Ruth Woodcraft interviews Ann Benton
en: This summer sees the publication of a new book on parenting and a DVD written and presented by you. Is this entirely new material?
AB: These are two quite separate projects, although both are on the subject of parenting. The DVD is of previous material in a new format. The Good Book Company already publishes a parenting course written by me, titled Putting Parenting to Bed. It includes a leader’s guide. But I am aware that not every church has someone who would have the confidence to front such a course and I have been frequently asked whether a DVD was available of the material. So this is the material in DVD format and it includes footage of children and parents talking about their children as well as the didactic stuff from me. From July the DVD will be on sale along with the leader’s guide and course-book materials*.
It’s designed to be used by churches with all kinds of parents including unchurched ones. Although it is based on biblical principles it is not presented as a Bible study but as good common sense about parenting which happens to be from God’s Word. Along the way I throw out some gentle challenges which, I hope, will make an unbeliever think, for example, about the values they bring to parenting and why they might like to investigate Christianity. But it is a parenting course, not evangelism as such.
en: What about the book? Do we need another book on parenting?
AB: I have become increasingly aware that political correctness and other fashionable ideas/taboos have made many Christians nervous of following common sense parenting principles.
The very notion of parental authority is no longer taken for granted in society at large. But this is a core concept in the Bible and crucial, I would maintain, to raising a healthy, happy child. And there are many other issues where a thinking Christian parent may feel out of step with current views: discipline, sex and sexuality, materialism, the internet and many more. I have called the book Parenting Against the Tide** and it is written for parents who want to think through those issues biblically. It is a call to be counter-cultural in some ways, but that is nothing new to a follower of Jesus Christ.
en: You state very early on that parenting is much harder than in the past. Children are still children, so in what ways do you see parenting as more of a challenge?
AB: I think that parenting is harder because many parents have become less confident in their authority. Broadly that means that, from the earliest age, children are growing up with fewer boundaries. As a result they have an inflated sense of entitlement which in turn makes them harder work still. I am not saying that all children are brats. But I am saying that many parents are frightened of their children, treating then more like clients who have to be satisfied. In my book I explain a little bit about how that shift has happened. There are a number of factors, but a major source has been the whole children’s rights lobby. Since much of that is built on the idea of the total innocence of children (so denying the doctrine of original sin) it is going to be seriously skewed in its applications.
en: You argue that the emphasis on a child’s self-esteem, which lies behind so much parenting advice, is actually damaging children. Surely children need to feel good about themselves or they will grow up to be damaged people?
AB: The Bible would say that children need to be loved, with the kind of special love that only a parent can give. That is what makes a child resilient. Yes, a parent’s love will often make them feel very happy, but sometimes the best thing a loving parent can do is to confront a child – even make a child feel bad about himself when he has done wrong. Part of a parent’s work is to instruct a child’s conscience and to help a child to learn from mistakes and take correction as a route to wisdom. Flattering a child to believe he is always wonderful will have no such educational value. Humility is a more helpful aim than high self-esteem, according to the Bible.
en: You place a huge value on a mother who stays at home to bring up a child. What would you say to the woman who says, ‘We can afford for me to stay at home, but I’d go mad if I stayed at home with my child and I just want to go back to work.’?
AB: I understand some women have to go to work for financial reasons but I think it is high time somebody praised those women who selflessly give a number of years to caring for their children.
Why is childcare considered a perfectly viable career option for a woman professionally, but if she does it for her own children she is looked upon as lazy or lacking in ambition? I salute such women. I nowhere argue that it has to be a long-term full-time arrangement (although I think there is much more to good homemaking than some people believe), but I do think that someone has to speak up for the child. In his first few years, who would a child rather be with – his own mother or a professional carer? Who will give him that kind of special love that he needs? Who knows him best?
With the raising of pensionable age, there will be plenty of hours for a woman to spend in the workplace when mothering days are done. There are ways to protect your sanity when the baby is in his cot. The grass is always greener in the other option and it is good to remind yourself that even the best of workplaces can drive you mad too.
en: Homeschooling and smacking. Why not avoid these controversial topics?
AB: They certainly are controversial. But I included in my books all the subjects I get asked about. And I have been asked many times about both of these. They are not on the same level however. Homeschooling is a hot topic because those who have chosen to do it tend to have a missionary zeal about it which can be unsettling to those who have decided to make other arrangements for their children’s education. But equally there are those Christians who really wanted me to argue that homeschooling is a poor choice. But I could not. I defy anyone to find a case for state schooling from the Bible. The Bible gives principles which different Christians apply in different ways regarding the education of their children. I have tried to be even-handed in presenting the case for homeschooling and the one for delegating the education elsewhere, which, incidentally, was what we did. A Christian should never be afraid of thinking through the reasons for any choice. I hope my analysis helps in that choice.
Smacking is controversial because it is unfashionable. There is always a bit of an intake of breath if I mention it when speaking. Some people think it is already illegal in this country. It is not – though many people would like it to be. Again I maintain that the Bible does not rule it out and neither therefore can I. Indeed on balance the Bible rather commends it than otherwise although some would maintain that the use of the word ‘rod’ in Proverbs is metaphorical. This is discussed in my book. Again, let readers think the issue through and make up their own minds. In any case I refused to avoid the subject just because various health and childcare professionals think smacking is wrong. That is precisely what I mean by ‘going against the tide’. I do not argue from history or from psychology but from Scripture. I did not write a book just to put across my own ideas.
en: Many parents will come to this book with a heavy heart and a sense of failure with their children not behaving how they would want them to. What do you say to that parent?
AB: I say to that parent, ‘I know how you feel’. I have had my share of heavy-hearted days. And surely all parents know what it is to look at their child and give a great big sigh. But remember that the snapshot you take of your child today is of a work in progress. It is not ‘game over’.
If you love your child and are not afraid to exercise authority, there is hope. One of the lovely things about children is that after the most ghastly day when you have done nothing but nag/correct/chastise – even perhaps when you have blown it and lost your temper and your failure has kept you awake at night – your child wakes the next morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and it is a whole new day. And they are right. It is a brand-new opportunity to lovingly train and correct.
Remember also the unsung but all-important things you do as a loving parent. You provide food, clothing, shelter. You are there. You are a good parent. Keep going.
en: If you had your time again as a parent, what would you do differently, or what do you wish you’d known then that you do now?
AB: Firstly, I would enjoy my children more. I think sometimes I got bogged down in management and administration and did not revel in the relationship I had with these four fantastic unique human beings growing up in my house.
It is a cliché, but they are not children long. As a parent you have this small window – yes, certainly for input of all kinds but also for being around each other. I think I got too stressed over little things – toilet-training, for example, which I loathed and at which I was hopeless (or my children were) – and failed to realise that these things pass. Things like that shake down OK. What is more important is your own attitude and demeanour.
Secondly, I would pray more – both with my children and for them. Despite my many failures God has been extraordinarily gracious to me and my family.
en: In the last chapter you write: ‘The shambles of family life is there to teach parents that they need God.’ To encourage every parent, can we just end this interview with you expanding on this for us?
AB: We don’t help anybody by pretending or thinking we can ever be perfect parents. There is plenty of scope for failures under a dispensation of grace. When we meet a problem in life, it suits our pride to solve the problem ourselves by thinking our way through to a better strategy. God might let us get away with that for so long. But in his kindness God sometimes lets us completely mess up and gives us the opportunity to face up to our weakness, our utter fallibility and repent. He does it so that we realise how much we need him. Whether in parenting or in life as a whole, each shambles presents us with that reminder. Run to God, who gives everything we need for life and godliness, and for parenting too.