A Parent Trap in Ghana and the Double Bind of the Law

This one comes to us from Ryan Alvey. So then, the law is holy, and […]

Guest Contributor / 11.21.19

This one comes to us from Ryan Alvey.

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.
(Rm 7:12)

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.
(Rm 8:3)

The people of Ghana hold a special place in my heart. Several years ago my wife and I partnered with a ministry that is involved in training church leaders there. This same mission group also worked to open a school in a village near Accra. My experience there was so profound, particularly as I saw how the Gospel unites more than language, culture, or economics. For that reason, I keep tabs on the happenings in Ghana and hope to return again.

So when I saw an episode of NPR’s Rough Translation titled “Ghana’s Parent Trap,” I was in. If you think America is alone in its anxiety about trying to get our kids ahead, sometimes even leading to college admission scandals, be assured that this is a universal human dilemma. Parents are so concerned about giving their kids an edge in the growing Ghanaian economy that they have preschool starting as early as age 1. The benefits of preschool are evident around the world, but the attempt in Ghana to take it a step further by starting at a younger age appeared to have little or even negative effects. Starting earlier was not translating to improved performance.

This raised the larger question of how education is done in Ghana. Traditionally, teachers are meant to be strong authority figures. Punishment comes quickly, and rote memory and drill are the focus. Overall, the model is obey and you’ll thrive. But this model for the youngest called all of that into question. Rigorous academics at such an early age simply caused problems.

This part of the story was not surprising to me at all. As a parent of three young children, my knee-jerk reaction to misbehavior, or simply directing behavior, is to buckle down on law: Don’t talk back. I’m the one in charge. You will be grounded. This can often yield immediate obedience, but it does not create the meaningful growth that love brings (1 Jn 4:19).

This is where the story from Ghana took a beautiful turn. With some outside help they conducted a study training teachers in an alternate method, which looked something like this: Instead of starting the day with a command, they asked the students about something they loved. Instead of standing over the kids, they sat with them on the floor. Instead of inflicting corporal punishment, they reasoned with them. These small acts were little risks of grace. This was reason enough to laud the approach, but in the metric-focused world of education it also yielded results. Kids placed into this environment of love and trust actually had the space to grow. Go figure.

What happened next fascinated me. When parents were taught this method and encouraged to be active partners with teachers, it backfired. What they discovered was that parents’ attempts to support teachers (I’ve got your back, Do whatever it takes to help my kid succeed) were received by teachers as more law. Simply the idea of answering to parents, even ones so loving and invested in their kids’ success, caused teachers to revert to previous habits. Talk about a double bind of the law!

This story brought me back to the truth of Paul’s words in Romans 7 and 8. The goodness of the law doesn’t mean it can produce what it requires. This reminds me again that all truth is God’s truth. These experiences of law and grace are not concepts for theology or limited to our perception of God. What Paul tells us is true for education in Ghana. It’s true for me as a parent. It’s true for my neighbor who isn’t thinking about Jesus or their life in this way.

We are all in this parent trap, this double bind of the law. Which means we are all in need of rescue, release, and freedom. What the law is powerless to accomplish, Christ is able to do. I think of those teachers, in small reflective ways, as pointing us to the One who sets aside command and speaks one-way love. The One who does not stand above or grasp at what is his, but instead sits with us on the floor. The One who does not threaten, but says, “Come now, let us reason together, … though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18)


Image credit: Henry Donati/DFID. A teacher at a School for Life, a project in northern Ghana, April 2012.