Sunday, April 11, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Opposite of Bad Parenting

Probably fifteen people have asked Aunt Dorcas to write a parenting book. She keeps saying "No, I don't think so," but she got going on this post and admits that this is almost book-length. She doesn't want you to feel any obligation to read it all.

Aunt Dorcas in San Diego

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

I read your article on parenting and while I mostly agree, it gives me unpleasant images of peers of mine, shrugging weakly while their belligerent children boldly defy them, unhindered. Can you round out your last article with some helpful viewpoints or include some direction regarding this?

You said that so much of what parents react to is simply children being children. Agreed. But to what extent? I realize that much of that is for the parent to discern. Could you help us? I’ve read enough of your writings to know your not on level with the mom that smiled wanly at her son as he hammered on mine, explaining that he was tired. Or explaining during utter mutiny about their house,  that knowing the family needed to move in a month was ‘wearing on them and feeling that they didn’t have their own space’.

I know, there’s always context. Probably I’ve been unjust in my conclusions. However, it doesn’t take long in my household for me to see that my children have an uncanny ability to capitalize on excuses I make for them. I don’t want to be like the suit-coated, pinching father you mentioned or the weak willed woman I mentioned. Please help us stay out of ditches. A lot of people I know read your writings and are greatly influenced- I appreciate that and I’m asking for more influence on this regard.


Dear Sherri--

Here’s a summary of raising children, in case you don't have time to read the whole post:

1. Children need guidance and involvement to become functional adults.

2. This is a lot of work.

3. If you’re the mom or dad, it’s your job to do the parenting.

4. You have to be the grownup.

5. You have what it takes.

What is the opposite of a dog?

As the principal’s wife for over 30 years, I gave the ACE Reading Readiness Test to lots of little preschoolers.

One task involved finding opposites, and it featured a picture of a dog. All right, little Braxton, what is the opposite of a dog? Two of the options were things like a tree and a cup. The third was a cat. That was the “right” answer. The child was supposed to circle the picture of the cat.

I would tell the kids to skip that one because, let’s be clear, a cat is not the opposite of a dog. They are two different kinds of domesticated mammals.

A surprising number of people wrote to me after my post on March 21, concerned that if I was speaking out against spank-to-break-the-will parenting, then I was promoting its “opposite,” lax and lazy parenting.

As with cats and dogs, harsh parenting and lax parenting are not opposites. They are two different kinds of bad parenting. Both choose the parent’s convenience over actually teaching the child.

The opposite of both is strong, committed, active, involved, loving parenting.

I understand the concern, though. Most of us don’t witness the sort of abusive parents who traffic their kids or the neglectful parents who essentially hire someone to raise their kids for them. Many of us, praise God, don’t witness will-breaking parenting either.

But we all see inadequate parenting, where parents seem helpless before their children. I'll focus more on the aggressive child in this post, but this also applies to the parent who acts helpless before defiance and chaos.

So what does this lax parenting look like?

I mentioned in my previous post that often a child needs food or sleep rather than another lecture or a spanking, because he is a child, and this is what children do. A number of people took issue with that and felt I was promoting the sort of parenting that accepts any kind of behavior because the child is a child.

We’ve all been there. This is the mom who sips her coffee while her son attacks yours with a pair of scissors. As you levitate from your chair in horrified wrath, the other mom laughs. “Oh, calm down. He’s fine. They’ll figure it out on their own. Kids will be kids.”

Um, yeah. That’s the problem. This is what kids do, and your job is to teach them not to. My son is about to lose an eyeball, you think.

The will-breaking mom is likely to snatch up her toddler, haul him into the next room, and give him 25 smacks you can hear from where you’re sitting. That’s not helpful either.

In many years of parenting and observing, this is what I’ve found: The overly-spanked child and the un-parented child are equally likely to hit your child over the head with the Fisher-Price telephone. The only difference is, the will-broken child will wait until his mom isn’t looking.

Despite appearances, these methods are the same sort of neglect. They fail to teach the child basic life skills of empathy, manners, kindness, respect, and boundaries.

The aggressive child has a lot to lose when, as he gets older, no one likes him or wants to play with him. He won’t understand why, or how to change things.

Sternly parented kids are often dishonest, manipulative, and devious.

Unparented kids are often aggressive, selfish, and destructive.

A good mom, in this case, will get involved. She won’t let other kids suffer at her child’s hands. Ideally, she’ll take away the scissors or toy, make sure the other child is ok, and instruct her child on what to do and not do.

If her kid is tired, thirsty, or hungry, she’ll make sure that need is met. If he can’t handle playing with other kids, she’ll take him out of the situation.

This—sorry to break it to you—involves actually doing something.

I know it’s hard. You are lonely and exhausted as a full-time mom, and you finally get to spend time with a few friends. There you are, around the table, sipping coffee while the kids play, and at long long last you get to talk with other adults. Someone asks you what was the deal with Joe and Martha—they’ve been hearing rumors--and everyone turns and looks at you.

Oh my word. You have been living for this moment. All eyes on you, no one interrupting, and you’re holding the juiciest gossip in your hand, like a ripe plum. You lean forward. “Well! So Joe was doing some concrete work for my husband last week, on that new storage building, and they got to talking, and oh, goodness, I hope it’s ok for me to share this. He said they need to make a trip to Wisconsin next week…”


You all turn around. Your toddler is whacking Sandra’s with a heavy little John Deere tractor.

This is the crucial parenting moment.

I am so sorry to tell you this, but here we go: This is your child, acting like a child. But you can’t let him continue this behavior. You have to be the grownup. You have to stop your story, raise your weary self from the chair, walk across the room, settle the fight, make sure the other kid is ok, and figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

By the time you get back, Sandra with her loud voice will have taken the opportunity to start in on vaccines, and how you know there’s that misguided neighboring church where they all give their kids shots, and when you visit there and the children turn around and stare at you in church, it seems like they all have kind of a blank stare, with those odd close-set eyes and pointed noses? WELL! there’s a new study out showing that a whole generation of children is looking suspiciously like chickens, because they culture the MMR vaccine in egg whites!*

*I made that up.

Everyone will gasp. The conversation will go from vaccines on to Kathy’s kids getting the flu to the Christmas program at school. You won’t get back to your story until you’re about to go home, and your children are crying, and the hostess says, Oh yeah, what was that you were saying, about Joe and Martha?


But you are the grownup, and you will do the necessary thing for the sake of your child.

Children are naturally adorable but utterly ignorant and uncivilized. They aren’t born knowing the rules. Unless taught otherwise, they will touch all the cupcakes on the plate before choosing one, steal from the convenience store, and paint graffiti on bridges.

Children don’t naturally trim their fingernails, take turns, cover their mouth to cough, or eat with a fork. They have to be taught to finish a task, tell the truth, and say thank you.

They might pick up some of these life lessons from watching other people or from teachers and aunts, but it would be a big favor to all of us if you, the parents, would tie your apron and take on this job.

This is your child. It is your job to teach them. Yes, it’s a big job and you don’t feel up to it. Do it anyhow.

It’s not about punishing them every time they turn around or excusing bad behavior. It’s about carefully cultivating a relationship, meeting their needs, getting to know them as people, coaching, guiding, and teaching them the life skills they need to make it on their own.

Remember the story of the dad pinching the little girl in church because she played with her braids? The kids in that family could sit like statues in church. But. Two of the children attended the school where I taught. At all-school assemblies, those two were the worst behaved of anyone. Moving, talking, turning, distracting. The dad’s tight control wasn’t teaching them anything except to sit still in his presence. Away from him, they didn’t know how to be quiet and respectful, or why.

A better method would have been to sit on the couch at home and practice sitting still for half an hour while Dad reads a Bible story. It could be fun, with lots of praise for learning this self-discipline, and instructive--we sit still so others can worship. "You guys are amazing. Have some M&Ms."

Parenting involves finding the delicate balance between individualism and collectivism.

Your child is a unique individual. You need to get to know him or her, understand them, give them grace to be kids, and encourage their gifts.

But they are also part of a big world full of people. Their actions will almost always affect others. It’s crucial that they learn to value others, respect boundaries, practice kindness, and treat others like they want to be treated, both at home and away.

It’s your job to make sure your child doesn’t hurt other people, destroy their possessions, or generally create misery wherever they go.

I met a nice Christian mom who told a group of us how her little boy won’t have a bowel movement unless he takes all his clothes off first. Then he sits on the toilet for twenty minutes, swinging his feet and talking to himself. So, if they’re shopping and he has to poop, she grabs a magazine and takes him into the handicapped stall for this lengthy process. All the clothes come off, he sits there doing his business, and she sits on the floor in front of him and reads her magazine. If someone comes in and wants to use the stall, she shrugs and says, “Sorry.” 

She laughed. I didn’t.

This story bothered me for these reasons:

1. The mom takes no initiative to improve this situation. She is helpless before the child’s preferences.

2. She takes up the handicapped stall for this operation. Her son learns that his wishes are important enough to supersede the needs of a disabled person in their designated stall, no less.

3. I’m afraid she puts that magazine back on the rack after she’s been reading it on the bathroom floor.

The main thing that needs to happen here is not a big discipline session with the child. The problem is the mom. She’s not being the grownup. She’s not caring how her and her son’s behavior affects other people.

So that comes first. They need to use the smaller stall, even if it’s cramped.

And she needs to bring her own reading material.

Then she needs to realize that she isn’t without capacity and volition. If she enjoys the break from shopping, fine. She could also practice changing the routine at home. "This week you’re going to be a big boy and leave your shirt on when you poop." The next week, he gets a reward if he finishes in under 15 minutes.

Even if the child genuinely needs his 20 minutes, they can meet that need but still be considerate.

The mom and dad are the adults. They need to figure it out. The more aware they are of how their own behavior affects others, the easier it will be to teach the child to be considerate.

All of our six children have lived at home for at least part of their college years. One of the many advantages of this is that I get to hear their stories about other students.

College is often the first time that kids are on their own and away from home, making their way as adults. I’ve determined that it’s a JumboTron screen where their parents’ parenting is displayed in living color. 

Some have obviously learned to work hard, get along with people, make good decisions, plan ahead, behave graciously, communicate, and take social cues.

Others have not.

Jenny, a senior at Oregon State, has been going off recently about a classmate we’ll call Jordan. “He is SO full of himself and acts like he knows EVERYTHING. He goes off about RINGS! You don’t talk about RINGS* in an advanced calculus class! And he sits there and picks his nose and eats it RIGHT in my line of sight! We were supposed to read this article and share something we’d learned, and he spoke up right away and said, ‘Oh, I knew all that information already,’ so it made everyone else feel stupid, but then I spoke up anyway and shared something I’d learned, then I think that made other people feel ok about talking too.”

*a complicated math concept, not a band around your finger

Jordan might be autistic, I’ll grant that. But a more likely guess is that he was taught to value his own conclusions but not to interact graciously in a group. So he gets to live with being disliked in all his classes but probably never knowing why.

The most specific test for how people were parented is college group projects.

It might be a class on English literature, fluid dynamics, or teaching reading. The professor, feeling vindictive toward the world, decides to divide everyone into groups of four. Each group needs to work together to research a situation and write a summary.

Group projects can be helpful and interesting when everyone contributes. They can be torture when they don’t, and I’ve had grownup kids in tears over group projects.

I asked Emily what kinds of people are the worst to work with. She said, “Most people do ok, actually.  But others don’t communicate. They don’t pull their weight.  Or there are people who are SO CONFIDENT that their way is the right way and are completely unwilling to give an inch.”

Your goal is to raise a child to be welcome in group projects in college, construction crews, youth groups, and church committees.

You don’t have to whip your child into abject submission, let them terrorize the other toddlers because kids will be kids, or any number of bad ways to parent.

You do, however, need to be a healthy and whole person yourself. You need to pursue inner health and Jesus, and parent out of that good place.

Then, you need to invest yourself deeply into this precious little life and be the loving adult, guiding and leading.

God gave you this child. He’ll give you what it takes.

You are the adult. You can do this. It will be worth it.

That’s what I think.

--Aunt Dorcas

Monday, April 05, 2021

Aunt Dorcas Vacations: Seeing Where People Are From

All ready to shop for fabric!
[I'm on the left, Simone on the right]

Aunt Dorcas went on vacation.

This not a Q&A advice column as the alternate-week schedule would call for, but a post on Aunt Dorcas's little trip to California. But, since she can't help but insert a bit of advice, here it is:

Get to know where your people are from.

The famous Portland carpet and a pair of practical shoes. With socks.

I hadn't flown anywhere for 17 months. The last trip was when I flew to Texas for a ladies' retreat in October of 2019. Covid dried up all the speaking invitations, and Paul's accident canceled any hopes of even slightly complicated travel for a long time.

Then my friend, neighbor, and cousin-in-law Simone, who grew up in Southern California, decided to visit there for a month's retreat and invited me to join her for as long as I liked.

In a stroke of wonderful timing, my sister Rebecca and her husband Rod moved to San Diego a few weeks ago.

So I flew to San Diego, spent a few days with Rebecca, met Simone, spent a few days with her, and drove home with Simone.

In winter, the light in Oregon is muted, like it's passing through filters, sheets clothespinned to the mountains on both sides, or the scroll in the song, that can't contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.

In southern California, all the filters and barriers are gone. The sunshine is clear and intense, blazing and bright. I had no idea how hungry I was for that kind of light until I was in it, turning my face to it, soaking it in.

I did a lot in a week. 

Rebecca and I strolled along the harbor and admired the ships, sat on her deck with tea, and talked a lot. I saw where her husband teaches and met some of his co-workers.
Incognito at Balboa Park.

You could see Tijuana and the ocean from Rebecca's patio.

Simone and I went fabric shopping in the fashion district of LA, toured San Juan Capistrano, and attended an outdoor Easter service on Saturday evening at Mariners, a megachurch with a campus the size of your local community college.

San Juan Capistrano was lovely and historic, but it also made us sad.
The native people were persuaded to help build this large church. It took six years, then 
it was used for only nine years before being destroyed in an earthquake, killing 40 people.
Only the chancel and part of the transept remain.

The bells at San Juan Capistrano.
Sadly, the swallows no longer gather at the mission, but
they still return to the town.

The fabric shopping in particular had been a dream of ours for a long time. We backed into the tightest parking space I've ever seen and found our way through a dozen shops overflowing with rolls of fabric. It was like being overseas, without the jet lag. Clutter, variety, bargaining, open fronts, other languages, even the shopkeepers' grapevine messaging like I had noticed in Kenya. At one shop, we chatted with the Mexican owner and his son, who had been to college in Portland. Then we wandered across the street to another shop, where another older man greeted us with, "So, you're from Oregon?"

Many of the fabrics were brightly colored and shiny with lace and sequins, but we also found piles, stacks, and walls of pretty knits, natural fibers, and every variety of polyester you can imagine.

I'm down there by the ladder. The fabric I bought had
to be hauled for a long way in that green bag, which 
limited my purchases considerably.
Next time, I need to have Paul drive me down in a seed truck.

We loved it.

After the stresses of the past year, it was all healing medicine, spooned into my soul in hourly doses.

Simone and I had planned to start home on Sunday and take two days to get here. But, feeling anxious to get home, we impulsively decided to set out Saturday night and drive it all in one shot, if we could stay awake.

The 14-hour drive went amazingly well, we surprised our families, and I was able to be here for Easter dinner with the family and the guests they'd invited.

We have been through hard things, and it was unbelievably satisfying to know that even at this stage of our lives we could make a dream come true, turn ideas into reality, and make our way back home all on our own.

This morning, this is what strikes me most: it's good to find out where your people are from.

Paul, who grew up Mennonite and Wesleyan Methodist, knew almost nothing about the Amish of my past. It felt important to me that he not only hear my stories but see it for himself, so when my grandma died in Kansas in 1988, I made sure we went to the funeral. Rebecca did the same with her husband. We sat on those benches in that crowded house among hundreds of bearded men, white-kapped ladies, and wide-eyed silent children who stared curiously.

At the viewing, Paul nudged Rod, indicated the little girls in front of them in their white organdy coverings and black dresses, and marveled, "This is what our wives looked like."

I've always been grateful that we made the effort to attend that funeral. Now he knew, at least in a small part.

When we attended a Wesleyan Methodist camp meeting, I did the same for him. Despite the similarities to Mennonites, I sensed that they spoke a language I didn't quite understand. I was disturbed at the fiery sermon and the emotional prayers, both of which seemed contrived and overwrought to me, but I understood a part of my husband that I hadn't known before. He did his best to interpret it all for me. "They're not nearly as black-and-white about sanctification as they sound in their sermons." 

Whenever I visit Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I understand my mother-in-law better, and also my friends from that area. Speech patterns, foods, quirks, and preferences are all evident. There are right things to do, and right ways to do things. They may have been in Oregon for 50 years, but they'll still say the eggs are "all"--meaning "all gone."

I got to know Simone back when she and Paul's cousin Darrell were dating, well over 20 years ago. She was from some kind of "plain" background that seemed to be basically Mennonite. However, she had mannerisms that weren't typically Mennonite-woman, like a loud laugh. I heard parts of her story over the years, of course, but never understood the context.

In California, we stayed with her cousin and his wife. One day a fistful of relatives came for lunch.

Now I know much better where Simone is from.

This family line is Serbian, with some German and Slavic in-laws thrown in for good measure. Simone's generation were either immigrants from Europe or the children of immigrants. They all came from a strict religious background, and their dads did hard time in Communist prisons.

The conversation was constant, loud, and intense. People fearlessly injected their opinions, laughed loudly, and gestured with such vigor that they hit me in the arm if I was beside them. Any subject merited deep intensity and fervor, from getting a visa to the homeless in America to being enslaved by the Turks for 400 years.

Not only was it a fascinating experience, it provided context for who Simone is now.

My sister, who has been uprooted into new communities multiple times in the last ten years, says one of the hardest things is the struggle to make new friends who don't know your history. Where do you begin to explain? The Amish part, the overseas parts, the children, the medical work, the Midwest? 

We are so much more than what we show on the surface. We are history, cultures, events, and places, all swirled together. We are decisions, disappointments, conquests, and defeat. We are all the people who nurtured us, damaged us, or gave us their genes.

It is a gift to a spouse or friend or parent--anyone you care for--to see for yourself where they are from. If you can't go see their history for yourself, you can listen to their stories with interest and intent. We all want to be known, and to be loved for who we really are.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Office Remodel

An old house like ours is like the Ship of Theseus. If you replace all the pieces of it, little by little, is it still the same house?

This is from Wikipedia: 

It is supposed that the famous ship sailed by the hero Theseus in a great battle was kept in a harbor as a museum piece, and as the years went by some of the wooden parts began to rot and were replaced by new ones; then, after a century or so, every part had been replaced. The question then is whether the "restored" ship is still the same object as the original.

The most recent parts of this ship to be changed were the downstairs bathroom and office. The bathroom was the more extensive remodel, but that update will come later. Most of the work was finished weeks ago, but an entirely different company was doing the counter and sinks, and we had to wait an extra two weeks on them.

Then the carpenter crew came back to put in the last bits of wainscoting, only to find that those pieces had accidentally been thrown away when they did the final cleanup. So now we keep waiting. Is it a new bathroom if 97% of it is new, but two 6-inch sections of bare wall still have carpenter-pencil scribbling and sploshes of paint?

This house is laid out like a 4-square game. The northeast square is off the living room and served as the master bedroom back when Vernon and Elsie Knox lived here, and what is now our bedroom was the nursery for each new little Knox Brother. We use the northeast room as our office. Over the last 20 years it has served as a slow, giant vacuum cleaner for papers, books, office supplies, and random cords that we will need a week later if we ever throw them out.

I don't have "before" pictures of the office, because it wasn't a room I was proud of.

Emptying out this accumulation was a huge but necessary job, and it rendered the living room unusable for a few weeks.

This is getting ahead of the story, but in the process of moving back in, we got rid of boxes full of books and hundreds of old files and accumulated papers. We found missions committee notes from years ago, zillions of warehouse papers, and even Paul's research paper from high school.

I had plenty of papers of my own filed away. Honestly, why did I keep some of this stuff? Did I really think I would use this craft idea I tore out of a magazine? Appliqued bunnies! And that child's expression--Jenny said that's how she feels when I make her pose with things I make.

But we didn't toss many cords, unfortunately. I didn't have the nerve.

It really is refreshing to get rid of accumulated papers.

I had torn up the carpet last year, exposing the old wood floor, but we couldn’t complete the job until the built-in bookshelves were out. 

If you knew how big these projects would turn out to be, you’d never start.

We wanted to make the floor look like the bedroom floor that Paul refinished about four years ago. Our builder guy, Kevin Baker, sanded it for us, a task that Paul would have done in his healthier days. But then Paul was able to stain and varnish the floor. If you have the skills in your head, it’s amazing how you can find ways to get them done with one arm.

In case you're interested, he used Dura Seal quick coat 2 hour penetrating finish for wood floors 110 Neutral stain and DuraSeal polyurethane for wood floors.

Meanwhile, Paul did warehouse paperwork on the little
table where my grandpa did his farm paperwork
a hundred years ago.

 When he was finished with the first coat of polyurethane, a section by the door looked flat and dull, while the rest of the room looked shiny. 

Paul redid it, with the same result. He couldn’t figure out what he was doing wrong. Did he get a bit of water mixed in from a washed-out brush? Did he fail to stir enough? We still don’t know.

Finally, he bought a new can of varnish and a new brush, and this time it worked.

We painted like crazy.

That basket contains the internet router and stuff, which had to remain usable while the remodel happened.

Yes, I let Paul get back on a ladder.

The carpenters put up wainscoting on the walls, restoring it to our best guess of what it looked like long ago.

The bookcases got wrestled back into place.

We were deliberate and intentional about what went back in.

I set up my new computer that Paul got me for Christmas.
My family has figured out this is the best way to drag me
into the 21st century. My old desktop was 11 years old.

We love how it looks. Sometimes you just have to plunge in so you’re forced to finish the task.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Breaking Their Wills

 Dear Aunt Dorcas,

 Do you have any thoughts or advice to share on the concept of breaking your child’s will? I am referring specifically to Michael and Debbie Pearl’s suggested parenting plan.


Dear Erin--

I’m told that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, once said that leading Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes.

That’s how I feel addressing this question. But I feel it’s important, so let’s poke it with a stick and see what happens.

Let’s establish a few basics about raising children that we agree on:

1. Human babies are the most helpless of any animal newborns. Baby chicks peck their way out of the egg and pretty soon they’re running to the food dish on their little scratchy feet. Baby sea turtles head for the ocean on their own determined little flippers.

But baby humans will lie there and die without constant and long-term care.

2. It takes a long time to raise a human. We are born not knowing language, survival skills, or how to function in a community. Each of us needs to be nurtured, protected, and taught. Children with minimal care might survive physically, if they’re lucky, but if they aren’t taught the complex rules of interacting in a family, culture, and community, they will not thrive or be healthy members of society.

3. It’s the parents’ job to raise the child into a fully-functioning adult. They might feel that they can’t possibly be grownup enough to be in charge, but if God sends them a baby, then they’re the ones responsible for it. It is their job now. 

4. Raising a child is a big task, and it’s not easy, but we’ve made it more complicated than it ought to be.

We’ve all seen what happens when a child doesn’t get what they need. From the sad barefoot child in the grocery cart ahead of you on a cold day to the untamed wildcat that tears through your house and bounces on the couches to the kids who bullied you at school to the little girl in front of you at church who sat perfectly still until she happened to play with her braids a little bit and her dad reached over and gave her a vicious pinch on the arm that made her sit perfectly still again and filled her love-hungry eyes with tears.

[That last example is pulled from real life, and 25 years later I still want to reach forward and show that black-suited dad what a real pinch feels like.]

So we know what’s at stake if we don’t parent well, and we want desperately to get it right. I think this is why the subject is so fraught with controversy—it matters that much. Despite Scripture, our own childhoods, watching others, and a million books on parenting, there are no simple equations, and the math doesn’t always come out the same for everyone.

We want to get it right. Sometimes it’s because we love our children so much, and other times it’s because we fear the shame if they go wrong.

The first line of the book Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is famous and wise: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

We could all, right now, number our notebook paper from one to ten and list ten kinds of unhappy families, but I prefer to look at what the happy and healthy families have in common.

Off the top of my head, here are eight traits.

Basic stability--Dad isn’t going to walk off. Mom isn’t going to be drunk at breakfast.

Safety--Children don’t live under a cloud of fear and uncertainty.

Nurture—Children are cared for physically and emotionally.

Cohesion—family members are for and not against each other.

Grace—Children are allowed and expected to be children. Behavior is addressed without destroying the worth of the child.

Clarity—children have a good idea of what’s expected of them

Competence—children know they have what it takes to do and contribute what’s expected

Decency--people treat each other with basic respect and kindness

Within those parameters, there’s room for enormous variation. In his book Walking His Trail: Signs of God Along the Way, Steve Saint, son of the martyred missionary Nate Saint, mentions the differences in the childhood homes of his father and aunt, Rachel Saint, and her eventual missionary partner, Elisabeth Elliot.

The Saints were a laidback West Coast family. Schedules and proper manners didn’t matter too much. They valued creativity, fun, and discovery. One weekend, as I recall, the boys wanted to take the family car apart, and their dad shrugged and said it was fine as long as they had it back together to take to work Monday morning.

Elisabeth, on the other hand, was a Howard from the East Coast, and the Howards did things right. Schedules, manners, meals, tidiness, disciplines, all kinds of things. 

I also read The Making of a Christian Family, Elisabeth Elliot’s story of her family, and the properness of it all nearly gave me hives. Interestingly, though, her family loved to laugh, and she relates how some were wonderful storytellers or mimics, and they would shriek and laugh at the dinner table.

Rachel and Elisabeth didn’t work out so well together on the mission field, as one might expect, but the point here is that despite their wildly different upbringing, both women were effective missionaries and good people.

As long as the basics are in place, there’s lots of room for variation.

However, I don’t think there’s room for the Pearl method of “breaking the child’s will.”

This is why: It presumes a basic enmity between parent and child. It puts them against each other.

[Edit: Just to be clear, this "spank until the will is broken" idea was around when my husband was a child, he says, long before the Pearls started their teaching, and it came from multiple sources. So I'm referring more to the general principle than the Pearls' specific methods.]

This is painful for me to address, because it’s too much like the approach I used with my older children.

Somehow, between my birth family, preachers, other parents, and books, I had picked up this idea that my children had a huge and terrifying entity inside that was going to swell up like mutant bread dough and destroy both them and us if we didn’t keep it punched down.

The primary method to accomplish this was punishment, either spanking or some other unpleasant consequence. The general idea was that if it didn’t work, you weren’t doing it enough, kind of like multi-level marketing nutrient supplements.

Well, we had very spirited children, and I loved them to pieces. But I was also terrified of them ending up in prison or Hell, or both, if I let that bread dough ooze over the edge of the bowl.

I was also afraid of what other people thought. This whole era was complicated by my own unresolved issues.

I remember asking other moms for advice, and how utterly unhelpful it was. “Sounds to me like he has an anger problem! You need to deal with that.” “You just have to spank until their crying changes to a submissive cry.” “I think he has a demon. He’s just so crazy wild.”

We didn’t have a lot of time or resources for therapy, or even the initiative to seek it out. Paul was a much better parent than I was, but I was the one with the children all the time.

Thankfully, things slowly got better, and by the time the last of the six came along, parenting was different. I had let go of some of the shame and terror, and was better able to relax and enjoy my children.

The “breaking their will” idea presumes the complete dominion of the parent, like a slave master over a slave, or a conquering king over his defeated subjects.

In the Pride and Prejudice series from the 1990s, the best version ever made, Mrs. Long is talking to Mrs. Bennett about everything Mr. Wickham had been up to. Since I don’t want to watch all five hours to get the quote right*, here’s what I recall: “Intrigues! Seductions! Drunken routs, in which more things were broken than pots and heads!”

*I mean, I do, but you know what I mean.

When you go about breaking the will, more things are broken than pots, heads, and wills. Worthiness, hope, relationships, a sense of safety, love.

How much better for parents and children to have a sense of being with and for each other. Yes, the parents are the responsible adults, and this isn’t to say they need to be the buddies, watching indulgently as a toddler pokes at your cat’s eyes or endlessly playing whatever the 4-year-old demands. But they can convey a sense of being in the same family and on the same team. “We all want to make this work. We want good things for each other.”

With my younger children, I realized that much of what I thought was that ominous bread dough rising (the Sinful Nature!) was just kids being kids. This is what children do. Usually they need a hug, a peanut butter sandwich, and a nap instead of another lecture or spanking.

Most kids want to do what’s right and appropriate, if only because they want people to like them. You can give them basic information about behavior and consequences without shaming them down to their souls.

“It’s not ok to kick the dog. It hurts him.”


“Let’s go inside. Unfortunately, if you kick the dog you can’t play outside today. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Once I realized how ridiculous, fear-based, and even abusive my methods had been, everything improved. I liked my children. They liked me. We cared for each other. They wanted to please me. Things were never perfect, but perfect isn't the goal. Caring for each other is the goal, and safety, competence, and all that.

My grownup kids have forgiven me and given the refreshing drink of grace. I am so grateful. I still pray for God to heal whatever I damaged.

You don’t have to freak out, dominate, and control. You can be the parent and guide them to adulthood with the loving authority of Jesus.

Your family will have its own personality, flavor, and priorities, and that’s ok. If you hear or read parenting advice that smells of shame, abuse, and fear, you are allowed to ignore it.

Pursue your own healing and being like Jesus, because your children are going to be a lot like you.

That’s what I think. I wish you well.

Aunt Dorcas

Photo by Sophie Carlson. [Designed and sent of her own volition--how sweet of her!]
Check out my books at Muddy Creek Press.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Eight Months--On Being Weak

 Here's what I posted on Caring Bridge today:

Today it's eight months since Paul fell.

"He will recover, but it will be a marathon, not a sprint," they told me at the hospital, still in the emergency room. They were right.

I would imagine the only way to run a marathon is one step at a time, and that's how we ran ours. Today, Paul drove us to church, then we ate dinner with our whole family. Later, he and I went on a 2-mile walk.

We got here one step at a time.

At the post-surgery visits, the doctors again expressed amazement at his recovery not only from the accident, but also from the surgery on his neck. The word "miraculous" came up.

Some of the muscles in his left arm and shoulder have recovered completely, some partially, and a few not at all, including the deltoid in the shoulder.

"Don't give up hope," the neurosurgeon said. "Keep doing therapy on that shoulder, just in case."

So, while Paul continues to build up his strength, and we hope for full restoration, where we are is probably where we will be for the foreseeable future. So we adapt to what is.

A large recent project has been remodeling our bathroom and office. We hired someone to do most of the work, but Paul has made numerous trips to Jerry's, the huge local home-improvement store, to pick up supplies. One day he said, "I think people offer to help me a lot more than before my accident."

Most of us age gradually, so slowly we barely notice.

Paul aged about ten years in a moment. Before, he was tall, strong, and confident, with a straight back and a commanding presence.

He lost about an inch of height thanks to the crushed vertebrae, he is more stooped, and his shoulders are uneven. Also, his left arm dangles.

So people offer to reach things for him, to lift and carry them, to help load them in the car.

It's a strange thing to go from strong to weak in an instant. You realize, suddenly, that you've always seen the world from the perspective of the strong. Paul was not only physically strong, he also had influence. He was an employer, teacher, and pastor. He was decisive, and he made things happen.

The world looks different when you're weak.

The strong make the decisions. Sometimes they consider how their decisions will affect the weak, and sometimes not. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat people with less strength and power.

Romans 15 says, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves." That may be talking about spiritual weakness, but the principle applies. Other verses repeat the idea that considering the weak is an important Christian principle:

Acts 20:35--I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.

I Thessalonians 5:14--Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.

Probably where we noticed this dynamic the most was with Covid. Across the board, the people with the most to lose were not making the decisions. From churches deciding policies, to nursing homes isolating their residents, to governments creating mandates, it was usually the healthy and strong who decided.

While he recovered from his accident, it was important that Paul didn't catch Covid. We also had to be very careful leading up to his surgery at the end of the year because they were testing him often, and a positive test would have derailed all the schedules and plans.

It was fascinating how people treated him and his needs.

Most visitors, even those who never wore masks otherwise, asked if we'd prefer that they wear one. The question communicated care and respect to us.

Some made efforts to accommodate us away from our home, through meeting outside, for example, or substituting Zoom meetings until things were safer. Others were not willing to alter any functions for our sake, so the only option for us was not to attend. That was their privilege, of course, but it communicated information about them, and about our relative value. Some said, "You can wear a mask if you like," not realizing, apparently, that we were still at their mercy, since masks are better at keeping you from giving Covid than from getting it.

When you're suddenly weak, you view the world like you never did before.

Probably the most interesting episode happened on a hike near Tillamook on the northern coast. Paul and I ate our lunch in the parking lot at the head of the trail. One group returned from the hike while we were there, otherwise very few people or cars were around.

We got our water and jackets, read the information signs where the trail began, and started out. The first leg of the hike was up a long, steep hill which we ascended with difficulty, like old people, to be honest--puffing and slow.

Near the top of the hill we met two hikers coming our way. They were both wearing masks as they passed us. Paul and I looked at each other. We have been careful to mask whenever required and appropriate, but it had never crossed our minds to take masks along on this hike. None of the signs had mentioned it, and we were outside in the wilderness.

However, if the current hiking protocol was masking, we wanted to be respectful. We had no way of knowing if masks were expected or if this group was unusual.

We looked down that long, steep hill. Did we have the energy to hike back to the car, get masks, and come back? No. We didn't.

So we plodded on.

We met probably ten people on that 3-mile hike, and their response to us was fascinating. Without exception, they either stepped way off the trail to let us by, or they nodded politely and then popped masks, t-shirt neckbands, or scarves over their nose and mouth as they passed.

None of them berated us, even though we were the "negligent" ones. Their eyes smiled in a friendly fashion.

It was like being in Thailand and having younger people bow and press their fingertips together in a respectful Wei. All the hikers conveyed an attitude of, "We know this is kind of silly to yank up these masks, out here in the woods, but we are going to make you feel protected, you sweet old people out here bravely trying to hike!"

It's hard to explain how blessed we felt. Something valuable was communicated even if, technically, their gestures may not have been necessary.

I started popping the top of my shirt up over my nose as well, which felt awkward. But, as with knowing when and how to return the Wei in Thailand, I like to do what's appropriate in the local culture.

Our son Ben, who hiked 500 miles in Oregon last year, informed me later that most hikers have something to easily pop over their nose and mouth if they meet someone on a narrow trail. He prefers a bandana around his neck. Others use a mask or their shirt. 

One of these years, Covid and Paul's accident will only be awful memories. But for the rest of our lives, all of us who are strong and influential will have opportunities to make decisions that affect the weak. I hope we do it with consideration and honor. Eventually, most of us will be weak, and then, belatedly, we will truly understand what it's like to have others make choices on our behalf.

In John 21, Jesus says, "when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."

Whether that change happens gradually or in an instant, you will look at life from a new perspective and  learn new things about yourself and the people around you.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: What About Counselors?

Aunt Dorcas with her favorite counselor, last May, 
when he could still use his left arm.

Dear Aunt Dorcas—

What is your opinion of counseling? Especially for Christians.

--Confused Connie

Dear Connie--

I know from your email that you’re conservative Mennonite, and the fact that you ask the question tells me that you live among people who are suspicious of counseling and question its legitimacy, value, and justification in Scripture.

This view isn’t distributed equally among all Mennonites, just so you know. I know a number of Mennonite and even Amish counselors. I also know of many Mennonites who are deeply suspicious of the very word, and I know one couple who was in deep trouble with their church because they got marriage counseling.

Counseling and therapy are relatively new fields. Psychiatry was the first related field to appear, in the early 1900s, and it was seen as weird by many both inside and out of the church. And, granted, Freudian psychology was pretty bizarre. With the emphasis on childhood events shaping your adult problems, it was seen as giving you permission to blame all your shortcomings on your parents. If you like old Shirley Temple films, Bright Eyes is a good example of the general view of psychiatry in 1934. Little Joy is an absolute brat, unlike Shirley of course. Joy also goes regularly to be psychoanalyzed by her psychiatrist, who tells her parents not to punish her but only to encourage her.

Today, however, Freudian ideas and methods are seen as outdated, and my sister-in-law, a psychiatrist, spends her time diagnosing disorders and prescribing medication as needed. She doesn’t ask patients to lie on a chaise lounge and talk about their dreams.

The counseling field developed out of the study of mental health and the need for helping troubled people. Requirements and credentials vary by state and by the type of counseling, from licensed marriage and family therapists with master’s degrees to a local pastor who probably has a degree in pastoral ministries or Bible but spends time counseling because the need is so great.

I’ve never understood the deep-seated antipathy to counseling among certain Anabaptists, especially since we go to medical doctors as needed and plenty of other health providers besides, such as dentists, eye doctors, chiropractors, and naturopaths.

Especially chiropractors. We love our chiropractors.

When I was teaching school, I lived with a young lady named Cynthia. She was hearty and strong then, but after our lives diverged she developed a number of health issues. Maybe fifteen years later we were visiting and catching up. She mentioned that she goes to a chiropractor regularly—I’m thinking once a week.

I exclaimed about this and said I had never been to a chiropractor in my life.

Cynthia sputtered, “But! Don’t you ever HURT?”

“Not really,” I said.

Years later, Jenny, our 25-pound toddler, was sleeping in a Pack-n-Play, and I saw she had scootched off the blanket. I bent over, scooped her up, and pivoted at the waist to set her back on the blanket. I felt a tight spring snap loose in my back, which sent me to bed for about two days of what felt like second stage back labor or maybe transition. Then I went to a chiropractor. I hurt that bad. He improved things immediately.

When you hurt enough, you go for help.

Soon after my nephew died of suicide in 2006, we had the misfortune to have one of those overly confident revival meeting speakers that churches further east are so willing to supply to us in the West. One evening he boomed eloquently on the evils of counseling.

I spoke to him afterwards, cautiously. Could he explain?

He did. I don’t recall the words, only his attitude, and how sure he was of his conclusions.

The words slammed painfully into my soul that was still raw with grief and a deep wish that my nephew could have talked to a counselor and maybe gotten help. I didn’t try to argue with the preacher. I only thought, “You haven’t suffered enough. Someday, you’ll have a family member with depression. Or you will go down that dark road yourself.”

I have no idea what he’s experienced or what he thinks about such things today. 

[Side note: I have a slightly wicked theory that if Mennonites saw more counselors, they’d need to see fewer chiropractors. I wonder if I could make a case that seeing a counselor would save money, long term, thus justifying the practice.

This is not to imply anything about Cynthia’s physical pain, only an overall assessment.]

Thankfully, neither my husband nor church has had any issue with me seeing a counselor, and I have done so for a period of time as needed, at several stages of my life. One helped untangle a few unhealthy patterns in our marriage, another was an enormous help in my relationship with an adult child, and recently I started meeting with someone via Zoom to sort through the enormous challenges of the last year and a half, ever since my dad died. (Though she is fully qualified, she prefers the term "coach" since she's officially retired.)

I think it’s unfair to generalize about counselors, because they come in such variety, from dreamy souls who light candles and use words like “unpack” and “heart” far too often, to blunt, practical, matter-of-fact people like my current coach who is a farm girl at heart and likes to raise cattle and hang out with sheep. Her family came from a very strict religious background which was not Anabaptist but has been helpful in understanding the lingering effects of my Amish thinking/family/belief patterns.

As with any profession, some counselors are excellent and some are completely inept. Also, someone who is a good fit for you might not be helpful for your friend or husband.

An argument that often comes up is this: “You have the Bible and the church. That’s all you need.”

To that I say: You, despite having the Bible and the church, travel to South Dakota for chiropractic treatments at Canistota and to Mexico for chelation therapy.

When we hurt, we need help. It’s great that you allow people to get help for physical pain, but cruel that you don’t let them seek relief for emotional pain.

However, I do think if the church actually fulfilled the responsibilities of brotherhood, we wouldn’t need quite as many professional counselors.

In my opinion, the number one way the church fails its people is this: we can’t handle the truth. We are aghast at people’s raw emotions. We don’t like to hear what people do to each other. We are horrified when someone talks about what happened to them.

So we shush, smother, and smooth.

We are suspicious of any real emotion, assuming it means a lack of forgiveness and faith. We crank off that spigot as fast as we can.

Also, we don’t have time. Talking and sorting through grief, losses, and struggles of every kind simply takes big chunks of time. We hate to impose on others and ask them to listen, and we resent it when someone uses up our precious time with endless recitations of their problems.

These are advantages of counselors:

1. The time and expectation boundaries are clear. You will meet for an hour on Tuesday. You can talk about whatever you choose. The counselor will listen but will also direct and provide insights. It will cost X dollars.

There’s a huge relief in having all this spelled out.

2. They accept emotion. If you have a completely unacceptable emotion, like a murderous rage at the man who molested your daughter, a good counselor won’t gasp or raise their eyebrows or quickly direct you into a forced forgiveness. Instead, they nod and keep listening.

3. They’ve seen it all. You might be the fiftieth parent they’ve seen whose child was violated. They’ve seen this rage before and know it’s a typical response. Knowing you’re typical and normal is also a relief and gives far more hope of a path forward than being treated like a freak.

4. They emphasize personal responsibility. Even though they may trace a behavior or emotional pattern back to something that was done to you, they always circle back to you. Most of us with emotional issues are very mixed up about what is our job and what isn’t. We think whenever someone isn’t happy or behaving, it’s our job to fix them. We carry heavy loads of guilt and responsibility for parents, siblings, children, and spouses. Also, we blame our own unhappiness on others. Counselors help you see that each of us is responsible for our own choices and reactions. They also help you examine the lies you picked up and believed, and they assist you in replacing them with the truth.

A lot of Christians are happy to see what you’re doing wrong and tell you to repent, but a good counselor will help you uproot the root that the wrong behavior is sprouting from, so you’re not always lopping off the blackberry vine, only to have it sprout again a foot away.

5. They know more than you do and see things you don’t. For example, I’m learning a lot about how childhood trauma and fear affect the nervous system, creating a lifelong high-alert situation. I have an extreme startle reflex. My kids have learned that if they walk into the laundry room and start talking unexpectedly when I’m bent over a basket, they just about have to scrape me off the ceiling. So, if they know I’m there, they sing loudly or knock before they come in, because they are very kind people, but even then I might shriek and jump. I’ve always thought was only a somewhat embarrassing quirk. Now I’m learning it’s a symptom of PTSD.

Recently I was stressed out over a change in our normal routine, so much so that I could barely focus or think, and way out of proportion to the situation. My coach pointed out that it was most likely a “trauma response” connected to the overactive nervous system. This connection had never occurred to me. She gave me some helpful ideas for calming down and un-freezing my mind. There are specific physical things you can do that help rewire a damaged brain. It’s very cool. Ask your counselor about it.

Friends are sympathetic and kind, but someone with more training is more helpful with some of this deep-rooted damage.

6. They guide you toward solving your own problems. Despite having gone to counselors and taken a few weekend courses, I haven’t learned this magic trick. Most of us tell people what they ought to know and do. A good counselor asks a few casual questions and suddenly you realize where you went wrong. Duh! It’s so obvious! And you figured it out all by yourself, or that’s what it feels like, which is far more powerful than having someone tell you.

7. They keep your conversations confidential.

If you really want to reduce the need for your church people to go to counselors, here are some things you can do:

1. Schedule times of listening. Offer to sit down with someone and listen for an hour or two. It’s hard to explain what a gift this is. My neighbor, Anita, has at various times told me that she wants to be available for me to “debrief” after big events—funerals, our son’s wedding, and so on. After my dad passed away, I took her up on this offer. She let me talk and made sure she understood. May her tribe increase.

2. Be ok with truth. If you listen to people, you will hear alarming things. The truth might be that a church leader violated a child, your favorite aunt was an abusive mother, a young unmarried couple is pregnant, your loving neighbors’ marriage is horrible, your friend is deeply angry, or your son got a DUI. While you need to be discerning and respect confidentiality, these are not good reasons to slam the door on the truth. The truth is your friend. Don’t be afraid of it. You might need to go to bed with the covers over your head until you get used to the revelation, but believe me, if you go on to play whack-a-mole, trying to suppress any indication that this truth is coming out, you will be frantic, exhausted, and ultimately fruitless.

3. Be ok with emotion. Most of us have learned that it isn’t safe to say how we really feel. As I mentioned earlier, we equate genuine emotion with a lack of faith. So we smile at church and go home and cry. We lie when people ask how we’re doing. We hide and pretend and ultimately need doctors and chiropractors for all those vague aches and pains. We have not learned true lament.

How you can help: let people feel what they feel. Seek to understand. Invite the grieving mother over for tea and let her talk about the ravaging pain that won’t go away. Be quiet. Nod. Say, “That sounds horrible. Here’s some more tea.” Let yourself cry with her.

4. Stop the pat answers. Just stop. If you have any Christian decency and common sense, don’t say this stuff:

“Well, it’s all for the good to them that love God.”

“He’s in a better place.”

“You shouldn’t feel that way.”

“You need to forgive.”

“Just think, Mary has it so much worse and she never complains.”

“You’re holding a grudge.”

“I know he abused you, but just look at how much good he did in the church.”

“You need to let it go and quit bringing it up.”

“You’re just bitter.”

“You’re just lazy.”

“I’m sure they meant well.”

“Pray about it.”

“You need to think positive.”

“You need to read your Bible more.”

“Can’t you try harder?”

This is what you should say instead: “That sounds hard. Have some more tea.”

Set a box of tissues at their elbow.

Yes, there’s a place for speaking hard truth to a brother or sister in the church. Exhorting, rebuking, all of that. But you don’t do that when they’ve just lost a loved one or are going through terrible struggle and loss.

If you listen well, you might find and gently expose the root that is producing the sinful blackberry vine. Our pat answers lop off the vine about a foot off the ground, so the problem grows and spreads all over the orchard.

5. Refer people to professionals. If you are listening to someone who is barely functioning, or out of touch with reality, it’s time to refer them to a doctor. If you get involved and listen well, you’ll know when you’re beyond your capacity to help. 

6. Respect confidentiality. If Martha confides in you about her depression, don’t hint at her issues in a prayer request at Bible study. However. If Martha says her husband is molesting the children, tell her that you can’t keep this secret.

In conclusion, I think counseling can be a good thing for Christians or anyone. It ought to be approached with the same care that you’d use looking for a good doctor or mechanic. If we cared better for each other in general, we would deal better with both physical and psychological pain, and we would need fewer professionals to fix us.

That’s what I think. 

--Aunt Dorcas


You can send your Ask Aunt Dorcas questions to

You can find my books at Muddy Creek Press.