Parental Horse Sense: Lesson 1 – Raise the Bar and Lighten Up

family preparing crepes together

One of the problems with being at war is that all of the men have to pick up swords. In Nehemiah’s day, they had the wisdom to take up a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. But we are tempted today, and understandably so, to take up a sword for each hand. Now there is a young, valiant father out there who upon hearing this double-fisted battle talk replies with, “And let the church say, Amen!” Yes, it is good to be a man. There is a part of me that gives this young father the amen he seeks. We can point to innumerable instances of cowardice and effeminacy that make all of the good men want to fight even harder, perhaps a sword in the right and a double-headed battle axe in the left.

But while we engage in our current culture war, we must raise up the next generation (hence, the trowel). The children are the weapons after all, the arrows in the mighty warrior’s hand. The man who is not diligent to raise up his children doesn’t know the first thing about the culture war he claims to fight. Even a wise man, one familiar with Psalm 127:4, can easily drift from raising up his children in the way they should go given his dismay at the present battles—”They did what at Drag Queen Story Hour?” But sitting in disbelief night after night and actively raising the kids in the nurture and admonition of the Lord are two different things.

These things being what they are, I plan to write a series of posts here covering some up-the-middle parenting practice, some parental horse sense that is always in need of review and especially so given our wackadoo times. As you read and implement these principles, as you do some child-building—something constructive in our deconstructive age—keep saying in the back of your mind as you go about that work, “Not today, Satan.”

Without further ado, our first lesson is Raise the Bar and Lighten Up. I picked up this phrase from Doug Wilson, though I can’t remember where I read it. This is good common sense but it is not easy to implement. 

One the one hand you have the parents who raise the bar and tighten up. They know there is a standard. There is a standard for room cleanliness, for grades, for sport performance, for singing, for Latin vocabulary quizzes. These parents know we live in a world of gold and silver medals, and everyone doesn’t get a trophy, Bucko. But dad and mom are wound so tight that they and little Bobby are about to crack. Bobby is headed to a life in which he thinks he never does anything right, what a loser. Or, he is headed to a life where he’s going to cast that standard into the dumpster and give way a belly of passion. Now you don’t want Bobby to take either of those diverging roads do you? Surely not. So take a deep breath, remember we’re living in the new covenant, and you’re not the fourth member of the Trinity.

But this is only one of the ditches into which you might fall. On the other side of the road, you have parents who stay loose and lower the bar. We don’t want too much weight on the little lad. “I remember how hard my dad was on me; I swore I would never be that guy.” So Tim (this is Bobby’s friend from across the street) gets all the bubble gum he wants. He eats ice cream before dinner whenever he pleases. And, oh, yes, don’t worry about your D+ in Math, Tim, all of your classmates making those A’s and B’s are just prideful. Little Tim is being raised to lack self-control. He will find himself in his early twenties way too good at watching porn and playing the latest video game, without the muscles required to endure trial, suffer long, and finish the race. He won’t be able to love anyone with that sacrificial love which is the chief thing (1 Corinthians 13). 

Your job as a parent, and particularly a father, is to hold the line joyfully. Acknowledge the standard without the slightest bit of anxiety. Encourage the growth that you see. And take your child from where he is, not from where you wish he’d be. He does have to carry his own load. You can’t diagram the sentence for him. But the father is the covenant head and must carry that load. In short, if your kid is not meeting the bar, then it is your job to go to him (and in a way that he is not cringing to have you there with him) and reassure him of what is true. Remind him of grace, and peace, and truth, and that he will get the job done; you’re sure of it.

The doctrinal foundation to all of this is law and gospel. An old Southern Presbyterian, James Henley Thornwell, once said, “The Gospel, like its blessed Master, is always crucified between two thieves—legalists of all sorts on the one hand and Antinomians on the other.” Our goal is not really to find a middle ground between legalism and lawlessness. The goal is not to hold to the standard and be tight half of the week, and let the standard fall and lighten up for the other half of the week. The goal is to raise the bar and lighten up all the way through, whether we’re talking about personal Bible reading, singing in corporate worship, or setting a pick on the basketball court. No matter which way you turn, you will always be dealing with law and gospel. And your job as a parent is to teach through logos, ethos, pathos, and example how to live well amid law and gospel.

In the first place, the bar—the law—is warranted, ” But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). In the second place, the raised bar is fitting, ” When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). So a father should beam with delight when his toddler first cleans up her spot at the table. But we don’t dish out high praise when this same child performs the same feat when she is twelve. This means you must have a general sense of where your child is at in the game. You must be a good bar setter and you need to raise the bar in Solomon-like wisdom.

With this knowledge of the standard, you must believe the gospel. You will have no lightness without it. Christ has died for you. Christ has died for your children. We still fall short. But when we do, we don’t experience suffocating, life-sucking condemnation (Romans 8:1). God is our Father and mercy awaits us new every morning (Lamentations 3:21).

The key ingredient to this challenging first lesson in parental wisdom is faith. Faith does not disregard God’s bar, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31). But we do not uphold a heavy burden. We have come to Christ, his yoke is easy, his burden is light. 

So raise the bar and lighten up.