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What to do when a child whose relational guidance system is malformed such that he doesn’t recognize certain behaviors as being inappropriate or hurtful. It is important to make the distinction between two different kinds of disobedience:
Defiant disobedience in which one is (a) conscious of authorities’ instruction, (b) aware that possibilities of obedience or disobedience are present and (c) consciously chooses to disobey.
Supra-conscious or faster-than-consciousness disobedience in which without reflection one does that which one ought not to do. In Charlotte Mason’s terms, one does that which “is his nature” to do. In Jim Wilder terms, it is a “fast-track response” based upon a lack of emotional-relational maturity.
To be clear both are disobedience, but it is very important to identify which kind it is. In this case, I would be surprised if, in general, the child’s responses are defiant disobedience. And comments below are based upon that assumption that it is supra-conscious disobedience.
Disobedience, whether defiant or supra-conscious is still disobedience, and must be met with a naming of the truth, an invitation to repentance, and the offer of forgiveness. In this case, that would be a conversation with him. “Tom [not his real name], tell me about your conversation with … I heard that you told her … Remember our conversation regarding the four things you could talk about with girls … Was that one of those four things? … Tom, you were disobedient … I understand. I know you don’t understand. I know you meant good not ill. Still, you were disobedient … Do you want my forgiveness for your disobedience? … You must ask for it … ” A refusal to repent (when there is understanding and a safe relationship) is usually defiant disobedience. There are those cases when a refusal to repent is not defiant disobedience, but a response to a history of repentance leading to damnation rather than restoration.
Repentance and forgiveness must be followed by the continued sowing of a transformative idea. In this case, I suspect the most important idea for Tom to grasp is: All people have a relational guidance system, like the autopilot in an airplane, which tells us how to respond, faster than thought, to situations around us. One of the effects of sin is that all of us have broken relational guidance systems. We respond in ways that are confusing or hurtful to others, even when we do not want to. We must all help each other find repair for our relational guidance system. “Tom, your heart’s desire for kind, gracious relationship with others is good, but your relational guidance system is broken, so you say things which hurt relationships and make others uncomfortable … What did I just say about your desires and your relational guidance system? … Our words and actions must match the level of closeness of a relationship. One talks one way with an acquaintance, another with a good friend, another with a best friend, one way with a man, another with a woman. I think you don’t know when it is appropriate to say what to whom. What do you think? … Your relational guidance system doesn’t work well, particularly with girls … Will you believe me that this is true and let us help you? Note: When dealing with a male, young teen, it would be very helpful to include a man as part of the support team, joining in stating that he would never say such a thing, because he understands that it would make a woman uncomfortable. Also, this is not a single conversation, but a set of ideas which must be sown repeatedly in as various and creative ways as possible.
Then you need a strategy. “Tom, we must help you not say things to girls that are inappropriate? … How might we do that? How can we help you to not say inappropriate things to girls? … If there were always a teacher with you when speaking to the girls, would that help you stay appropriate? … Well if that would help you, it is somewhat inconvenient for us, but we are willing to do anything we can to help you. So, for now, you may not talk alone with one of your girl classmates without one of your teachers, who can help you stay appropriate, being present … Would that help keep you from being inappropriate? … So, what is your responsibility? … If you are seen talking alone with one of the girls, then you will have to stay with a teacher during break or lunch, until you are able to obey … Why is this? How are we trying to help you? What is our goal? …” Then you must follow through.
It is important to accept that there is nothing you can do that will ensure he will never say anything inappropriate to a girl again. Growth will mean a steady decrease in frequency and degree of failure.
In this situation, the girls need some coaching as well in how to respond (what to say, what to do, what to feel and how to process those feelings) when a boy says something stupid. Here’s a suggestion: Get the girls alone in a classroom. Draw a table on the board. Across the top give it the title “Responding when somebody says something confusing, inappropriate, hurtful or mean.” Three columns: Weak-Weak Response (Run away inside or out), Strong-Weak Response (Attack), Strong-Strong Response (Stay your best self). Using white boards, have the girls take one column at a time and write down thoughts, feelings, actions associated with that response. Assimilate these responses on the front board one column at a time. Point out that we all have a natural way of responding. Ask them to identify their natural way of responding.
Discuss why a strong-strong response is always better. Ask what they need to do to move towards more consistently making strong-strong responses. Invite them to come to you for help, anytime they are struggling to make a strong-strong response. Conclude by discussing the following: A boy says something inappropriate and uncomfortable to you: You are beautiful, or you are not very attractive. I don’t like you, or I love you. What would be a weak-weak response? What would be a strong-weak response? What would be a strong-strong response?
It is important to remember that if the adults respond supportively, inappropriate words will not be experienced by the girls as traumatic.
Such words that cause confusion and distress only become traumatic and damaging, when adults react with high levels of distress, rather than confidently assisting the girls in returning to peace and joy. Do the latter and it becomes on important opportunity for the girls to be brought up to greater maturity. In certain prominent sub-cultures (i.e. the university) there has been a loss of the distinction between (1) an event which is in itself so evil and emotionally overwhelming as to be abusively traumatic and (2) those events which are distressing or emotionally confusing but are made traumatic by the communities inability to either believe that returning to relational joy is possible or knowledge of how to do so. We must beware as these ideas are in the air and be very careful not to do the same in our community.
Every blessing in Christ Jesus,
Bill St. Cyr
Image: John Singleton Copley, Saul Reproved by Samuel for Not Obeying the Commandments of the Lord, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston