I’m currently reading Dorothy W. Martyn’s book Beyond Deserving: Children, Parents and Responsibility Revisited. Dr Martyn is a psychotherapist and a Christian, and the book (based on play-therapy sessions with three children) argues for an approach for child-raising that goes “beyond deserving” in favour of grace and undeserved love.

Dr Martyn sets out the thesis of her book in the introduction:

Parental love, and, by extension, all mentoring love, is authentic and effectual in proportion to the degree that it transcends the commonly assumed principle of the circular exchange, that is to say, “this for that.” All true love is a stranger to that kind of thinking.

The “justice” idea of reward according to what is deserved is replaced by the much more powerful force of noncontingent, compassionate alliance with the essential personhood of the other, however small that part may appear to be, against the destructive forces opposing that person’s good.

She unpacks this thesis in an excellent lecture, The New Recipe (MP3, half-hour plus Q&A), from Mockingbird’s conference on “Grace in Personal Relationships” earlier this year. Three points which have stuck with me most clearly since listening to this lecture (and which I’ve tried to implement with my own children) are:

  • Avoid “if”s: “if you do this thing I want, then you’ll get this thing you want”; “if you don’t stop doing that, then you’ll suffer some unpleasant consequence”. This just reinforces the “justice-based”, “this-for-that” mentality that comes to us all-too naturally anyway.
  • As a corollary to the first point: rather than issuing “if”s where there is misbehaviour, Dr Martyn encourages us to “move on to the consequences very quickly”. Simply say, “That’s not how it’s going to be” and take the necessary steps to change the situation (e.g. taking away the stick with which the child is whacking their sibling…).
  • The aim is always to be seen to be on your children’s side – even if at times that means being on their side against their own destructive instincts. (This is what Dr Martyn is referring to above when she talks of a “noncontingent, compassionate alliance with the essential personhood of the other … against the destructive forces opposing that person’s good.”)

Dr Martyn’s book (along with Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, which I read earlier this year) has challenged me greatly in one key respect: we say (as Christians, and not least as Lutherans) that we believe it is grace that truly changes people; that the law can never produce real change, whether before or after conversion. And yet in the area of our lives where most of us have the biggest impact on nurturing and mentoring other people – that is, raising our children – we tend to reach for the law, mistrusting approaches based on grace as being excessively “permissive”.

How can we expect our children to believe us when we tell them about the life-changing power of grace, if what they see in our treatment of them reveals our true belief to be that it’s the law that really gets things done?