The Sort of Parent Every Child Needs

By Johann Christoph Arnold

Looking back with a grandfather's perspective, I can see that I had the best dad a child could wish for. Of course, I didn't really appreciate that fact until I found myself agonizing over my own teenagers. I've had eight. But when parents ask me for advice, I tell them about my father.

His father, theologian Eberhard Arnold, once said that raising children should mean, "helping them to become what they already are in God's mind." My siblings and I received such consideration from our father throughout our upbringing, and the result was a relationship of mutual love and trust that lasted, unbroken, to the end of his life.

Of course, this relationship was grounded in plenty of old-fashioned discipline, including scoldings so loud and dramatic (especially if we sassed our mother) that we would be shamefaced for hours, certain that the neighbors had heard every word. Name-calling and mockery were cardinal sins in our house. Like boys and girls anywhere, we sometimes made fun of adults whose peculiarities made them stick out. But my father failed to see any humor in it. He had a nose for cruelty and would not tolerate it for a minute.

Still, his temper never lasted for long. Once when I was eight or nine, I angered my father so much that he threatened to spank me. As I waited for the first blow, I looked up at him and, before I knew what I was doing, blurted out, "Papa, I'm really sorry. Do what you have to do - but I know you still love me." To my astonishment, he leaned down, put his arms around me and said with a tenderness that came from the bottom of his heart: "Christoph, I forgive you." My apology had completely disarmed him.

This incident made me realize how much my father loved me, and taught me a lesson I have never forgotten - one I drew on in dealing with my own children years later. Don't be afraid to give a child a straight word, but the moment you feel he is sorry, be sure there is immediate and complete forgiveness on your part.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky writes, "There is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about education. But some good, sacred memory preserved from childhood - that is perhaps the best education. For if a man has only one good memory left in his heart, even that may keep him from evil...And if he carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe for the end of his days."

As a child of European immigrants who fled to South America during World War II, I grew up in what I now see was poverty. For the first several years of my life, I was often hungry. Yet, I would find it hard to imagine a happier childhood. Why? Because my parents gave us children time and attention on a daily basis. For instance, they always ate breakfast with us before we went off to school each morning, no matter how hectic their schedules. They did this until my youngest sister graduated from high school.

My father was a gifted pastor and spiritual writer. But when, as a refugee, the only job he could find was gardening in a leper colony, he made nothing of it. He said only that there was honor in doing the humblest service for others, and doing it gladly.

As I grew up, hard physical work was part of daily life. One did not need to look for it. There was no indoor plumbing, no central heating, and, for many years, no electricity. Meals were cooked on an open fire, and there was always wood to split and stack and water to carry. As a teenager, I grumbled incessantly about the never-ending chores, but my father had no pity. And in retrospect I am grateful. I see now how his insistence taught me self-discipline, concentration, perseverance, and the ability to carry through - all things you need to be a father.

Few parents I know carry water anymore, but they're fooling themselves if they think raising a child doesn't involve hard work. Janusz Korczak once wrote, "There are insights that can be born only of your own pain, and they are the most precious. Seek in your child the undiscovered part of yourself."

My wife, Verena, and I gained plenty of "insights born of pain" in the course of bringing up our children. Like most parents, there is plenty we would do differently if we had the chance to do it again. Sometimes we unfairly assumed bad motives; at other times we had the wool pulled over our eyes; one day we were too lenient; the next, too strict. Of course, we did learn several basic lessons as well.

As conventional wisdom goes, teenage angst is "just a phase." Adolescents have always chafed under parental authority, and they always will. When rebellion becomes a way of life, however, we cannot just brush it off. What is it that today's children are rebelling against so vigorously, and why? To me, the answer is simple: Far too often, children are taught to "do as I say, not as I do."

Being a father, I know how hard it is to be consistent - and how easy it is to send confusing signals without even realizing it. Having counseled hundreds of teenagers over the last three decades, I also know how sensitive young adults are to mixed messages and inconsistent boundaries, and how readily they will reject both as clear signs of parental hypocrisy.

But I have also learned how quickly the worst family battle can be solved when parents are humble enough to admit that their expectations were unclear or unfair, and how quickly most children will respond. Few experiences brought me as close to my children as the times I overreacted but then realized it and asked them to forgive me.

Speaking from my own experience as a teen, I don't know what I would have done without the trust my father showed me, even though there were plenty of times when I frustrated or disappointed him. Rather than distancing himself from me over those incidents or taking them personally, he used them as occasions for deepening our relationship. My father used to tell me - and this has always stayed with me - "I would rather be betrayed a dozen times than live in mistrust." There is nothing that draws a parent and child as close as such loyalty.

Johann Christoph Arnold is a family counselor and author of ten books, including "Endangered: Your Child in a Hostile World." Buy it at
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