Once, when our boys were young, I remember sitting at a table with my husband talking to a very wise Christian friend who was a School Psychologist. We were discussing how to encourage some positive improvements in our son’s behavior. He pulled out a piece of string and put it on the table. “How can you move this string?” he asked. Then he showed us, “Well, if you push it, it will move forward—but not in a very effective way.” Then he switched approaches and demonstrated an alternative. “But if you lead it, it will follow in a straight line. Which do you think works better?”
Looking back upon parenting our sons for over 20 years, I can heartily agree with his counsel. Not only does effective leadership outweigh “pushing” in parenting any day—I think the same principles apply to working with others in order to encourage positive improvements in their relationships with your child with special needs. Whether it is your neighbors, or your school district, or your congregation—leading them into better ways of relating and achieving will usually be much more effective than pushing them into it. And frankly, more enjoyable for everyone involved—including your child!
But our sole focus as Christian parents isn’t just to “get results.” It is also that we might be “conformed to the character of Christ.” So, I suspect that the methods that we choose might reveal a lot more about our underlying belief system than they say about the nature of the problems at hand in any given situation. Let me explain…
I once read this quote by Dr. Sarah Sumner, Professor of Theology and Ministry at the Graduate School of Theology, Azusa Pacific University. While the topic-at-hand in the article wasn’t even remotely related to disability, I found the applications to disability to be striking.
“In Kantian ethics, everyone is bound by a sense of duty. It’s Kantian, for example, to say that it is your duty to not drink and drive. This aspect of Kantian ethics overlaps with Christian ethics. However, Kantian ethics differs by extending the ideal of a duty to mean that when you fail to perform your duty, you violate my right. Kantian logic says that because it is your duty not to drink and drive, I have the right to a road without drunk drivers.
According to Jesus, a Christian ethic says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matt. 22:38). A Christian ethic ends at the point of duty; it does not convert others’ duties into personal rights. As a Christian I can say that God commands others to love me, but I cannot say I have the right to be loved. I don’t.” (Source: Christianity Today, 26 June 2008)
How often do we, as parents, make the duties of others into “rights” for our children with disabilities? And even when our child with disabilities may have specific legal rights, such as in a public school setting, how often do we use those rights as the starting point in our relationships with others?
My child has right to be included in the classroom.
My child has a right to attend Cub Scouts.
My child has a right to be involved in our church.
My child has a right to have friends.
My child has a right to be happy.
My child has a right to a trip to Disney World.
Do you see where it leads?
It’s true. You can push the string from that direction. But how far will it get you? And once you start down that path (as just demonstrated) you will also be much more prone to—without even realizing it—taking a Kantian approach to life rather than a Christian one. You will likely find yourself, somewhat insidiously, converting others’ duties into your child’s rights. Or, even converting your desires into your child’s rights. Ouch.
But, what if…
What if you took a different approach? What if you took on a posture like Jesus, and led the way—in humility? In Philippians 2: 3-11 it says,
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
In other words, Jesus laid down his rights, even though he clearly possessed them as the Son of God. He “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (verse 6b), but instead, chose to lead though humility and service.
And what was the end result? “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place…to the glory of God the Father” (verses 9a, 11b). In other words when we lead others into solutions by modeling Jesus’ posture of humility and service, God honors that. And God is glorified by that.
Oh, I can hear it. “But you don’t know my IEP team!” You’re right. I don’t. But you know what?
So take a risk.
Do a heart check.
Are you approaching relationships on your child’s behalf from a Kantian approach or a Christian one? Do other people’s responsibilities—or even your desires—translate into your child’s rights, in your view? Or do you enter relationships seeking to serve? Seeking to operate from a posture of humility? Seeking the interests of others—not only your child’s—but the interest of others in the room as well? I know. It sounds risky. But you know what? It was risky for Jesus to lay down his life on the cross, counting on God to raise him from the dead. But he did. And God did. And in the end, Jesus was honored as a result, and God was glorified.
So next time you have an IEP meeting, or any other meeting related to your child’s needs, how about trying this:
Put a piece of string in your pocket.
When you get to the meeting, put it on the table.
When you are tempted to push for rights, look at the string.
Pray a silent prayer.
And make a choice: Kantian? Or Christian?