Deliberate vs. “Default” Parenting

Every now and again, even I get shell-shocked by what I see in the broader culture. Having come out of feminism 15 years ago and having read hundreds of books and thousands of articles on feminism, society, culture, and the family, you’d think nothing would surprise me. But sometimes God just pops my eyes open anew and reminds me what this battle is really about.

One of the myths we strive to bury is that the homemaker is simply a sweet little washer of dishes, flitting about the house in pearls and heels and smiling vacantly over the back fence at neighbors while hanging laundry. That pop culture image persists to the point that even those of us who are totally committed to being at-home wives and mothers still sometimes start to view ourselves through the Mrs. Cleaver lens and wonder if what we’re doing really matters. I’m here to tell you loud and clear, “Oh, yes, ladies, it does.”

I was out most of last Saturday afternoon for the Major Monthly Grocery Restocking, taking along my eldest son, my four-year-old twins, and my baby daughter. As we worked our way through one store after another, taking little guys out of car seats and grabbing shopping carts, I began to notice something that left a sick feeling in my stomach for the rest of the day. If it had happened once, I probably wouldn’t have noticed–but it happened everywhere we stopped. Even my eldest son turned to me a couple of times with questions in his eyes as we passed by what apparently has become commonplace while I wasn’t paying attention: the public family fight.

At our first stop, with little people loaded into buggy seats, I passed by a couple who were arguing back and forth with increasing volume–right in the middle of the parking lot. I can’t even remember what they were fighting about, but they kept it up as they walked to their car, arms loaded with shopping bags. They didn’t seem to notice anyone else in the crowded lot but just kept bickering with ugly scowls on their faces. Now, I’m no baby. I’ve seen people fight before — but not in such a public place or at such volume. When I was growing up, my parents absolutely did not allow my siblings and me to carry on disagreements in public. We were taught that it was disrespectful of the other person and rude to those who would have to listen to us. All squabbles had to be solved privately and quietly with restoration of fellowship in mind. My father’s family motto was “Unity,” and we knew he meant it. He and mom displayed this all through their marriage. I am sure they disagreed sometimes, but they always talked privately and stood together once a decision was reached. I never, ever saw or heard them fight.

So I passed this couple and shook my head slightly at the spectacle. But what I took for an isolated incident started to multiply itself over and over again as the day went on. In particular, we must have passed half a dozen mothers yelling at their children or making ugly remarks in an effort to get them to behave. Now, readers, I am most certainly not an angel and have definitely had moments of frustration with my own children — but what I witnessed was full-on screaming and nasty verbal bites, all for the public’s consumption. Then something happened that made everything click in an “ah-ha” moment.

I had set down some bags of groceries next to our van while I loaded littles back into their seats. A little boy (probably six or seven years old) walked between my van and the next car in an attempt to reach the other side of the parking lot with his mother following behind him. He stepped right on my bags of groceries, then shot me an annoyed look. Instead of apologizing, his mother snatched his hand and proceeded to drag him around me, snapping at him to “hurry up.” My mouth gaped as I looked wordlessly at my eldest son. And that’s when it hit me: As a nation, we have finally fallen into “default parenting.”

When we don’t make a deliberate effort to train our children and prepare them for adulthood, we just fall back on the “default,” which is either total laxity or whatever we see modeled in the pop culture (TV, movies, etc.). The cultural meltdown I witnessed all around me that day is simply the fruit of a generation of default parenting. This was almost unheard of when I was growing up (even in the crazy 1970s). If I’d stepped on someone’s bag of groceries, my mother would have stopped me, then directed me to look the lady in the eyes and apologize for stepping on her things. She would have checked to see if I’d broken anything and offered to replace it if I had. Then, as we walked away, she would have talked to me about the importance of watching my step and especially of making sure to take care of other people’s property. And I’d have internalized that, filing it away for the next time I encountered a similar situation.

I just don’t see that happening today. After the bag-stepping incident, I started really watching other families to see if this was an isolated moment or a trend. I grew more and more heartsick as I witnessed half a dozen mothers and fathers turn a blind eye to foolishness in their children, ignore outright disobedience, or simply drag offenders out of sight while shouting at them to “behave.” So I turned my view inwards.

How often have I fallen into the “default” because “Mama’s busy right now, honey”  or because “I just have to get this load into the dryer first?” As I thought back over the preceding week, I could single out incidents where I’d ignored something, thinking I’d “catch that later” or “remind him not to do that.” I thought of the day my middle daughter had pouted and stomped out of the room when I’d told her she couldn’t do something. I knew I needed to pursue her and work out the problem, but I had bread dough all over my hands and two four-year-olds hanging over the bowl, salivating. I’d shelved the incident with “I’ll catch her in a few minutes.” But I didn’t. I forgot. Life went on, and I lost that opportunity to reach my daughter’s heart and disciple her.

This goes for husbands, too. Do we make an effort to communicate lovingly and thoughtfully? Do we bring up disagreements privately and work through them with patience? The trip from private arguments to public parking lot squabbles isn’t a long one. Running in default mode, we’ll get there sooner rather than later. And culture will follow us, because culture grows out of the family and how its members treat one another.

Gals, what we have to strive daily to do is to be Deliberate — that means putting down the armload of towels or washing our hands and looking that child in the eye and making contact. It means grabbing our husbands and saying “thank you” rather than waiting for an occasion to express gratitude. It means taking the time to communicate culture, because that is really what we are doing. We look around at our culture and wonder why it is coming unraveled so fast. Where did the civility go? Where is chastity? Why are people wearing pajamas to Target? Well, I think we have to look in our own mirrors first, and this is why what we do as stay-at-home wives and mothers is vital. Responsible, thoughtful adults don’t just appear out of thin air–they come from those little people sitting around your table right now.

We are the builders of culture. We are the makers of civilization. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a slap-dash culture made of balsa wood and glued together with watery paste. But that’s exactly what we’ll get if we continue to parent by default or keep the home by default. Let’s be deliberate. Let’s be purposeful. And when we fail, let’s admit it to our husbands and our children, because that’s also how we build the future, one conversation at a time.

28 thoughts on “Deliberate vs. “Default” Parenting

  1. I was in the grocer’s the other day and I too was flabbergasted that a mom told her little daughter that she hated her and wished she would get lost! Poor thing couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6. I felt so terrible for her. I have noticed a trend too in public places more anger is being vented, sad:-( Thank you for a thought provoking article.


  2. That’s such a lovely article, Jennie. I find it both encouraging and convicting, as I am reminded too of those incidents here and there, particularly when I have a load of laundry, or my hands in meatloaf… it’s so recognizable. This will definitely make me strive to be more deliberate.


  3. I have witnessed scenes like these all too frequently, even in the more “traditional” South. It’s heart-breaking and frustrating, yet all the more convicting to *not* give into the cultural ideas of family! Thank you for putting that conviction into words, Jennie.


  4. Last shopping trip with both littles I could have been one of those default parents as my children ran amok in the check-out line and rummaged through the shelf of goods and lay down in the exit aisle despite all my verbal efforts to get them to stop. I finally just gave up as the cashier scanned the last of my items just to get out of there! Granted, after we pulled out of the check-out line, I made them stand up against the wall and crouched down and gave them both a firm, quiet, deliberate face-to-face talking to without verbal abuse or anger.

    I admit one of the quickest ways to get my blood to boil is to be completely ignored and/or disobeyed.

    This article really spoke to me and I do intend to be more deliberate, especially after reading Philippians 4:5 (I even wrote a note on it on my facebook page!)

    A couple other points from the article:

    1. At least where I come from the whole “June Cleaver” housewife myth is rarely in existance. Instead, I believe housewives are steriotyped as the frumpy, unkempt, frazzled, overweight Hamburger Helper and Mac and Cheese mom of crazy littles she can’t wait to unload on the public school system so she can go back to her own life. My husband has encountered those who think I’m just a lazy leech, watching daytime TV and mooching off my husband’s hard work while the house lays in ruins and dinner only takes a few minutes to microwave.

    2. Funny thing is, I don’t think I’ve EVER seen pajama-wearers in Target. They’re always in Walmart and I’ve even heard them say they’d never shop at Target because it’s too snobby. Frankly, I shop at Target over Walmart whenever I can. At least my local Target does a better job at keeping the Swimsuit issue away from little eyes and easily avoidable for any discerning mother.


    1. Ladyscott, I see the frumpy, unkempt stereotype, too — but in my particular region (the Deep South), the memory of mama in pearls is still strong in spite of what’s on TV. I’ve been stopped and asked if I play bridge or if I wear my hats at home or only to the store. 😉


  5. In this case, it seemed as if many people there were just in too much of a hurry. Too many people nowadays are in too much of a hurry. I actually am sensitive to environments like that, and they warp my mood and might affect the way I act towards my own children, and I don’t like that. So I do my grocery shopping in the middle of the weekday when at all possible, when the only other customers are the elderly and the precious few other stay-at-home moms. Shopping is so much nicer when the surrounding people are living at a more leisurely pace.


  6. You know, a friend who is a school psychologist has told me that, in our society today, “good” parenting has changed from being a “hands-on” task to being a task that one delegates. A “good” parent makes sure that they locate the best child-care for their child. They make sure that their children go to the best schools for the best education. They hire tutors and pay for lessons and summer camp. “Good” parenting isn’t what one does with one’s children… it’s making sure that one hires only “quality” folk for the task of child training/teaching. Odd thought, but I can see so clearly what he is talking about… and you have alluded to it in this article.

    I especially liked how you brought this sad trend in the culture at large home to those of us who do desire to parent our children well… and do the parenting ourselves. It is so easy to point the finger, but so hard to see the fault in our own actions. Just this morning I read in Proverbs Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (22:6) and again “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.” (22:15.) I was personally convicted anew of the importance of focusing myself fully on my children… being deliberate as you so aptly put it. The amount of energy and effort we put into our children today will show itself throughout their entire lives. Please Lord, may I not be lax in the rearing of my children, for they will be the ones who will have to pay the price of my folly.


  7. ladyscott, our local Publix supermarket actually puts a cover over any magazine that is too explicit in words or pictures. I really like that.


  8. Excellent post, Jennie. I have seen the same public scenes that you have mentioned here more times than I like to count. It’s heartbreaking to me. If people act like this in public, how do they treat one another in the privacy of their homes? I think the key is exactly what you have written, we need to be PURPOSEFUL and DELIBERATE in our parenting. As we are watching these parents, others are watching us. May we make a difference just by modeling godly, loving, Christilike parenting in our homes and out in public.


  9. Ouch. Oww owie ouch. That was very convicting. I am ashamed to admit, I’ve been that angry mother who snaps at her kids and has a hard time getting them to obey. I’ve been her more than I’ve been the calm, collected one whose kids are behaving. Part of it is that they’re 4 and almost 6, and they have enough energy to power a small city. But the other part is me – I struggle with, as you call it, default parenting. Thank you for the wakeup call. I really needed to hear that. I’m going to keep it in mind next time I’m tempted to let things slide, or to slack off in my responsibilities.

    Also: the new site is beautiful. It’s so nice to have my LAF back! I’ve really missed it.


  10. Amen ! great post!

    I’ve seen it too and done it too I’m sure! We have a young family (a 3years old, a 17 months old and baby#3 due in 8 weeks) And discipline is part of my daily routine!

    How many days I send training and teaching right and wrong and just have to leave some other house chores behind, thankfully my husband just over look the mess and keeps telling me that what is important is the eternal and that I will have time to be caught up with my chores later.

    It’s not easy doing it! Takes time and energy and someways I just don’t feel like doing it but I have too!

    Reading “Shepherding a Child heart” by Tedd Tripp, makes me focus on the importance of training your child in the way of the Lord!




  11. Yes! You took the words right out of my mouth! My husband and I witness this every day. It is very sad, and I pray that my family might be an example to these broken families. We are not perfect by any means, but maybe by watching all of us, they might say, “They are happy. What do they have that I don’t?” We need to be purposeful about putting ourselves in their path, as uncomfortable as it might be! Something as simple as a conversation in the check-out line could be life changing for them. And I’m glad I’m not the only person who sees people in their pajamas at the store! 🙂


  12. Well said Prairiepastorswife. there for a minute i was concerned that the point was overtaken by how to avoid those in need of help and how much better target is over walmart.


  13. I really liked this line “Life went on, and I lost that opportunity to reach my daughter’s heart and disciple her.” Using “disciple” rather than “discipline” made your intent really clear: to help her have a good heart and good actions, rather than to simply fix an irritating behavior.

    Last summer we took our son, who was 11-months-old, to the zoo. I saw multiple instances of mothers, young, single, frequently obese, obviously poor, etc. slapping, throwing down, and screaming at their children. At one point we alerted security, but there is so little they can do.


  14. It is, by far, the hardest thing to do, isn’t it?….to find that reserve of calm & good judgment during those tough moments in public. I’ve both succeeded & failed over the years. To speak honestly, the fact that I’ve handled more of these incidents successfully than not doesn’t lessen my shame for the times I’ve failed! And you’re right, Mrs. Chancey, to call those moments opportunities to disciple. I’m thankful that we humans have a resiliency…..& I always pray that my children’s hearts won’t remember the sharp words, my too-tired-to-handle-one-more-thing responses.

    It worries me greatly when I see the coarseness around me while out & about. Most of the time there seems to be no good reason for it. From the way we dress, to the way we treat people, speak to them, even look at them (or ignore them, as well as their groceries!), it shows an increasing unwillingness to show any concern for others.


  15. I wish I could say this ‘non-parenting’ is a new trend. For at least a decade, I’ve observed that people have stopped ‘raising’ children, in favor of ‘having’ children–much like you decide to ‘have’ a puppy.

    Unfortunately, they seem to have more success with the puppies–seeing the need to actually train the them not to pee on the carpet. (Although, even in this example, far too many dogs wind up in shelters because the enthusiastic owner does not truly understand their role in teaching the dog the ‘house rules.’)

    It has been years since I’ve been to a store without seeing a public fight between children or the adult and child or adult and adult or adult having heated phone conversation (with or without child in tow). And like your recent experience, usually several.

    About 15 years ago, when my nephew was 3, I was struck by a scene in the cereal aisle at the grocery store: a mother asking the toddler what she should purchase. This was serious. Maybe she had just read some parenting book about ’empowering’ your children. I don’t know…but the result in this child’s life was that his mother had abdicated parenting responsibilties and was expecting him to self-parent. A child who could not read, who was supposed to be learning how to feed himself from his parents, was being asked to make decisions about his own nutritional needs and how family resources were spent. Needless to say, a box on the lower shelf with a familiar cartoon character was selected. That was it. Zero ‘teaching moment’ about the choices.


  16. Having been on the receiving end of many disapproving looks over the years in grocery stores, bear-hugging a screaming, kicking little boy who either a) must be being beaten for that kind of behavior or b) needs to be punished for that kind of behavior, I know how it feels to be judged and dismissed as a “bad parent”. Any offers of help have been few and far between, any one looking closer could be given the simple explanation of autism, but most are just content to stare and sometimes follow you in the store to make sure social services doesn’t need to be called. Children with “invisible” disabilities are often misunderstood as naughty kids with inept parents. It would be very easy to yell at this point, at my son, at the people staring, the people going out of their way to avoid you. But my behavior in that moment is one of the few things I can control at that point. So instead I pray, that God would teach me how to help my son, and I am humbled and blessed by the love and support He shows in those moments. I have learned to be more sensitive to other parents having a bad day – the behavior in the store may only be a small snapshot of their lives and not representative of their entire life. God is the only perfect parent and I am constantly learning from His example.


    1. Very important point and a good distinction, K. Your response to your child is key here — praying and dealing with your son quietly and calmly. What I am seeing is something completely different — people losing it with their children in a very ugly (and even frightening) manner. I have lots of empathy for moms out in public with naughty children, because I have ones who are naughty at times, too! But there’s a huge difference between the mother who bends down and calmly, quietly talks to her disobedient child (or takes him off the scene) and the mother who just yells back at the same decibel level and acts like a three-year-old herself. Sounds like you’re being deliberate. It’s the harder path to walk, but it is so worth it in the end. God bless!


  17. Yup, I’ve got lots of work to do. A few questions though:

    When I am disciplining my children and people who know us are within earshot, they often will dismiss the problem in front of the kids. Often they’ll even interrupt my husband or me. They’ll say something like, “Oh they’re just being boys”, or, “It doesn’t matter that they nearly knocked me down and broke my hip. It’s just what kids do.” Does anyone have any suggestions for dealing with this without being disrespectful to the other adult? My kids seem so confused by the difference in attitudes, and it’s led to attitude problems on their part. Most of these people are either grandparents or members of my husband’s church, so I must tread lightly. I know they mean well, but they’re doing more harm than good.

    To K. Morton, or anyone else who can address it. What would be helpful to you in that moment in the store when you’re trying to deal with your son? I rarely feel comfortable offering more than an encouraging smile and a silent prayer to someone I don’t know. Is there something more we could do that wouldn’t seem intrusive or judgemental?



  18. Jennifer, if that happens I usually smile warmly at the person saying it and say “Oh, that is so kind of you, thank you! But Joseph needs to learn how to take care with others, right Joseph? Can you say this sweet lady that you are sorry?”
    I believe that often people react that way because they see people out who will make an ugly scene of a child’s mistake instead of a learning opportunity, people who go into default parenting mode until the child becomes so intolerable that they then all of a sudden snap and react vicious.


  19. I don’t know what some negligent parents are thinking. My sister once had some rude little boys trying to barge into her changing room at a clothing store, and when she either pushed them out of the door or told them to stop, their obnoxious mother snapped at her to “not yell at her boys”. Parents who either practice default parenting or take their hoodlums out with them and see no fault in their actions are beyond my comprehension.


  20. People who make snap judgements are indeed rude and nosy, K. I think, though, that Jennie was referencing parents who have more deliberate situations, such as making degrading remarks to their children, publically arguing with spouses, or neglecting to reprimand disrespectful children at all, all things would could be handled in better ways. With parents and children like this, it is their behavior that’s intrusive.


  21. If self control is not taught to our children, the lesson gets much harder when they become adults without self control. Meltdowns are one thing in a small child, meltdowns (the complete loss of control) by an adult is completely inappropriate. The best way to teach self control, I feel, is for our children to see it in us, all the time, in public and in our homes. My aim as a Christian mother is to guide my children to be holy, not necessarily happy (in other words, I don’t want any of my sons to be happy at the expense of being holy). Abdication on this point is not optional. I want my children and anyone else I encounter during my day to see Jesus in me as a mother, and if I am not different from the rest of the world, then my children will grow up to be just like the rest of the world. Terrifying, to say the least. You are so right about needing to be deliberate in parenting, and we should be an example to our children and to other parents as well. Raise them on purpose, for THE purpose! Sometimes the best thing with other parents in a bad or ugly situation is just the silent prayer or an understanding smile. If I am led to say something to another parent having a hard time, I pray that it isn’t my own words coming out of my mouth. If my children witness bad behavior in others, it does get turned into a teachable moment. If one of my children is the one with bad behavior, it is very much a teachable moment for myself (patience, self control, grace, among many others!) God Bless your ministry at LAF!


  22. I agree with your observations Jennie. Unfortunately, parents have forgotten what it means to parent. To train and disciple your children.

    We all have done the default thing at sometime, but I really think that people don’t know how to parent anymore. Maybe that is why people are choosing to not have children, or only one – cause when you parent by default all the time, one is enough! It also answers so many questions as to why parents can’t wait for school to be in session, why they send their children to day camps and sleep away camps, etc.


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