“Obey me.”

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

– Ephesians 6:1

As I write this, a toddler is exploring the world outside the window of the coffee shop. His mother watches from her spot on the bench as he delightedly careers around the atrium. A sudden motion caught my attention just now as she launched from her seat to catch her baby’s chubby fist as it closed on a handful of bright flowers in the public planter. She smiled at him, but her message was clear: “No.” He giggled and wobbled away toward the next item of intrigue that caught his attention.

Hm. I thought, pleased at the ready-made intro. Perfect timing…Level One in action!

Most parents at Level One, like that young mother outside just now, are giving it everything they’ve got, trying to make sure they cover Job One: keep ’em alive and out of trouble. These adults received this level of training from their own parents when they were very young, and they are just naturally passing it on. Many of them will move on to more sophisticated, nuanced parenting as their children’s needs change and develop. Some will do this naturally, because their parents did it for them. Others have purposefully read parenting books and articles because they want to be ready to step up their game when the time comes.

Some parents will not move beyond this level due to ignorance: “Obey me” is all they know of parenting. It was good enough for them, and it’ll work fine for their kids. They just want their kids to act right, stay in school, graduate, get a job, stay out of jail, start a family, etc. These are all admirable goals! And, their kids may indeed meet those goals, unless factors like addiction, trauma, negative peer pressure, exposure to porn, or other negative influences enter the picture.

When that baby starts school and encounters bigger challenges than his impulse to grab pretty flowers, I trust that mama will rise to the occasion just as deftly as she sprang from the park bench today. Ideally, our parenting will progress beyond these basics as our child develops. Because, while it’s true that children should obey their parents, if that’s the only message they ever hear from us, many of their deeper needs go unmet.

But some parents do stop here. Rob points out that, of course, not all parents have such good intentions. “There are always going to be those who stay at this level because they are pure narcissists or maybe they’re an addict who’s not in recovery or perhaps they simply don’t care.” That’s a harsh reality, and it’s hard for most of us to imagine. Unfortunately he sees this reality firsthand way too often. (I will add, though, that if you’re reading an article on parenting, it’s a pretty safe bet that you don’t fall into the ‘I don’t care’ category!)

For whatever reason they stall out at Level One, you’ll probably recognize these parents, because they’re in every community and most families, depending on your socioeconomic status. A mom or dad stuck at Level One is likely to be:

  • fairly basic (what some might describe as being unsophisticated)
  • repeating the type of parenting they received
  • fairly effective with their very young or naturally-compliant children
  • having conflict with older or strong-willed kids
  • not equipped to deal with children struggling with learning differences, behavioral problems, or trauma
  • feeling helpless to make lasting changes in their family’s life
  • prone to using corporal punishment (spanking, slapping, hitting, etc.) even after the child is old enough to be reasoned with
  • disciplining their children in anger
  • yelling things like “Behave!” or “Mind me!” or “I’m gonna count to three!”
  • stuck at this level due to ignorance, depression, anxiety, trauma, or addiction
  • unlikely to change or seek counsel until their child is in crisis
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