Our 9-year-old son (the oldest of 5) wakes up wanting to do only what he wants, no chores. He drags through work and often does an incomplete job. He pouts and throws ‘mini’ fits, which includes sunken shoulders, stomping off, etc. He craves attention and always wants someone doing something with him. He feels very neglected if doing work or play alone. We homeschool, and I wonder how to tie strings with him while trying to take care of the younger children and doing school. He loves building forts outside but can’t do much because of the neighborhood. He gets very bored. How can I help this young boy be happy inside himself?
You are not alone. The problems you describe are a symptom of this hedonistic age, far more common today than they were in former generations. We have been conditioned to expect to be entertained during all waking moments. All commercial advertisements assume that pleasure is the final end. The media industry inundates us with sights and sounds for which there is no competition. Everything else, short of massive fireworks, is boring. During my youth, an entire community would come to the revival meeting to hear someone play the guitar and sing. Today, you can’t get them there with a world class orchestra. The food industry has perfected the art of stimulating the palate with optimum flavors and textures, and modern modes of distribution make it available to all, while the economy makes any form of pleasure within reach of the poorest individuals. Clothing styles are designed to accentuate human sexuality and excite the senses. Children are led to believe that they are deprived if there is any limitation on what they can wear. Toys, snacks, sights, and sounds are pumped at children until they become bored with the lack of lack. As one can be lonely in a crowd, the modern child is bored in the midst of infinite variety. Modern man has lost his creativity in the avalanche of supply. Malls and stores are not just places to buy what you need; they are circuses of entertainment, each one competing for your attention. When a child walks away from the computer or the television to sit in front of a teacher, he feels deprived. Students must be amused. Every one must be amused, or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch jobs, switch spouses.
That which any generation inherits without struggle or sacrifice is assumed to be a necessary right. Today, children earn nothing. Everything is given to them, given even before they ask. Modern prosperity and technology have removed all sacrifice, pain, and privation from our lives. Everyone has it "his way." Everyone gets what he wants, when he wants it, in the color, flavor, size, and style that he desires. Self-denial is a thing of the past, an uncomfortable disease that has been eradicated. A child is shocked and offended when his parents demand it of him. He assumes it is his right to experience uninterrupted pleasure. Through provision of ease, we have destroyed the opportunity for our children to possess the essential qualities that make mankind something more than a sophisticated talking animal.
In former generations, people just hoped to be able to eat a meal tomorrow—any meal, or improve their dwelling so that it was warmer, or so parents could have a bedroom to themselves. They dreamed of education—in many cases of freedom. But in our generation, with everything well supplied, we want to be entertained. The great fear is not of starvation or plagues or loss of freedom, but of boredom—a quest for amusement.
The will to suffer discomfort and the opportunity to do so is essential to human character. That is what is missing in this nine-year-old boy. Character cannot be built in a storehouse of abundance. When circumstances are such that the basic necessities of life can only be achieved through bearing a daily measure of discomfort, then thankfulness and acceptance of responsibility come naturally to all. But in our day of abundance and ease, your son is an example of what comes naturally to all.
Your son is addicted to indulgence. He is lazy and undisciplined. It takes conscious, preventive training to keep this from developing in any and all children. I said, "preventive," because if children are left to develop naturally, they will naturally corrupt. Children born into this world are like fresh fruit; they are destined to spoil if you do nothing more than admire them. "A child left to himself will bring his mother to shame."
Children are born separated from God, empty of the positive, controlling presence of God. All wickedness comes from natural passions, hormones, impulses, instincts, drives, appetites, —in short, uncontrolled cravings for pleasure. The Bible calls it "flesh."
Training must begin shortly after birth, because that is when the seeds of indulgence first begin to sprout, demonstrated by the child’s unwillingness to accept, "No," or, "Wait a minute." Children are not born with a desire to do something evil; they are not waiting for the first opportunity to break the laws of God. But at the first opportunity they will do something indulgent— not because it is evil, but because it is pleasurable. The undisciplined mind will drift to but one end: the pursuit of pleasure. Your son is angry when you interfere with what he thinks is his right—uninterrupted pleasure.
Mental and physical pleasure come in two forms, active and passive. Most parents are aware of the dangers of active indulgence. They attempt to regulate their children’s exposure to TV and computer corruption. When they see bad eating patterns or temptations to participate in unclean habits, they start drawing lines. But most parents are not aware that passive indulgence begins long before the child is mature enough to participate in active indulgence. And passive indulgence is the seed of most evil.
We generally think of indulgence as some active pursuit, but most indulgence takes the form of inactivity. It is not based on aggressive consumption, but on a desire to seek the path of least resistance. It is not a thing in which one expends energy to participate, rather an unwillingness to bear discomfort—in short, laziness.
When duty requires expenditure of energy from either mind or body, as when your son must take out the garbage, pick up after himself, or cipher a math problem, he must move from the passive to the active state. If the body were connected to instrumentation, it could be demonstrated that this heightened state of activity causes a rise in the heart rate, generates heat, and burns calories. In other words, it consumes energy, and the generation of energy is never free. Therefore, to move the muscles and focus the powers of the mind in an activity that is not immediately providing a higher level of mental or physical pleasure is uncomfortable, if not painful. That is why we all put off unpleasant tasks. That is why servants are popular with those who can afford them. "Let somebody else do the dirty work." No one goes out to a restaurant in the evening and spends money so he can serve others and then clean up after them. You go out so you can be served, eat what someone else has cooked, and then let them wash the dishes. That’s pleasure.
The law of entropy seems to apply to human behavior. The inertia of doing nothing is a powerful force. A French philosopher said, "All work is pain."
When my boys were about eight and ten years old, after spending half of the day logging with a mule, I could see they had reached the end of their endurance. They were just barely dragging, so I gave them the rest of the day off. I expected to see them collapse on the sofa, but instead they grabbed pick and shovel and headed for a nearby hill of rock and chirt. During the next four hours they dug a hole big enough to bury a car. They intended to make something of it, cover it over with boards, build a door, or fulfill some imagined fantasy. Thirteen years later, the hole is still there. I don’t think they ever went back to it after that day.
As my wife and I visited the excavation site that afternoon and observed the almost frantic digging, I remember commenting that if I had given them the job of digging an outhouse hole that same size, it would have taken them a least six miserable days. The stimulation of their imaginations was of such pleasure that it overrode the pain of work. But if they were forced to dig the same hole out of duty, it would have been excruciatingly painful for them.
You said your "9-year-old son wakes up wanting to do only what he wants, no chores. He drags through work and often does an incomplete job. He pouts and throws ‘mini’ fits, which includes sunken shoulders, stomping off, etc. He craves attention and always wants someone doing something with him. He feels very neglected if doing work or play alone. He loves building forts outside, but can’t do much because of the neighborhood. He gets very bored."
Then you asked, "How can I help this young boy be happy inside himself?" He is unhappy inside because he is experiencing the same struggle as Paul did in Romans chapter seven—"The good that I would do, that do I not…O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?" You must understand that the child is in a losing battle. His mind tells him, and so do you, to rise to duty, but his body is trained to indulge in leisure. He has had nine years to be conditioned to see life as an uninterrupted stream of pleasure. He has no will to bear discomfort. On the contrary, he has a will to avoid any and all mental or physical exercise that is not to his immediate liking. He is spoiled, selfish, and thinks his family and the world exist to satisfy his wants.
His attitude is inevitable in a society where everything is available and provided. They say, "No pain, no gain." He says, "No pain, all gain."
How can you help him be happy inside? Understand, happiness is a byproduct, not an end to be sought. You are happy when you are successful in accomplishing your duty. When you know that you have done what you ought, that you have paid the price in suffering, you will automatically respect yourself. You will bestow honor upon yourself as you would upon another that paid the price to do his duty successfully.
Your child is unhappy for two reasons. The one we have discussed; he seeks indulgence and is unhappy when it is denied him. And two, he is unhappy because he does not like himself. He feels guilty and isolated in his sense of failure to be the "man" that he knows he ought to be—the man you want him to be. You criticize him; you find fault, and he knows he deserves it. He is angry with everything that is without and within.
You might say, "Well why doesn’t he just do what he knows he ought to do and make himself happy?" For the same reason that an obese person knows that he ought to change his diet, hates himself for not doing so, is angry at you for noticing, has tried to diet on many occasions, but still eats like a pig. He has no self-control. The bodily drives rule his soul. His moral will is not as strong as his addiction to the pleasure of eating. He is a slave to immediate pleasure and does not have the will to suffer the discomfort of abstinence. He is miserable and angry in his enslavement; the anger directed within as much as without.
So how do we fix what is broken? I would like to suggest that we turn the clock back and arrange our lifestyles so that once again struggle and deprivation are naturally part of the system. If such were the case, parents would not have the kind of problems this mother expresses. Children would come up in an environment more suited to a work ethic and to good attitudes, which would relieve the parents of the high demand for constant oversight. In former generations children required attention, but only the children of royalty suffered from the symptoms your son now manifests.
How do you get a child to be content with less when more is available? Do you pretend there is a struggle? If he is bored and there is a TV available, how do you keep him from thinking you are mean when you don’t let him watch it? If there is unlimited delicacies for the palate, and you require austerity in hopes of creating toughness, is the child going to see his deprivation as an unavoidable part of the world’s challenges or as a cruel game his parents are playing, and that for no apparent reason other than to deprive him of that which other kids are allowed to partake?
Can you teach a child to accept pain when it is unnecessary, to include it in his daily routine because it is an essential part of building character? Do you see why I would like to suggest a return to a former age when less was better?
Some have turned the clock back, or maybe never quite caught up with the affluence—farmers, or children of common laborers living in poor communities, struggling to catch up with everyone else, or the homestead family that started before the kids got addicted. These may live outside the avalanche of abundance. The kids are an essential part of the family’s survival. There is no time for pity parties or for useless indulgence. There are chores to be done, chores which provide the next meal or that will keep the house warm tonight. Daddy is working hard doing his part. Mother labors from before daylight to after dark. The kids do their part without complaining. They are needed. They are appreciated, though no one ever mentions it. They are valued, though they have never thought about it. It is when you feel useless, like the greenhouse kids of today, that it becomes a consideration. When a life is filled with real challenges and victories, you may be tired at the end of the day and dream of leisure, but your soul is never hollow, never bored, and never lonely.
So what can you do in your circumstances to help your child? Other than completely rearranging your entire lifestyle and environment, there is but one alternative; run your home like a Chinese collective. By setting up a routine, even if it appears arbitrary, as in the military, the child can be convinced of the inevitability of the demands placed upon him. It takes constant oversight to capture the will of a child and subdue his inclination to drift in indulgence. The key is to place him under an authority that is not subject to negotiation. He must fear his authority, not be scared of, but fear as an army private fears his sergeant, fear as a man fears his boss at work, the one who can fire him or burden him with extra responsibility. You have given your son veto rights over your commands. As long as he sees the possibility of a way out of the suffering that comes with responsibility, he will employ every means at his disposal to avoid discomfort.
As a child, he will never take possession of his own soul and voluntarily enjoy doing his chores. He will never say no to his own drive to indulge. You must convince him that your word is final and absolute. You are his sovereign head, unmoved by pity. You shouldn’t show concern as to whether or not he is happy, whether he is having fun, or whether he is bored. It is of no consequence. He must do his job, do it now, and do it on time, or suffer for it. No negotiations, no exceptions, no complaints. "Do it timely or I will double the load. You will work every waking moment if that is what it takes. You will be thankful just to stop at bedtime."
Children need leisure and they need love, but you the parent must be in control of both. Don’t let the child dictate how you are supposed to express your love. If you do, he will define it in a manner that is promiscuous. The child will manipulate you, making you feel guilty for being tough.
Children need leisure, but not in the midst of an unfinished chore. My grown son said that he remembers well the two or three hours of leisure that I gave them after lunch each day. When we finished working in the shop or the fields, they were free to do as they pleased. Nathan said that the hard mornings were made bearable knowing that their time of play was coming. They knew that it was vain to try to manipulate me into backing off during the morning hours. They had duties that they must meet everyday. There was no place for discussion. Whining or dragging would only make more work. It served no purpose to complain, because I was unaffected, and the workload was unaffected by complaints. I did not rule according to polls. If you lead the children to think that their reactions can diminish their workload, there will be no end to their complaints. They will break your heart with the great suffering they are being made to endure—but not mine, I know better.
You son’s flesh is strong, and his soul is weak. By doing nothing to abort this steady yielding to the flesh, you are confirming his soul in carnality. Most adults that have problems can trace it to this very beginning. A Christian adult has the power to overcome his flesh, but the child is not capable of making that choice consistently. You must provide the strength of will. If you do not dedicate yourself to setting up a schedule that he must honor, he will only get worse in the ways you have described. You cannot help the adult who will not pay the price. It is a matter for his choosing alone. But a parent has power over a child that will enable him to bring discipline whether the kid likes it or not.
You cannot train the child to exercise self-control, but you can exercise it for him. You can be his will and the enforcer that subdues his flesh. At first he will not be happy. But happiness is not our goal. Let the child know that you don’t care if he is miserable; you just expect immediate and complete compliance.
Decide what you can reasonably expect from each child, according to his age. Create a schedule that includes a generous, but not excessive, timeframe in which the job is to be done. Be ever present and consistent in overseeing their compliance. Never listen to excuses, NEVER discuss it. You are lord and sovereign. Treat your commandments like God did his when he thundered from Mount Sinai. This is not a co-operative or a democracy.
Get up at 7:00.
Have your room cleaned up and be ready for breakfast at 7:30. If it is not clean at 7:30 sharp, there will be no breakfast and nothing else to eat until the next regularly scheduled snack or meal. No nagging, no threatening, no warnings. It is their responsibility.
7:30 Eat breakfast, only what is placed in front of you, or do without. It is of no concern to anyone.
8:00 Breakfast concludes and everyone cleans up after himself.
8:05 Consult the chart to see whose turn it is to wash the dishes. There is no argument, "I did it last night, it is his turn." "Why do I always have to do the dishes?" If your name is on the chart, it is your turn. It doesn’t matter that we ate out last night and that Suzy missed her turn. "Whose name is on the schedule? Don’t bother me with it. There is nothing to discuss. You have until 8:30, or you will have to do extra work when the others are playing. Suit yourself. Time’s a wasting."
The other chores are also divided up according to a schedule. Everyone to his respective job.
When an argument breaks out because one feels like he is carrying the bulk of the load, give the slacker the job all by himself and give the other one another job that is just as demanding, if not more so. Make sure each child is held accountable and is made to bear his load in a timely fashion. If the job is not well done, let them come back during playtime and do it again.
9:30 School time.
10:30 One half hour of leisure and snacks.
11:00 School time until lunch.
Continue your schedule as you think proper. It is not important that they accomplish great tasks or that they do a lot of work. It is important that they are brought under the discipline of the rule of law. It is important that they learn to accept responsibility and bear the consequences.
Your children will be happy once they accept the fact that they must comply with the new management. When they are doing what they are required to do, you will like them better and they will feel it. They will like themselves and be secure in the stability that this new order brings to the home.
As in all child training, CONSISTENCY and AUTHORITY is the rule. Consistent authority with dignity is the foundation of good parenting. Some people say, "But isn’t love first?" If you see the above as in conflict with, or in contrast to, love, then you do not understand love.
Mother, take charge of your home. Become the Commander in Chief. Don’t share your power. Get some steel in your backbone.
Finally, as always and above all, you the parent must manifest a good attitude at all times. See that you are never angry, always in control of your own feelings. You have the child’s good at the center of your efforts. You look into the eyes of your children and they look back into the eyes of someone who thinks they are very special and very valuable. Your attitude is the life source of the family. Maintain it with authority, grace, and dignity.