In our class at the church house last week, we had a great discussion about parenting. One of the strengths of our little worship community is that there is an abundance of young parents in our similar stage of life as well as a great number of willing mentors who have been where we are now. I learn so much from my peers about how to be a good father that I cannot imagine not having this resource available to me. Anyway, the discussion came to a point where it was mentioned multiple times that the norm in our society is that there is a chronic lack of discipline within the family setting and that it has bled out and is now affecting society at large.
We’ve heard this before, right? There is a giant cross-section of people, in fact, most of a couple of generations, who will recount stories of their childhood where they will glowingly talk about how their parents wouldn’t hesitate to just beat the mess out of them. We’ll hear testimonies about how they never would have gotten away with things kids are allowed to get away with now because “Dad would have whipped my behind”. We hear these legends about how, as children, they were made to walk to a certain tree in the backyard and choose which branch Mom or Dad would use to work them over. These are stories of punishment that would be hastily labeled as abuse in our “modern sensibilities”. This is the kind of thing a lot of people mean when they bemoan the “lack of discipline” in families today.
And get this, I don’t think they’re wrong.
But I also don’t think they’re right.
The problem modern fathers face is not that we are no longer able to come off the top ropes on our little ones, it is that it has become nearly impossible for us to exercise control of the family entrusted to our care. I think this is what folks are really saying when they refer to the widespread “lack of discipline”. Seeing a father in charge of his own family is such a foreign idea to us because we have been conditioned to think of dad as a buffoon to mock instead of an authoritative leader to respect. Every dad is assumed to be Homer Simpson and if he doesn’t fit the bumbling idiot role, well, then he must be a tyrant.
My contention is that a father can be, and must be, in control without being controlling. This is such an important point to me that it comprises an entire section of the book I’ve been writing. I’d love for you guys to read the whole thing but I’ll give a little more detail here about what I think control looks like. And I think it will be a little different than what you expect.
When we hear about someone being in control, the connotation automatically puts us in a defensive position. But, it should not. It should be the most natural thing in the world because when a father is in control, the whole family benefits. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t fail. It doesn’t mean his children don’t go crazy and do things that no sane person would do. It certainly doesn’t mean things are easy. It means he takes responsibility for the field placed before him. It means that he understands that there is no one else to blame. The buck cannot be passed and it stops with him as President Truman would say. There are some characteristic markers of a father in control but not controlling.
1. Father being in control is never to the exclusion of his partner. It is to her exaltation. There exists this understanding…this feeling…this underlying belief that for a dad to be in charge and in control of his family, mom has to take a subservient role. Call it patriarchy or traditional male dominance or whatever label our sociologist friends want to try to stick on it, but the notion is pretty pervasive. The truth is that parental leadership is never a zero-sum game. When dad exerts control, it does not preclude Mom from the same. To the contrary, when dad is in control, his partner’s authority and leadership is supported. When a father is in control, a mother finds herself cherished and supported in her mothering. If his children give her grief, it does not escape his ear and he responds swiftly. He fathers in defense of her authority and guarantees respect is given to her.
2. Father being in control is more about self-control than anything else. Anger and frustration are the twin monkeys constantly on the back of every father I know. In every community where Dads seek advice from other Dads, how to deal with anger is always one of the most common asks. We deal with it and we know we deal with it. A father who is in control understands that control of himself comes first. For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, this will be a lifelong, minute by minute, hour by hour battle. Every man learns his own tactics for self-control and that control is an imperative for stability in each Dad’s home. Listen, man, I know. The struggle to manage that temper is a Herculean task even on the calm days. But the reality is that my 8 year old can act like an 8 year old and I don’t have the luxury of responding like another 8 year old. Being a father means you lay siege to the anger and frustration, and you maintain control of yourself. Angry words from dad are some of the most poisonous and memorable darts to a daughter. A man who can’t exercise self control can never expect to wield control in his family because everyone in his family knows he can’t be trusted with the responsibility.
3. Father being in control fills the leadership vacuum and paves the way for the entire family to be happier and healthier. There is a natural place of leadership in every home. When parents don’t fill that place of leadership, there is a vacuum left and children instinctively fill leadership vacuums. They just don’t know how not to. Have you ever known someone whose kid just owns them? Dad, if we aren’t willing to be in control, our kids will set themselves up on that throne…and kids make terrible kings. But they were never meant to fill that role and it is a burden too heavy for them. However, your shoulders were made for this weight. When dad is in control, he removes the burden of being in charge from his kids so they are free to actually be kids.
Dad being in control certainly does not mean he is never wrong or never makes mistakes. On the contrary, we are all just trying to be the best we can. A father in control says “I don’t have all the answers but go with me while we figure this thing out”. Take control. You’ve been great today. You can be great again tomorrow.