[These are my notes from my talk for the 2016 TRC Parenting Conference]
When I was sixteen years old, the summer before my senior year in high school, I worked during the days for my high school grounds keeper doing manual labor from 7am to 3pm. Then, most days, I drove 45 minutes south into Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. to work a second job at art and framing shop. I usually worked until close at 8 or 9 in the evening, and then I would drive the 45 minutes back home, crash into bed, and repeat. That summer is a blur in my memory, but one of the things I do remember are the drives home. Or rather, I remember the fact that so often I didn’t remember the drive home. I would get in the car in Silver Spring and it felt like I woke up 45 minutes later, as I pulled into our driveway in Glenelg.
Child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, describes this sensation as the “power of association.” God made our brains to learn and recognize repeated patterns. This is actually a great gift so that we are not constantly overwhelmed by all the data our senses are receiving. Rather, we tend to be conscious of new data. This is how we can drive a particular route for 45 minutes and not remember any of it. Your brain automatically associates this drive, these surroundings with previous experiences and quite literally, autopilot kicks in. This is how we can do the dishes or take a shower and not remember many of the details.
Bruce Perry and others in the field of child psychiatry have spent a lot of time in recent years studying the ways trauma affects the brain, particularly in children. As my wife and I have been involved in foster care over the last several years, this has been one of the areas of emphasis in our training. When it comes to foster care, you are often asked to take in children that have experienced some kind of trauma: violence, abuse, neglect, and so forth. What Dr. Perry and others have noted is that these patterns of trauma tend to wire children’s instincts or associations in a particular way. What many of us take for granted as normal or acceptable human behavior, many children have no conception of. Whether through certain repeated experiences or through various coping mechanisms, their brains have been trained to consider some data and associations as “normal” that are not all normal or good, and on the other hand, due to the same experiences, there may be good or normal things which have come to be associated with trauma and stress and fear.
Now why do I begin here?
The theme of this conference is Parenting Challenges. One sort of parenting challenge is the challenge of caring for children that have been through some form of trauma or another. But the more my wife and I have learned from our training, the more we have learned from our own experiences, and the more we study Scripture, the more we are convinced that what modern child psychiatry is just coming up to speed on, is what the Bible teaches about training up all of our children. The Bible teaches that this traumatized condition is fundamentally the result of sin. Every human being is born with this trauma impressed on their minds and hearts and souls. We exhibit our symptoms in different ways, but every human being struggles to think, feel, act, and react rightly. Childhood is a particularly significant time of training those instincts and habits, but as Bruce Perry, a secular evolutionist, points out becoming humane is learned not instinctive.
In other words, many of the very same lessons Bruce Perry and other child counselors are explaining to us in our foster care training are the very same lessons God gives to every parent. I certainly don’t mean this to flatten out all childhood experiences and pretend that they are all the same. Not at all. Some experiences truly are horrific. Some children truly are particularly difficult. And there are many, complex spiritual, social, psychiatric, and biological components to these challenges. But what I do mean is that despite these differences and despite the fact that children do need to be addressed uniquely, there is still an underlying commonalty to what all these children need. What traumatized children need is actually what all of our children need. What abused children need is what all of our children need.
A Case Study from Isaiah
One place to go to study what the Bible says about difficult children is the book of Isaiah, where we find God lamenting over His difficult children: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged” (Is. 1:2-4, cf. Is. 30:1-2, 8-9). “Whom are you mocking? Against whom do you open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue? Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit, you who burn with lust among the oaks, under every green tree, who slaughter your children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks?” (Is. 57:4-5). The thing to note is that God’s children have all the signs of severe trauma. Their instincts are all wrong. They have devolved into a nation that is thoroughly inhumane. And this state has become normal to them.
What I find particularly interesting is that there is another theme of children in Isaiah. Children are the problem, but Isaiah also depicts the solution in children, or rather, in a Child: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Is. 9:6) And a little later the solution is once against pictured in a child: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them… The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:6, 8-9). Here, we see what should be a horrific, traumatic event (a child playing with fierce, wild animals) turned into a picture of peace and salvation through the knowledge of the Lord.
As Isaiah comes to a close in the last chapters, God’s determination to save and heal His children comes pouring forth: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me” (Is. 49:15). “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord… For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities” (Is. 54:1, 3). “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Is. 54:13). “And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord, My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth your children’s offspring, says the Lord, from this time forth and forevermore” (Is. 59:21). As Isaiah closes, He pictures Israel as a woman suddenly giving birth, and the Lord asks, “Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth? Shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?” (Is. 66:9). And the Lord answers, “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you… (Is. 66:12-13). Though God holds His children responsible for their actions, their choices, He is still full of compassion for them and promises to comfort them.
- God has rebellious/difficult children. He understands what it’s like. He sympathizes with us. Do you ever feel like you don’t know what to do? Do you feel powerless, empty, overwhelmed by your children? God knows what that feels like. God’s love for His rebellious children is fiercer than any mother’s in this room. The stress and fears and tensions parents feel are fundamentally rooted in our love for our children. But God’s love is stronger and fiercer and therefore, His pain is greater. In fact, Jesus Christ as our High Priest sympathizes with us in our weakness (Heb. 4:15). Though Jesus had no biological children, He certainly felt the grief of parent over difficult children: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37). Therefore, let us draw near to Him and seek grace in our time of need (Heb. 4:16).
- Every one of us were (and often still are) one of God’s rebellious children. Not only does God sympathize with us, but that sympathy ought to drive us to sympathize with our children. While we were still enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5). If God has compassion on you and your hard heart, how will you not have compassion on your children in their hard hearts? Hard-hearted children are an opportunity to display that gospel. God loves His rebellious children. He loves them more than a mother loves her nursing child, or like a gentle father: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13). Sympathy and compassion must not make allowance for sin. Sin is poison and always destructive; it is always an enemy. But sympathy and compassion give us the grace to understand why sin is often so difficult, so powerful, so alluring. This is your storehouse of forgiveness, kindness, patience, stability, and lots and lots of conversations.
- Part of God’s love is displayed in delivering painful consequences. Sometimes, God uses physical discipline (Is. 10, cf. Is. 30:31, Lam. 3:1). Likewise: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24). “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Prov. 22:15). “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol” (Prov. 23:13-14). “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Prov. 29:15). “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord… for the moment all discipline is painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:5-11). Notice that this discipline is not incompatible with compassion and sympathy. In fact, this discipline truly is a form of compassion and sympathy: save his soul from Sheol. Give him wisdom. Instead, refusing to spank your child is actually refusing to be compassionate and merciful. A child left to himself is a child neglected, a child allowed to grow up in ignorance and confusion. Finally, Hebrews confirms that this is still a pattern of faithful, loving discipline in the New Covenant. Spanking is a quick painful “trauma” meant to correct sinful behavior, in order to prevent greater pain and trauma down the road. This is one area where we are still waiting for modern child psychiatry to catch up with the wisdom of God. We should note here that in the state of Idaho spanking your own children is legal, though in foster care/adoption training, it is often listed alongside various forms of abuse. Therefore, Christian parents should administer this discipline in a way that is unmistakably loving.
- The book of Isaiah ends, we should note, with promises. So often, parents want to-do lists, methods, when this happens what should I do? And of course there’s a place for that. But one of the lessons of Isaiah for parenting is that the fundamental solution is to simply believe God’s promises. “Then they said to [Jesus], ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’” (Jn. 6:28-29). So what exactly is God promising? God is promising to save our children. And Luke quotes Malachi’s prophecy that God’s salvation will include turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Lk. 1:17, Mal. 4:6). And Peter repeats it at Pentecost: “For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:39). Jesus is the Child who was born, the Son that was given, and therefore, if we believe in that Child, we must also believe that God is in the process of teaching all our children to know Him. (41)
As my wife and I have listened to former foster children talk about their experiences having grown up in different homes, having grown up separated from family members, experiencing various forms of trauma and abuse, the thing that stands out above all else is how they describe their deepest longings to just belong, to just have a family, a home, meals together, love, friendship, stability, boundaries. One girl I met described how she could still remember the smell of a man’s flannel shirt, the first man she’d ever known who modeled a father’s love to her. She told me that she’d only lived in that home for around 30 days before being moved to another home. But that she’d never forget the smell of that man’s love. This is the power of associations going the other way. God used those few days to begin remapping this young girl’s mind and heart. Sin and trauma can distort our perceptions of reality, but the love of God can reorient our hearts and minds.
It’s no different with the children growing up in all of our homes. They are hungry for love, for friendship, for acceptance, for boundaries, for direction, for security. They often don’t know how to express that, and they often don’t know that’s what they want or need. But we know that’s what they were made for because fundamentally we all know that’s what we really need. And by the death and resurrection of Jesus, that is exactly what God has done for us. We have been imprinted on His hands. He has brought us home, and we are learning to recognize and be comforted by the aroma of His love. And through the power of that association, God is restoring us to the glory of being fully human again.