Teaching a Lesson about Lessons

Please stop teaching lessons.

I was raised super religious. My father became a minister in the Seventh-day Adventist faith when I turned eight. As a PK (pastor’s kid, a near-universal designation), I caught flak for being “naughty” from everyone.

If Jesus taught quietly, by parable, by example, why could none of his living followers go that route? Too subtle, I think now. Church members shamed any kid they caught “acting out,” and that went doubly for PKs. If talking out of turn is frowned on in school, imagine how low you sink when Jesus does the frowning.

I can’t remember how many times I was told to sit on a wooden bench and look at a picture of Jesus. A reproduction of a painted white man with straight, smooth brown hair, a beatific crown of light behind his head. I noticed Jesus’ mournful eyes and I imagined him empathizing with me against whichever adult made me sit there.

We were misunderstood together, Jesus and I. Young as six, I understood the wide margin between the stories of Jesus that I memorized and the adults embodying the religion before me. Hypocrisy is the word my teenaged self buried deep, turning side-eyes on whoever lectured me – and there were many.

I was raised with Uncle Dan and Aunt Sue narrrating audio stories, Uncle Arthur Bedtime Stories every night, their stiff brown covers cracking when my mom opened them to read, and a tangle of religious picture books. Every single thing that crossed my path included a lesson. My parents planned it that way.

I now have a wariness for “lessons.”
“teach them a lesson”
“What’s the object lesson?”
“learned my lesson”
Any of these phrases and I bristle, ready for combat.

As if anyone learns what you want them to from this style of teaching. I learned to hide, I learned skepticism (beyond what’s healthy), and I learned shame. I can’t entirely shield my children from lessons. My parents now live nearby, and all adults of that era are happy to “teach them a lesson,” passing along the tropes of my youth. The relationships between adults and children suffer by this notion, and I do step in when I see that happening. “Would you appreciate this tone?” I’ll ask, or “Is that how you would say it to me?”

I love (I think it was..) Kerry McDonald’s idea of treating children as though they’re foreign dignitaries with the wisdom, but not the language or customs, to interact with our world. We all deserve respect, not “a lesson.”

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