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Of merit badges and fruit

[I originally posted this on the Trinity and Humanity blog].

In my ongoing process of learning to raise my kids in the light of Papa, Jesus & Sarayu, I am starting to rethink the Boy-Scouts model of character formation.  You know what I’m talking about:

  1. I want my child to embrace values like Service, Honesty, Citizenship.
  2. He won’t embrace these values on his own, so I provide an external motivator (like a merit badge).
  3. He performs the necessary tasks in order to earn the merit badge, but in the process also (presumably) builds the character traits I wish to see.
  4. As he matures, he will (presumably) grow to value character more than merit badges.

I’m not bad-mouthing Scouts here.  There are probably several contexts where that model of training works great.  But I am beginning to doubt its usefulness in the area of spiritual formation, and for parenting in general.  Then again, my doubts could be wrong; Christian lists have been around a long time:

  • Saint Paul (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, etc.)
  • The medieval church (prudence, temperance, fortitude, etc.)
  • The monastic tradition (poverty, chastity, obedience)
  • The Puritans (submission, fidelity, industry)
  • Purpose-Driven Church (worship, fellowship, discipleship, service, evangelism)

Because of this long history of Christian list-o-philia, I have toyed with ideas of defining a list of Stonecypher Family Virtues, and then being intentional about promoting and pursuing these virtues as a family.  I even looked into non-Scout merit badges that you can buy, for anything from Bible-Reading to Dishwashing.

Here’s the rub:  These are all ways to manipulate people’s insides so that they will match an external standard.  But what if it’s true that Jesus is already inside them?  What if it’s true that the Incarnation has already put the Triune Life into the basic human equipment my children were born with?

I’m still figuring all this out, but here’s how I try to parent these days:  I live among my children and I keep my eyes and ears open.  I look for what’s going on in their lives.  I listen for whispers of the Divine Triune passions getting expressed in their feelings and thoughts and actions.  I try to fan the flames when and where they arise.

Yes, we still read the Bible together and pray together and all that.  We still talk about why patience and honesty and self-sacrifice are good. But I would say these activities are secondary rather than primary.

Trees don’t produce fruit because it gets them merit badges.  Tree produce fruit by simply being trees.


2 Responses

  1. I was always taught that we have both the sinful and the redeemed nature inside of us. You have to feed one and starve the other. While it is true that trees do not produce fruit to earn a reward, it is also true that if they do not have good soil, good water and sunlight they will not produce fruit. .

    Human beings, being more complex than trees, need more motivation that good nutrition to do what we were created to do. We need rewards and consequences. Ideally we shouldn’t do things just for those reasons but they help when we don’t have enough motivation to do it just because it is right.

  2. Hey, chialphagirl, great to see you! I think about where I’m at on this issue, and I totally still see the need for what St Paul called “training yourself for godliness.” Bc of that, my kids and I try to pray and read the Bible together almost daily. But that stuff has moved down a peg on the priority list; it’s no longer on the same playing field as “You’re-already-accepted-and-included-and-loved.” It’s only when THAT is rock-solid under their feet that we even start thinking about moving into “spiritual formation” activities. When it comes to reward and consequences, I am still mulling that over. My current idea is that I want them to be as *intrinsic* as possible, rather than extrinsic. You know, I let the reward for patience be “You get to be happy while you wait,” and I let the consequence for impatience be “You get to be miserable while you wait.” Not everything fits perfectly into that model, but I’m still working on it.

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