Moms, Boys, and Gorilla Exhibits

In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about the recent story that’s sent the internet into another one of its typical frenzies, a four-year-old boy recently crawled over a barrier and fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. The zoo ended up having to shoot the 450-pound gorilla to protect the boy who was being drug around by it. Not surprisingly, the internet’s social justice warriors have typed to the rescue to condemn not only the zoo for carrying out this Third Reich response, but also the mother for being a horrible parent, with many arguing that she should face criminal charges. While this is absolutely crazy in about 9,000 different ways, the ideas on the opposite side aren’t that much better. 

I recently read an article on CNN titled, “Gorilla tragedy: Why are we so quick to blame the parents?” This article perfectly sums up the modern day millennial parent’s reaction to all of this, which is, “thou shalt never question another parent's parenting!” It’s pretty much the unpardonable sin - a stoneable offense even, especially if you pass judgment while having no kids yourself, or if your kid isn’t as difficult as theirs. Judging is hateful and unloving; unless of course we are talking about those parents who vaccinate/don’t vaccinate, buy organic/don’t buy organic, gmo’s/no gmo’s, public school/private school/charter school/homeschool, and an entire host of other perfectly judge-able things. On these things we are allowed to judge, and ought to loudly, because after all these are the things that really matter in life - a child’s character flaws are entirely secondary to such important issues such as these. After all, we’ve all spent at least 10 minutes googling these crucial subjects that one time, and so we are clearly qualified experts who should aggressively share our expertise with those other parents who just haven’t taken the time to educate themselves properly with Google.

Getting back to the “villain” of our story, the mom. The CNN article makes it clear that she’s not a villain, she’s a loving mom just like all moms are. After all, which one of our kids hasn’t done something mischievous when we looked away for a split second? As one person said in the article, "This is not an issue of a good or bad or neglectful parent… This is a horrible circumstance that nobody could have predicted.” Another commentator responded saying, “By focusing so much on the mother in this situation, as if she is the one that caused it, we're just solidifying the unbeatable yardstick by which to measure parents.” Another commented, "Why do we have to place blame on anyone? Something happened. Why do we have to place value on whether someone was right or wrong or 'good' or 'bad'?" The article goes on to explain how we are a “shame nation” full of parents “who judge other parents as if they’ve never made their own mistakes.” The point of the article is clear - no one is perfect, parenting is really hard, and we’ve all made mistakes, so who is anyone to judge?

Now this is CNN, which isn’t exactly a bastion of Christian thought, but what they’ve said isn’t entirely all bad either. Certainly this mother should not be given the “worst mom of the year" award based upon one situation without any other information about her parenting skills. We just don’t know enough to make an accurate judgment, and so we ought to be gracious. On a similar note, a Christian article recently showed up on my Facebook feed titled, “An Open Letter to the Cincinnati Zoo Mom” from Connected Families. The article, written by a husband and wife, isn’t all bad and should be commended for encouraging this mother not to make this incident define her life and shape her identify as that horrible mom who got the gorilla killed. They assure the mom that she’s not a bad parent, and this type of thing could have happened to any one of us - don’t worry, you merely had “a lapse like most parents do.”

Now so far there’s been some good truth here; parenting is tough, we all make mistakes, and this incident alone shouldn’t be the sole issue by which this woman is forever judged. Great! But then their Christian advice goes sour as they begin to tell of their similar experiences with their son, nicknamed “Little Tornado,” who was constantly on the move, getting into things (what they call discovery), and would sometimes disappear. This led to them covering areas of the house with chicken wire, using a leash in public to keep him from wandering off, and a host of other control-based methods. Their point is, just like any good parent who loves their kids, they “were good disciplinarians but there was no stopping (nor did we want to stop) our child’s determined curiosity.”

The couple goes on to tell of how their child’s tenacity nearly led to horrible tragedy on a few occasions, with them even having to drag a lake after he wandered off and couldn’t be found. The point is, many other good parents have similar instances with their children, and so these instances don’t mean you’re a bad mom or that you have a bad kid. After all “who among us is perfect?” Unless you’ve had a kid like this, you can’t understand what it’s like, and who are you to say that they don’t love their kids? These parents are simply trying to do the best job they can, and they already realize they aren’t perfect parents. But what they don’t need is outsiders coming in and being hard on them, since they are already pretty hard on themselves. “We live in a world where bad things can happen in the blink of an eye, and we are simply not capable of perfect care and attentiveness at every moment.”

Now, here is where things get a little tougher to dissect. Yes, kids will do the darndest things, and no parent can completely control the behavior of their kid at all times. However, is any parent guilt-free from their child’s behavior? Without a doubt nearly every parent loves their children, and realizes that they aren’t perfect parents. But the fact that we all make mistakes shouldn’t be our source of comfort, rather, it should increase the awareness of our shared guilt.

Does raising children successfully depend on clever uses of chicken wire, setting up leashes, or learning to direct our gaze so one eye is perpetually on our children? Well that depends on what you believe the goal of parenting is. The modern millennial parent has adopted a ‘herding cats’ approach to parenting because they have missed the true goal of parenting. The primary goal is not to keep our children safe, happy, and out of trouble, it’s to point them to their need of the Gospel. This is why most parents give very little reaction when a child deliberately disobeys them over little things, but give a huge reaction if the child tries to stick their fork in the electrical socket. This is nothing but consequentialist parenting, which has its base in humanism, not Christianity.

If we fail to teach our children, especially when they are young, that there is such a thing as authority and they are not that authority, we not only set them up for a lifetime of misery, but leave them in a place where they see no need for God, which results in grave consequences. This is why even “minor” forms of rebellion are just as dangerous as the rebellion of a child putting their fork in the electrical socket, or playing with matches and burning down the house. From a Christian perspective, the rebellion in our child's hearts is infinitely more perilous than any physical harm that might fall upon them.

As parents, we desperately want to give our children the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are not only good, but also special. For example, when our children act sinful and disobedient, we are tempted (and sometimes even told by other Christians) to view it as an expression of their God-given gifts. In one sense, it is certainly true that bad behavior is using good things in a wrong way. However, when my daughter lies to me, if my main focus of correction is showing her that she’s using her God given gifts incorrectly (gifts like creativity, good memory, desire to keep the peace), I have merely redirected her attention not to repentance, but to a form of moralism. I’ve placed the focus on her good qualities by urging her to express them in a way so she can “be good,” instead of directing her to her sinfulness and need for Jesus to fix her broken heart. True joy and freedom from guilt come from a healed relationship with God, not from taking comfort in our abilities to perform. 

A clear example of re-directive parenting is when millennial parents redirect their child who is angrily kicking others to kick a ball instead. This is a total failure to turn a child’s sinful anger into a Gospel conversation. Yes, it’s true that kicking is ok so long as you kick the right things, but that’s not the issue. Our children aren’t confused by what they are allowed and not allowed to kick, they are angry and expressing their anger in a sinful way. Their outward response is an indicator of their sinful heart that needs Christ, not a different object to beat on. 

As a parent I fail daily, and these failings absolutely have a cumulative effect on the behavior of my children – how could they not? However, instead of taking comfort in the fact that other parents fail just like I do, refusing to hear criticism of my parenting, or redirecting my children’s behavior with distractions, I should realize my complete and total need for the Gospel to further penetrate my life. The Gospel is not merely the entrance exam into the Christian life, but the fuel that runs the Christian machine. My children’s behavior needs to be constantly challenged by the Gospel. My marriage needs to be constantly corrected by the Gospel. My life needs to be constantly examined in light of the Gospel, for without it we are blind and easily persuaded by the beliefs of our fallen world. The goal of parenting is to bring glory to God through directing our children's lives to the Gospel. If we miss this, we miss everything.

Articles mentioned can be found at: 

Go Kick Rocks Daniel Tiger
Why Parenting is Not a Negotiation