Good News for Misbehaving Children (and Their Parents, Too): Dorothy Martyn’s Beyond Deserving

A fixture on the Mockingbird Reading List is Beyond Deserving: Children, Parents, and Responsibility Revisited […]

David Zahl / 12.26.07

A fixture on the Mockingbird Reading List is Beyond Deserving: Children, Parents, and Responsibility Revisited by Dorothy Martyn. Dr. Martyn is a child psychologist, a committed Freudian, and yes, a Christian of the most grace-centered kind. Don’t be put off by the slightly academic cover and title–the real thrust of the book is theological and literary. She uses fascinating case studies (and a whole lot of Emily Dickinson) to illustrate how unconditional love and grace play out in the lives of difficult children.

As is always the case when we touch on the intersection of grace and parenting, the temptation will be to turn Dr. Martyn’s words into a prescription, that is, some standard of Law to which you, as a parent, cannot live up. But surely our (very human) proclivity to turn everything into an occasion for condemnation should not prevent us from talking about these things, full-stop. It certainly doesn’t invalidate the truth of such descriptions–as Robert Capon has said, “grace cannot be turned into Law, it is the opposite of Law”. Plus, I’m sure you will agree that Dr. Martyn makes the connections in as insightful, poetic and hopeful a way possible. That is, the tone is as gracious as the content; if there’s a better book on children and parents (and grace), or on parenting, period, I haven’t read it. Here are a couple quotes from the final chapter:

The most important message of the Bible is not a “moral” one in the usual sense. This point can be clearly seen when we reread that annoying parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. Some worked from early morning, some began three hours later, others started six or nine house later, and still others began only at the eleventh hour. Yet all received the same pay for their work! Understandably, the ones who worked for the entire day were very unhappy, and they grumbled to the owner of the vineyard. And how did he respond? He spoke not of an arrangement in which each is paid what he deserves as his due. Instead, he spoke of sovereignty over his own graciousness. The point of the story is that the kind of love that the Bible is about cannot in fact be earned. The same message is given by the Psalmist, who wrote, “He does not deal with us according to our sins/nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps 103:10).

There is also the heartening pronouncement in 1 John 3:18-20, which says in effect that, if our conscience, our inner accuser, condemns us, God is greater than our conscience. Here is the suggestion that our judgment of ourselves is itself subject to correction by a higher authority.

And what form does that correction take? We must be clear that the correction of the demonic use of judgment does not come through permissiveness. God does not revoke the nature of his righteousness to accommodate human rebellion; be he also does not simply abandon human beings to the “devices and designs of our own hearts,” to quote the Book of Common Prayer.

When parental love is not based on this-for-that, we are not at all in the realm of permissiveness. A good parent doesn’t simply wash his or her hands of hurtful behavior and abandon a child to impulse. He or she recognizes that the out-of-control child, attempting to act on a destructive impulse, is at the the mercy of a force within that he may not be able to withstand alone. Paradoxically, one of those destructive impulses is an urge to judge oneself far too harshly. In any event, the parent is there as an ally of that part of the child which is being attacked from within.”

Understanding what it is like to be under siege, the good parent, as well as the good mentor, intervenes powerfully and unconditionally on the side of what is good for the child, standing with the child instead of standing over against him in judgment. Such a stance is in fact derived from the way that God enters into human suffering with mercy, moving first with grace – not waiting for bad behavior to change – and with patience, that is to say, sustaining and accompanying the human being without coercion.” (pg 125-26)

We are more responsible, not less so, when we are aware of forces that are working on us beyond our ability to control them. Denial of that truth, along with actions that do not take that truth into account, is the height of irresponsibility“. (pg. 156)

To listen to Dr. Martyn’s brilliant talk from our 2009 Conference, “The New Recipe: Grace in Family Life,” click here.


2 responses to “Good News for Misbehaving Children (and Their Parents, Too): Dorothy Martyn’s Beyond Deserving

  1. Simeon says:

    Amazing quotes! Bonnie showed me an article about a recent psychological study that came to the exact same conclusions (the study is called “Neural Signals for Self-Control Failure”, published in the journal Psychological Science). Check the amazing concluding quote:

    “Most notably, the results suggest that if people do not realize they have lost control, even temporarily, they will be unable to stop or change their behavior on their own.”

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