Parenting – A War of Attrition…

Beth and I decided on something before we got children. We didn’t verbally have this discussion, but it was at the root of most of our conversations. It is a paradigm that has far reaching implications for our style of parenting. Are you ready for it? Here it comes. Prepare to have your mind blown:

We win.

That’s right. If two words are too simple for you, I can expound on that: We win all the time.

One of my favorite quotes from “Crimson Tide” is when Gene Hackman declares to his submarine crew, “We are here to preserve democracy, gentleman, not practice it.” This is how our house runs.

What are we winning? We are winning what I will call “will equity.” The simple truth is that parenting is a war of attrition. The thing that atrophies is will. Every day, there are a thousand little battles between our will and our kids’ will.

“I don’t want to clean my room.” “I don’t want water; I want soda.” “I don’t want to go to bed.” “I don’t want to eat broccoli.” “I don’t need to pee right now.”

As parents, we are not just players in this war, we are also the referees. If we wave the white flag, not only do they win the battle, they also sub-conscientiously note that we have, as referees, silently given permission to challenge us more at the next battle. They gain more “will equity” when we decide that “it’s not worth it” or it “isn’t the hill we want to die on”, and we let them watch a cartoon after sixty no’s and one yes. Not only do we loose the battle, we lose something that is far more valuable in the role of parenting (and life in general): integrity. Our word and our actions no longer line up.

I don’t want to cheapen the role of parenting, but this is the same principle that ranchers and farmers refer to when they “break a horse”. The animal has to learn that the owner’s will is so strong and so resolute, it no longer tries to buck, run, or do anything other than the master’s will even though it is the bigger, more powerful beast.

I realize that a year’s worth of parenting hardly makes me qualified to give parenting advice, but I have taught sophomores for 5 years and seniors for 1 year at church. In that role, I’ve been able to witness the war of attrition as it is drawing to a close in about 75 kids. Once kids get to be about 16 or 17, the war of attrition has been fought for so long, it is pretty one-sided. Either the parent or the child has nearly accepted the other’s will such that, there is little to no contest. If parents are winning, the kid rarely protests, he/she listens to their parents, and he/she can usually be trusted to follow instructions with little supervision. If the kid is winning, he/she is usually driving in a nicer car than their parents, he/she does whatever they want, whenever they want, and he/she has no problems being down-right foul when they speak to parents or adults in general.

The point is, as parents, we can fight these battles now, or we can fight them later with hefty interest. Sadly, I see some parents decide not to fight altogether.

One of the biggest issues we faced as adoptive parents is a 6 year-old that challenged our resolve when we first met. All five of our kids challenged us, but he was the worst. I have no idea how much will equity he had garnered between his original house, his foster home, or the orphanage, but he quickly tested us. The first week was miserable. We go back and read the first few days in August, 2012 in this blog, and we quickly recall how miserable it was. We fought battles almost every minute. Even though we were winning these battles, we silently would cringe when we asked him to do something or corrected him. However, we stayed consistent, we were clear with our expectations for him, and there were very real consequences when he did not follow instructions or protested in any way. Let me caveat this by saying we always validated feelings and told him that it was OK to be upset, but we also reminded him that frustration or sadness would not change the situation and were never excuses for being disrespectful or acting poorly.

In the ebbs and flows of everyday life, we don’t really notice it, but as the blog reminds us, this wild stallion has slowly transformed into a respectful young man. Don’t get me wrong, we are still a work in progress, but it is immensely better than it was! I have no problems telling him “no”, and the will equity is tipping in my favor so much that, 95% of the time, he doesn’t protest.

Here’s the thing – Right now, the battles are over stupid, inconsequential things like plain milk vs. chocolate milk or staying up an extra 15 minutes. If left unchecked, the battles 10 years later become having girlfriends over when we’re not home or taking the car keys after we’ve gone to bed.

Secondly, If they don’t learn to submit to their parents, they will never learn to submit to God and let Him be Lord of their lives (a truism that my mother-in-law shared with us in Bogota). We all have authority to submit to in life, even as adults – bosses, police men, wives (courtesy chuckle). It is best that they learn it now from us, and we can save them a lot of grief in adulthood when they are far less mold-able.

…and I’m going to be just perfectly honest: Kids can be stupid. They have no idea what’s best for themselves. One of my boys yesterday was playing in his room with nothing but a T-shirt on because he was hot! As a parent, we have approximately 20-plus more years of wisdom and experience than they do.

Lastly, challenging a kid and fighting these battles communicates love. It is tough love, but it is love all the same. Remember, the opposite of love is apathy, not hate. If we surrender, even on the little things, we tell that kid that we don’t care enough about them to fight. Giving in, in a sense, is giving up. I remind my kids all the time, if I didn’t love them, I wouldn’t care what they did or how they acted… but that’s usually in my “kiss and make up” speech after I’m finished winning!

That reminds me, all of this needs to be balanced and tempered with love. Discipline is an act of love, but we have to remember that God is both holy and loving when He deals with us. If we hammer on rules and never have that “kiss and make up” speech (or in more churchy words, “restoring the fellowship” – i.e. letting them know that things are cool, you love them, and there is no more weirdness between the two of you because of the conflict), this can breed resentment, and push a kid away.

I’m just concerned for the next generation, and that’s why I’m writing. I know (and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this), that my kids are one of the greatest gifts God has given me, and they are worth fighting for… and sometimes against!

At the dinnermesa,



3 thoughts on “Parenting – A War of Attrition…

  1. Wow, Tyler, you hit the nail on the head! You and Beth should write a book. Y’all are doing such an awesome job, and I appreciate how eloquently you say the things we know deep down but need to be reminded of. Thanks!

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