, ultimately it much more enjoyable (for them and for us!) There’s more joy to be had when you’re not laying down the law, but extending grace. Allowing our children to bump into things and struggle through their messes, instead of correcting all the childishness and noise, even missed assignments and slouching at the table. There are times to address those things, but not all day long, in one ceaseless stream. Here’s what I’m choosing to focus on instead.
Respect, Responsibility, Resourcefulness
Instead of harping on everything he does, I’m choosing to focus on my youngest’s blatant disrespect — and one of the ways I’m attempting to reach him respect is by modeling it. Did you know that we can be equally disrespectful in the way we react to our child’s disrespect? (But I bet you knew that already.) The middle boy is in middle school now and needs my help too. He’s trying to learn how to take responsibility for his own mornings and missing school assignments. He needs me for that. So I’ve written a list of his daily and weekly responsibilities and I encourage him to “check the list.” The oldest needs a recap on these two virtues with a good lesson about resourcefulness too, as he transitions into manhood. But a mother who nags him day and night can’t help him learn these lessons. Not really.
Nagging doesn’t teach our children to respect us or be respectable themselves. Nagging won’t teach them to take responsibility, when we’re taking responsibility by micromanaging each word and assignment. Nag-nag-nagging all day every day… And they won’t ever have the chance to become resourceful and figure out how to grow up into capable men and women if we’re breathing down their necks, enforcing all the rules.
I’m choosing to let the banner of Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness fly over our home these days. It’s a moment to moment choice at times, but I’m committed to winnowing down the long list of rules to a short list of virtues that will propel them into virtuous men. Who’s with me?
Just recently I was reading a familiar passage in the Message translation of the Bible, and it popped off the page: “Fathers, don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.” (Ephesians 6:4)
As a mother or three boys I’m very familiar with the Proverb that says: “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.” (Proverbs 23:22, ESV) I think it’s common for children to grow up and despise their parents. I even understand it, when mom and dad can be heavy handed with all those rules. It’s just a little “despicable.” That constant stream of overly negative correction all day long.
A little further down the page in Ephesians 6, the Lord addresses the hearts of slaves and masters and makes me think again of fathers and their kids: “Masters, it’s the same with you. No abuse, please, and no threats. You and your servants are both under the same Master in heaven. He makes no distinction between you and them.” (Ephesians 6:9 MSG)
Hey parents, this is a good for me today. How about you? Do you strut around as though you’re the master of the house, lording it over your sons and daughters as you dole out consequences for all the rules they keep breaking? When I find myself slipping into that wrong superior mentality I remind myself, “If I’m a co-heir with Christ, then I’m a co-heir of Christ’s Kingdom with my kids. I need to treat them that way. With the love and respect the the Son has shown me.”
Friends, treating your kids with respect is your responsibility. And there are resources to help if you need them. Parenting Scripts is a resource I didn’t just co-author, but one I come back to time and again. It includes 31 things our kids do that cause us to say all the wrong words (because they’re always breaking the rules!) One by one you’ll consider a new way to respond that’s respectful and invites your kids up into maturity alongside you!