We’re a young family trying to raise our children with strong morals. We’ve been told that if our standards are too high, our kids will rebel. Is that true?
Your standards are too high? How do you measure that? Can you poll 100 people for a consensus? And what if your desire to live right is stronger than most?
The only way, it seems, to judge if you’re pushing your family’s moral bar out of reach is to watch whether your kids try to jump for it or limbo under it. Then you’ll know. Not really, as we will see shortly.
"High standards" is not an absolute phrase. It is a relative one. A standard can look extreme when compared to a group standard that has slipped. These days, many measure moral correctness by what is seen as the "norm." That is, normal is right. If the norm is unhealthy, however, then what is healthy can seem abnormal.
The "high standards-risk rebellion" notion has gotten lots of momentum from the professionals. (Just because someone gets paid for giving advice doesn’t mean the advice is always good.) Recently, I attended a meeting where one therapist, whose specialty was adolescents, proclaimed authoritatively, "We all know that all teens will rebel if a parent’s standards are too high." Were I feeling more rebellious, I would have countered, "No, we don’t all know that, and all teens won’t rebel." Call it my inner adolescent.
Her warning is one of those "sophisticated" new insights that have overturned long-standing, everyday wisdom.
Not so long ago, the belief was that the higher the standards, the better. It was a lack of strong standards, not their presence, that led to poor living. Of late, we as a society have learned the supposed reverse: High standards can lead to poor living.
This fallacy underlies the "Preacher’s Kid" stereotype. Most everyone "knows" that the most morally unprincipled kid in the whole congregation is the preacher’s. Saying Yes to his dad’s teaching, he says No to living it, flying low under the parental radar. What most everyone "knows," though, turns out to be more false than true. It is the exception that has given birth to the rule. In fact, most preachers’ kids grow up to reflect, not reject, their upbringing. And of those who do reject it, many one day return to the morals learned in their youth.
Jesus said, "You must be perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect." Perfect? Such a non-negotiable word. Was Jesus teaching that the only path to heaven lies in keeping impossibly high precepts? Or was he encouraging us to stretch toward those precepts?
More than anyone, Jesus understood the frailty of fallen human nature. He also knew that, because of our frailty, we need clear guiding ideals.
How does a parent lower a moral bar she worries is too high? Should you say: "You should always tell the truth, Truman, but ‘always’ does seems a bit demanding, so how about a maximum of two lies a week — three if they’re small"; "Always treat your sister with respect, Justice, but if you feel you can’t, at least try not to curse at her"; "We realize, Chastity, that our ‘No dating until 17’ rule is stricter than most other parents,’ so you can start texting relationships at age 14"?
To compromise a standard, one has to allow exceptions to it. And it is the exceptions that weaken its spirit.
When young adults forsake, at least in part, their parents’ moral teachings, this is often thought to be a sign that the kids couldn’t meet family expectations. Therefore, they reacted understandably: They renounced them. One flaw in this interpretation: It’s more often than not wrong. Grown children leave the faith for myriad reasons, with cultural forces being pre-eminent. Shedding the yoke of binding standards is not high on the list.
Of course, most kids do rebel some against standards, as they neither fully understand nor appreciate them. Young minds routinely judge the most reasonable principles as too demanding or unjust. That’s because most kids survey what their peers are allowed and think, "How can all those parents be wrong and you be right?"
Only when they look back with adult vision, especially that magnified by raising their own children, do most come to realize how right their parents were.
Josh McDowell, a Christian author and speaker, claims, "Rules without relationship breed rebellion." A rigid code of conduct enforced with little love and affection is asking for resistance. It can be seen as a "My way or the highway" ruling style, rather than benevolent guidance.
High standards are most durably imparted when wrapped in spoken and unspoken "I love yous." When a child feels valued, he’s far more open to values.
Remember, too: Your children are not walking the higher moral plane all alone. You’re walking with them. Your standards are not only for the little people, but for the big people as well. Everybody is raised up by high standards.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical
and EWTN host.
He is online at DrRay.com.