In our information inundated, computerized world, there is the strong temptation to find quick-fixes, easy answers, new techniques, and advice from a plethora of experts ready to solve whatever issues or problems you might have. For this reason, my heart goes out the legions of small church pastors and the mothers of over-active children who have waded through hundreds of books and internet sites without ever seeing a change in their situation, except more anxiety and frustration. I have known hypochondriacs who rave about the newest miracle on-line health program (their tenth in two years), yet they are constantly sick and stressed about every cough. I have seen couples divide over financial issues, each having read-up on–and now are arguing over–the latest get-rich-programs by some financial guru. All of these are examples of our modern tendency to believe the “assumption that data and technique are the keys to lif”[i] that Edwin H. Friedman confronts in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
It is very easy to get sucked into the idea that the answer for every problem is better information, as methods for fixing every problem imaginable can be found at one’s fingertips. Not only can you find the answer, but hundreds of different and often contradictory answers. This tendency to rely on data and technique is not new, as I well remember back when my wife and I were expecting our first child. Frankly, expecting a child was extremely scary. I realized that I had no idea how to raise a child. I was untrained, clueless…and now extremely nervous. I also happen to be joining parenthood at a time when there was a great deal of “focus on the family” in the Christian community. I thought, by golly, I was going to read up on the best methods for raising a smart and well-rounded child. Everyone around me was reading the latest Dobson books…maybe I should too. But where to begin? Before diving in, I sought out to my best friend who happened to be a family therapist, to find out what to read to make sure I didn’t mess up my kid.
His response was rather surprising: “I had a professor,” he said, “that said something very profound that I think applies here. He said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ My advise is don’t read anything. After you have children, if you face some issues, do some research.” He went on to tell me why: “I often deal with parents who created real conflicts in their marriages and issues for their children because they decided to read different experts on child-rearing that contradict each other. This only creates conflict and tension in the marriage, resulting in the parents needing therapy and their children being messed up by their senseless experiments. So, my advice: Don’t go there!”
This advice is reminiscent of Friedman, who states that “there is absolutely no evidence that most successful parents are those who are most ‘knowledgeable’ of either the ‘proper’ techniques or the latest data on children who are either most troubled or most happy.”[ii] I took my friends advice and avoided all the child-rearing books. I can remember only reading one book remotely dealing with being a parent called The Blessing[iii] by Gary Smalley and John Trent. It was neither a book on techniques for raising a child, nor was it a book that would never pass a peer-review or hold up to theological scholarship. What this book did was provide a broad overview of the role of a parent. Put in Old Testament terms, it suggested that the role of a parent was to pass on the blessing as was customary in Biblical times. But the blessings the authors suggested included the blessings of self-worth, a sense of unconditional love and a hopeful future. There were no “how-tos” in the book, only this grand vision–or as Friedman terms it, a “projected imagine”[iv] of what this parenting thing was all about. The focus was not the child, or how to fix a child. The focus was on being a parent that provided an emotional healthy environment to allow the child to grow up and develop properly. Friedman calls this “a well-differentiated leader” and argues that “without question, the single variable that most distinguished the families that survived and flourished from those that disintegrated was the presence of what I shall refer to…as a well-differentiated leader.”[v]
I was thankful at the beginning of parenthood that I did not get caught up in the vortex of technique and data, but instead decided to be more than anything else “there” for my children. “Putting (the) primary emphasis on (my) own continual growth and maturity”[vi] placed me in a position to provide for them the understanding that they were indeed valuable, loved and had the potential for a rich and independent future. As Friedman states: “The critical issues in raising children have far less to do with proper technique than with the nature of the parents’ presence and the type of emotional processes they engender.”[vii]
This lesson holds true for families, churches, businesses and institutions where there continues to be a strong push to lean on technique and data that only creates greater anxiety and stress for all involved. For Friedman, what is needed are individuals willing to differentiate, to do the hard task of standing-up and simply being present; while providing no guarantees, it presents a better way forward than reading another hundred books that will only create greater stress and allow the dysfunctional (family, church or business) systems to continue. I had no guarantees for how my children would turn out, but I was sure they knew that I was there for them…and that they were loved. And today they are both (surprisingly) grateful.
[i] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 1999), 115.
[ii] Ibid., 112.
[iii] Gary Smalley and John Trent, The Blessing (New York: Pocket Books, 1986).
[iv] Friedman., 153.
[v] Ibid., 114.
[vi] Ibid., 138.
[vii] Ibid., 112.