Parenting: Covenant not Contract
Reverend Teri Daily
A lovingly biblical approach
to the covenantal relationship between
parent and child, from the parent's point of view
If we are parents we are always becoming parents. It doesn't matter whether we are eighteen, twenty-eight, fifty-eight, or eighty-eight. Our children are changing and we are, too. One of our featured columnists, the pediatrician turned priest Teri Daily, asked friends what advice they heard whey they were leaning to become parents. Here are some portions of what they said:
That my best will somehow be good enough.If you measure a fish's ability to climb a tree, you'll both feel like failures.
Spend more time with your kids, no matter what sacrifices you have to make.
The children's activities (sports, music, etc.) belong to the children, not to the parents.
Don't forget to care of yourself (parents). You'll be a better parent if you do.
There comes a time when the most important influence on how they are going to turn out is their group of friends. You just have to hope that by the time that occurs, they know enough to make smart choices when it comes to friends--because at that point there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
I needed to hear that it was okay to feel angry, frustrated, needy, and bored. I had mistaken assumptions about what feelings were acceptable for a "good mother" to have.
I needed to hear it was ok to ask for help and that I didn't need to feel bad if I didn't magically somehow know how to handle all situation.
Love,courage....nurture ...Montessori techniques ...deep love.
Choose your battles. Not everything is worth the same sort of stand.
They come out of the womb with their own personalities, gifts, and preferences. Your job as a parent is to help them become the person God created them to be, not re-create them in your own image.
There’s a common thread running through the advice in the left hand column — the realization that parenting requires some flexibility. In fact, I would say that it requires a lot of flexibility. Whether it’s prioritizing battles, recognizing that we cannot re-create a child in our own image (and wouldn’t want to), acknowledging that frustration and anger are valid parental feelings, or admitting that there are some situations we will not know how to handle no matter how many parenting manuals we’ve read, the underlying point is that when it comes to parenting, we are not in total control of the situation. We can’t know the future, predict with 100% accuracy the outcome of a situation, or eliminate risk. There is a huge wild card in the parenting equation, namely our children. And so we have to learn how to respond and react to what we are given. There is a wild card factor in parenting!
I will never forget how a moment in a grocery store brought this fact home to me in a big way. I was a pediatrician in the only pediatric practice in a town of between 20,000 and 30,000 people in North Carolina. I counseled parents about time-out techniques and other disciplinary options that did not include corporal punishment (or spanking). In fact, having reported families to the Department of Human Services when corporal punishment crossed a line, I steered clear of spanking altogether.
On this particular day, my four year old daughter Emma (headstrong, willful, intense, and wonderful) was having a breakdown right in front of the row of checkout counters—of course, at the busiest time of the day when every single line was packed with people. I can’t remember what brought the fit on. But what is vivid in my memory is the way Emma turned around and yelled dramatically, at the top of her voice, “Mama, don’t hit me!”
The customers in line all turned to look, some of them my patients I’m sure. I was standing at least two feet from Emma, hands nowhere near her, with a stunned look on my face. I never saw it coming. Parenting is not an entirely predictable endeavor—like I said, there is a wild card factor! And this makes the parent-child relationship more of a covenant than a contract…
A contract involves specified conditions and behaviors that will be observed or avoided over a certain amount of time. If these are not honored, the contract is generally no longer valid. A contract minimizes the risk for both parties. But a covenant is different. In a covenant, promises are made without knowing exactly what the future holds—the bond itself takes precedence over any specified conditions or behaviors. We enter into a covenant knowing that we can’t protect ourselves from risk. In other words, in a covenant, the wild card factor is just part of the deal.
We see this over and over again in the Bible. God has covenant relationships with God’s people, not contracts. Think about the story of Noah—a common theme in nursery decor and children’s stories. Basically, the creation that the Lord proclaimed “good” in the first chapter of Genesis now grieves God to God’s heart. So God decides to send a flood to destroy all the people, along with animals and all creeping things and birds of the air. But of course we know the story—God remembers Noah and Noah finds favor with God. So God saves Noah, and pairs of every kind of animal and creeping thing and birds of the air.
When the flood is over and the waters recede from the earth, it’s like a second chance at creation. And just like the first time around, God blesses Noah and his family and tells them to be fruitful and multiply. But there are two things that are no different after the flood than they were before. The earth may be starting over in a sense, but human beings still have free will and will still make poor decisions at times. And that means that there is still some risk in the human-divine relationship. Because if that hasn’t changed, then neither has the pain that God will feel in God’s heart. These two things remain the same even after the flood.
So what is different after the flood? The way that God will handle the brokenness of the world and the grief in God’s heart. What is changed through all this is God. Now to talk about God changing can make some of us uneasy. How can God change if God is perfect and constant and un-changing? So maybe, if it makes us more comfortable, we can say that our perception of God changes at this moment in history.
But however we want to say it, when God decides never again to destroy all living things on the earth with a flood, God does so not because God is sure things will be different this time around. There is no contract to delineate specific behaviors and to spell out what the grounds will be for revoking the relationship. Instead, God is the one who will live by different rules from now on. God puts the bow in the sky as a sign and, with that action, God limits the range of possible responses God will have to our sinfulness and brokenness. God says to Noah: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” The rainbow isn’t to remind us of the covenant to which God is bound; it’s to remind God.
In this covenant, we see God’s decision to be in relationship with the world despite our unpredictability, despite the wild card factor we bring to the relationship. God knows the price of that relationship, God knows the grief it can bring to God’s heart, and God knows the joy it can bring, too. And God still chooses to be in this relationship, this covenant.
This joy and this pain is what parents know. We know from the moment we conceive or adopt or love any child that pain is a possibility, as is immense joy. And not knowing what lies ahead, we still bind ourselves to this child forever. As my husband Dave pointed out, a covenant relationship is the deepest form of biblical hospitality, the deepest expression of “welcoming the stranger.” We see this in parent-child relationships. Because from the moment we enter into relationship with a child, we embrace the stranger that child is to us. From the first time we hold a baby, we bind ourselves to the mystery of this small human being entrusted to us. And we commit to being in relationship with this child as each new passage brings with it a new stranger—a toddler, that four year old screaming in the grocery store, the teenager who both clings to us and then pushes us away, an adult who leaves home, that adult who returns home with a partner/stranger whom we also welcome into the family. We commit ourselves to a million unknowns, risks, wild card factors. This is why parenting is a covenant, not a contract.
And that’s why I believe, no matter how much it may sometimes feel otherwise, parenting is one way we become more holy. It is by no means the only way, but it is one way. Because entering into any covenant relationship—be that one with our friends, our church, our family, a marriage, or our children—shapes us more and more into the image of God. As we bind ourselves to one another in covenant relationships, we are given chance upon chance to learn what it means to love with the kind of love that Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians—to learn what it means to be patient, kind, humble and honest, to learn what it is to forgive and to be forgiven, to hope and to endure. We come to know what it means to risk relationship, to be vulnerable, and to hold grief in our heart. And through it all, we catch a glimpse of the unconditional, everlasting love God has for us—a love that binds itself to us in a forever covenant.