A Bag Full of Wet Tribbles


A couple weeks back SF Gate columnist Mark Morford wrote an op/ed piece called “American Kids, Dumber than Dirt” in which he quotes a longtime teacher friend as saying that kids today are stupid to the point of verging on inert:

It’s gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement, he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking — and nearly hopeless — dumb-ification of the American brain. It is just that bad.

I know that I’m perpetually saddened (yet oddly amused) by what people don’t know. And that’s not in some kind of snobbish way. Watching a high school graduate grossly mis-tally a simple three item receipt from a restaurant makes me wonder how such a lapse can exist.

You long-time readers know that I have a degree in Christian Education and know all the educational theorists. You know that I homeschooled up until this fall. You also know my child is in public school right now. You know that I believe that no educational system is perfect.

But as much handwringing goes on today about education, I keep returning to one inescapable truth:

Kids are only as smart as their parents are.

The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, and in most cases today, a lot closer to the trunk than some would like. A classroom (and a home?) full of dunces...But when it comes right down to it, smart parents have smart kids—no matter what kind of education (public, private, or homeschooled) their children receive—because the parents themselves value education and pursue it in their own lives.

If the parents of a child are about as sharp as a bag of wet tribbles, then how can we expect the child to exceed the parent? That rarely, if ever, happens.

We expect most homeschoolers to be winners of spelling and geography bees, but look at the parents in those cases. They’re engineers, scientists, academics—the national brain trust, in other words. The only way they’re going to turn out a dim bulb is if they give birth to a brain-damaged kid. And even then, that’s going to be the brightest brain-damaged child of the lot.

But even when it comes to homsechooling, the weak link in the chain is the parent. A parent with smarts that rate a 6 on a scale of 10 is probably not going to teach their kids to a level 8 or higher. Why? Because that parent will be uncomfortable exceeding his or her own knowledge. This leads to what is known as the law of diminishing returns.

Parents are never going to feel adequate to teach their kids to the limits of their parental smarts—ever. That truth wipes out most distinctions of public, private, and homeschool. As much as a we’ve castigated public schooling, smart parents who put their kids in public school are not going to turn around when that kid is eighteen and find a numbskull. This truth works in the opposite, as well. If parents can barely tally three lines on a restaurant bill, why should we expect their children to? Yet we’re perpetually astonished by the seeming ignorance of youth today.

“But Dan,” you say, “isn’t your blog about the Church in America? How does this fit with your theme?”

If we wonder why the youth of today can’t theologize their way out of a damp paper bag, we have to look at the parents.

Christian parents suffer from a few maladies that make them inadequate to the task of teaching their children about the Lord:

  1. They’ve been told that they are inadequate for the job… – This same instructor superiority afflicts parents in all types of learning environments. The educational elites turned up their noses at the bourgeois attempts of parents to teach their own children and slapped their knuckles with a mighty big ruler in the process. And just as it afflicts the public and private school systems, it afflicts Christian education.
  2. …so as a result, parents have abandoned their role in education – This is not only the parents’ fault for being weak-willed and lazy in their children’s Christian education, but also the willingness of most church people to treat the educational staff at their churches like divine oracles who can do no wrong. Worse, those so-called oracles believe the hype and even fan it into flame. That’s got to stop, on all counts.
  3. We’ve made the Faith either too complex or too rudimentary. – It seems we can’t find the balance. We either make the faith into an intellectual exercise of splitting infralapsarian and amyraldian hairs (or whatever esoteric argument floats your ark) or we make it a brain-dead exercise in being nice to people. Well, shame on us—all of us. So parents think they either have to possess a seminary degree or else they think they can skate because there’s nothing to “this Christianity thing.” Either mentality jumps the educational tracks.

So how do we get parents into the right mindset and smarts-set to do this important job?

  1. We emphasize the importance of the work—and our willingness to help. It seems to me that part of the problem of Christian education today stems from either asking for the world of parents or asking nothing at all. We need to find a solid middle ground. But more than that, churches need to understand that they must partner with parents to ensure the next generation gets some theological smarts. Not by being condescending. Not by dumping all the load on parents. Not by pointing a rifle at anyone’s head. But by walking alongside parents and helping them learn how to teach their own kids. (I’ve long contended this should be the primary role of the youth minister!) The Christian education conducted by the church should always be viewed as a gap-filler, not as the primary source of education. That’s the parents’ job.
  2. We teach the parents what they need to know. As I’ve noted, kids will only be as smart as the parents. If the parents can’t grasp the atonement or what it means to die to self, there’s not a chance their kids will. If the parents won’t talk about those topics outside church (where the greatest growth occurs), their kids won’t hear it. Churches, this is your core emphasis in Christian Ed: Instilling a solid Christian worldview and theology in your adults, particularly those adults with children.
  3. We set attainable educational goals. Every child the age of seven should know why it was necessary for Jesus to come. That should be right on their lips if asked. Littler ones should at least know who Jesus is. A solid Christian curriculum should not only repeat the basics at every age level, but also add onto the previous age level. There’s no reason our teens can’t be asked the differences between the different views on the atonement. Or to explain covenant theology. Or to be able to stand up and expound a rational pneumatology. (In my Lutheran catechism, I got a one hour grilling on theology in a private session with the pastor and youth leader.) But to get there, set appropriate, attainable goals.
  4. We work to counter culture. Our society is in the brink of disaster with our busyness. Sadly, modern Evangelicalism contributes to our harried schedules by adding more and more things we MUST do that, in the end, aren’t necessary. Educating the next generation about the Lord is about as necessary as it gets. Getting your kid into a time-intensive soccer program that will score them a spot in an Ivy League college DOES NOT MATTER ETERNALLY. Yet this is what too many Christian parents want. A recent Barna poll, one of the most disturbing I ever saw, showed that Evangelical parents thought getting their kids into elite colleges outweighed whether those same kids knew Jesus Christ or not. God help us! We have to start demolishing these strongholds that entrap us if we’re to be a vital Church.
  5. We stop the school choice derangement syndrome. Homeschooling parents must desist in their schismatic, judgmental, and outright wicked accusations against non-homeschooling parents. This is not just an issue of “secular” education. If we wish to utterly negate the truths of the Gospel in front of our children and nullify Christlikeness in them, then by all means, let all sides on the school choice issue treat each other like vermin. That’ll teach the little ones the right people to hate and for the correct reasons. We all know that’s why Jesus came, right?

So yeah, it IS all about the parents. If we want smart kids, we better make smart parents. And there’s no better time to start on that path than today.

25 thoughts on “A Bag Full of Wet Tribbles

  1. Don Fields

    Amen and Amen! I agree with so much of what you said that I can’t even begin to enumerate them, but one thing really stuck out to me.

    “A recent Barna poll, one of the most disturbing I ever saw, showed that Evangelical parents thought getting their kids into elite colleges outweighed whether those same kids knew Jesus Christ or not. God help us!”

    How can these parents be Christians? Just another indicator that the word “evangelical” means absolutely nothing.

    Also, nice use of “infralapsarian” and “amyraldian.”

    • David Riggins

      How can these parents be Christians? Just another indicator that the word “evangelical means absolutely nothing.

      What makes us think that declaring ourselves to be Christians makes us so? Are we saved because we think we’re saved? John wrote his books so that we would know we are saved. If we look at the life of many who call themselves Christian, and compare that with what was written, then it becomes painfully obvious what the state of Christianity is in this country.

      That a parent is more concerned about the financial well-being of their child, rather than the spiritual well-being of their eternal soul, speaks volumes about the spiritual condition of the parent.

  2. Isn’t this just a downward spiral? The church abdicates that responsibility to teach the parents, so the parents do the same with their children. Part of the problem is that the parents don’t know what or how to teach their children. After decades of having their “felt needs” met, or searching for their purpose, how are the parents grounded in anything to teach their kids?

    It doesn’t appear that the situation in the church is going to get better anytime soon. While Hybels recently admitted that modem discipleship “programs” are a failure, he still doesn’t seem to get it. His solution of teaching the people to be “self feeders” is still missing the point.

    Ground the parents in the faith and teach them how to teach their children.

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  4. Suzanne

    You have certainly struck a nerve! Several years ago, I attended my niece’s high school graduation and listened to the valedictorian speak about her embarrassing moment when she went out with her dress unknowingly on backwards. Just this summer, a recent graduate, 3rd in the class at the local public high school, product of Christian education in the lower grades, involved in nearly everything possible (in other words, busy, busy, busy), and the winner of a full-tuition scholarship to college, told one of my kids, with amazement, that she had just realized that chipmunks were not baby squirrels, as she had always thought. This same girl’s mother also shared that the hardest part of her scholarship interview was the question of an influential book, because she’d hardly read any. If these are the “smart” kids, I fear we are all doomed, and are raising a generation of young people who “can’t theologize (or anything else) their way out of a damp paper bag.” They are often, at the urging of their parents, too darn wrapped up in the business of being hip, cool, busy, athletic, involved, etc. to ever stop and think much of anything through. Religion, if it’s in the mix at all, is just one more thing to check off the “to-do” list, one that might look good on a scholarship application.

    • Suzanne,

      I can’t add a thing to what you just said except for all of us to be careful when we judge someone else’s intelligence. Now I expect a person to be able to read and do math to at least a junior high school level, but some seemingly less educated people know things you and I don’t. Quite a few of the farmers in my area can’t keep up with some of the things I know about tech, but when it comes to knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, they make me look like an idiot.

      It’s the folks who don’t know anything more than where Paris Hilton shops for shoes that really need to get a clue.

      • Dee

        Thanks for this comment, Dan. Having been in college prep classes in high school, I thought everybody should be like my peers in those classes. I thought my parents and other relatives were idiots because they did not have the knowledge I was learning in school. Quarter of a century later I realize how arrogant I was and I have been taken down a few pegs over the years.

        Most people I meet didn’t take chemistry or physics and are not up on current events. This doesn’t make them of less value to God so it shouldn’t matter to me either.

        I also have had to realize that my children are not going to be cookie cutters of me. Partly because they do not share my gene pool and partly because they have different experiences and gifts.

        Now I get frustrated with the parents who push their kids to excel academically and who are so cottonpickin’ arrogant about their kids’ grades and IQs. Guess I have gone from one extreme to the other….

  5. David Riggins

    Ah, yes, trials and tribblations.

    Or lack thereof. Perhaps we are lax in our responsiblilities because it is too easy to follow the crowd, and the crowd follows the path of least resistance; broad and smooth, even if it is over a cliff…

    Something the writer says is rather telling:

    …if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

    Those ‘mindless lemmings’ have long pointed the finger at the liberal media for turning us all into fear-filled chowderheads, and the fact that this article is coming from a San Francisco paper is not without its ironies. Parents have too easily given up their job, in large part because parenthood is hard work, and parents long ago learned it was easier to turn on Sesame Street than to struggle with a child who has learned that they have free will. The Thai word for ‘responsibility’ is an amalgam that essentially means “receiving the wrong and the right”.

    Biblically, there does seem to be a pattern of successively failing generations, and I fear for this generation. As adults, we have failed to be responsible. We have sought the easy way, desiring the good, but turning our backs on what is difficult or ‘bad’. It’s not to late to do the responsible thing, but it will be very difficult.

  6. Dan,

    Good post, except I’m confused on one point: who is “we”? Would that be “us smart ones,” “clergy”… or some other category?

    Am I my brother’s keeper, or is that my pastor’s job?

    • Travis,

      When I use “we” on this blog, I mean all of us, laymen, clergy, man, woman, child, you, me—everyone.

      I know you were being facetious, but I want people to know where I stand anyway.

  7. Wolfgang Amadeus

    Great article on Tribbleations…:)

    I have been a homeschool tutor, if you may, and seen how the Christian Right works. I have also seen the opposite side, and how it doesn’t work. I, myself am the product of a strict, disciplined educational system, that belived in corporal punishment.

    Sometime in the late seventies- early eighties, the humanists took over in this country. Children could now divorce their parents, and they took almost all forms of punitive punishment out of the home and school system. The laws became such- that being a normal parent- such as were our parents in the fifties and sixties, was impossible. If you were caught reprimending a child- you were turned into the police and then the Child Protection Agency. It became almost impossible for teachers to keep order in their classrooms. Students could do what they pleased, for they now had the law behind them. The laws changed so radically- that today- in many places, children are told that its their choice to do what they want to do, and parents let them do it. No parental say. We have literally given the world to the kiddies-on a silver platter.

    No wonder schools produce graduates that are illiterate. They spend all their time teaching kids to pass silly tests. Learning to do Maths that are beyond their grade level- without any understanding of the rudiments. What time they spend in technology oriented classes and vocational education, as well as Advanced Placement courses-i.e. University classes, is what is the modus operendi. I have a friend, whose daughter is taking five AP classes- and she isn’t even a Junior yet. What ever happened to taking High School classes?

    OK–the land I come from, kids start deciding what they want to do by the time they are 13. By the age of 16, they are either in a Vocational type school, the Gymnasium preparing for Uni, or working in a full time apprenticeship- and getting paid full union wages, not to mention housing. Its not like that here. You tell the average Parent what I just wrote- and they shake their heads. They cannot imagine their child, at 13 knowing what they want to do with themselves, and also cannot imagine them really working at 16. Their children are too immature- both socially and emotionally. All they are fit for is going to school- and taking silly advanced placement classes.

    As for Churching. If a parent- goes along with all the school districts and humanistic Hubris, then that child will, be the apple that falls by the the tree trunk- or worse, rots off the branch. The Church- whatever church a person goes too- effectively helps in raising a family and rearing a child. The scriptures are the bread and water of life- and should be digested daily. It should be habitual. Soccar is good- so are music lessons- there is a place for that- but Church and the community that they are part of- church community as well as civic community, should be number one. As Christians- we are taught to participate in an active religeon- not one of inactivity. We should be defending our beliefs, living our beliefs, and leading those to the waters of life. Thats our precious charge in the New Testement.

    How many of us, model this to our children? to ourselves? to others?

    ..if you answered-not many, then you are right.

    The problem is more than just a wet bag flopping around in the wind on a stormy day-

    It is definitly more like a wet bag full of hungry, angry, clawing Tribbles..


    • Wolfgang,

      Every system has its faults.

      Though I am well-acquainted with the German system of apprenticeship and its superiority to the American system in some ways, I don’t believe your average 13-year old can accurately gauge his or her own gifts accurately enough to know how to pick a profession. This is not to say that many can’t, though, only that it’s more of a dice-throw than you may let on.

      I know that I knew at 13 exactly what I wanted to be, a computer scientist. I went to one of the best computer colleges in the world in one of the toughest disciplines, AI and robotics. After two years there, I also realized I would never fit in that world. What I didn’t know was the personal end of it, the human interaction, the part no book could prepare me for. The people in that field, while smart and dedicated, didn’t have lives outside of work. Nor did they think like I did about ways of looking for solutions. While I often found unusual solutions to intractable problems, those were rejected by the rest of the like-thinking pack, even when my solutions proved superior in every way. That took all the joy of my work away and made me realize this was the way it was going to be for the rest of my life if I stayed in that field I thought I’d go into as a tender young teen.

      • Wolfgang Amadeus

        I understand your point, totally. Children here are just not reared in a way that applies to that. According to Rousseau, a young boy- around thirteen, should start to learn a profession. In the 18th century, that didn’t necessarily mean that the child picked it. Even Benj. Franklin studied under an apprenticeship.

        Children are spoiled here. Totally. In the last hundred years, since the advent of Child Labor Laws, children have been allowed to really live an easy life- even if it was on a farm.

        Upon immigration here, I had to go to a very disciplined Prep school. Some of it was due to behavior- and the rest was due to the fact I needed to prepare for a citizanship test, and also to learn to socialize in an American setting. I found that my peers were very undisciplined. School was very hard- and I had to spend alot of time with tutors. I knew what I wanted to do with myself- that wasn’t the problem. The school programme wasn’t set up to help me train for that-but it was set up to teach me useless knowledge. Boredom reigned supreme- and I guess that is part of the reason I was disciplined- alot. The principle and I used to go skiing together….that aught to tell you something. 😛

        Anyway- kids here really don’t realize what they have going for themselves. If you ask them to really study- do two hours of homework for one hour of lecture, and they think they are put-upon. Their parents think you are nuts for even asking them to really learn something. Belive me, I have heard it all.

        If its fun, and easy, then they will do it. If its hard, and requires something from deep inside of themselves- then, forget it.

        Its a real sad statement as far as I am concerned. I have a student- who I have asked for three weeks to bring their theory work in – still hasn’t brought it in. Translated: hasn’t cracked the book to look at it. He also has to do a simple Harmony exercise in his piano book to a Garth Brooks piece called “The River”. That was assigned last week. It takes about five minutes to do. Still not done. He will play the pieces that excite him- but other things seem to need to be done during the lesson. Frankly- the lesson should be devoted to something new-instead of doing the prior weeks work.

        The parents don’t reinforce what is necessary for the child to learn. This shows you the difference between how I was taught (German discipline) versus American discipline- if indeed there is such a thing.

        I am sorry about your career choice not working out as you had dreamed it should. Sometimes, I find the concept of artifical intellegence-in relation to computers, to be a scarey enterprise. Once we tried to build a staircase to the heavenly father- and now, we are trying to unravel his secrets and create a new man. Why is it- I think we will fail at that?

        Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang

  8. Leta

    Dan, I’m sorry, but the logic behind this fails me. If the law of diminishing returns applies to children, then we all, as humans, would have gotten stupider and stupider since the beginning of time. While I do not want to argue that we’ve gotten smarter, I do think it’s a stretch to say that we’ve done nothing but decelerated into… tribbledom.

    However, the point you make about the way that parents abdicate their God given responsibility to educate and raise their children, and the weirdness of mindlessly turning that job over to state institutions, well, that’s a fair point.

    (And no, in case anyone’s wondering, I don’t think that all parents who send their kids to public school do so mindlessly. But some, even many, use public schools because it’s just what you do, and I think that’s wrong. I think that people should thoughtfully and rationally pursue the course that works best for their family, not just go through the motions because it’s the standard course.)

    • Leta,

      Some people would indeed say that each successive generation HAS gotten dumber. Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis and The Creation Museum near where I live, supports that belief.

      IF, and this is a big if, IF a generation does not value education, the generation that comes after it WILL be dumber. For most of human history, though, the older generation HAS believed in the power of education and has made their children work hard to attain one.

      I don’t believe that is the case any longer. I think that some people now believe that more education only makes for more problems. Given the breakdowns in our society, I can see how some can believe that. But that’s a totally new idea. It will take time to wreak the havoc that results from believing that way.

      • David Riggins

        I think one of the biggest issues is that the understanding of what an education is for has changed over the years. Today the primary focus of an education is to gain a higher starting salary. It’s all about money. Education is seen as a means to an end. As long as the focus is temporary and short sighted, then the consequences of that focus will inevitably follow in kind. If a person is then brought up to think that an education will not result in stellar salary, then what point education? Or worse, if stellar salary is available without education, then what’s the point?

        So Daddy struggles with work because his BA didn’t get him what he wanted. What lesson will he pass on to his kid when it comes time to do the homework? Mom is stuck in a rut and passes on to her little darlings that it’s because of the glass ceiling. They don’t see the fact that they’ve never learned how to learn, which, in my mind, is the primary purpose of an education. It never stops.

        • Wolfgang Amadeus

          Better yet- I had a master who once told me that the problem is that I needed to learn how to practice.

          Like studying, practicing is the key. If your teachers cannot relay that message to you, in a way that is understandable, then, how are you going to progress?

          As for education to achieve a better salery. If this was still a manufacturing based economy, I would go with that. It isn’t however. Now that the Demming methode has basically taken over the world, and most companies-from cars to candy bars, are offloading to Mexico,as well as China, having that great education to push a button, is history. The concept of a Career died in the nineties. World Class Competivness, and all the other things that go with it, have made our industrial workers into Nomads. You cannot buy a house, expect to raise a family, when you work for a company that offloads its emplyees every five years or so- or even better, offloads them permanantly. Its a nomad life now- a person will have more than one career throughout their working life. Its not the forties and fifties anymore.

          How can a child recieve an education (edumecation) if their parents move every so often, become unemployed, have no finances, lose their home, etceter and et & al?

          Children need stability in order to be successful. The society we have created, with dysfunctional families, drugs, lack of education, lack of employment, lack of health care..lack of church, is destroying us- I believe IMHOP.

          This down hill sprial will not stop- unless we put a stop to it.


          • Johann, easy with the blanket statements. In my twenty years of life, I’ve moved eight times; close to once every two years. My parents’ (and mine, in more recent years) financial situation has been in constant flux, but mostly dirt poor.

            And yet, me and my six siblings’ education has never suffered. At 20, I already have a BA and am working towards a second. Pretty much the same story with my older siblings. Our home life has never been “stable” (except in the Love of Christ) and yet we’re all well educated, intellectual, and advocates of true, constant, and never ending learning.

            Also of note, Dan, is that my dad isn’t what would be considered a well educated man. My mom is more so, but still not highly intellectual. Yet, both of them have always put a very high value on education and passed that value onto us. I’d say that’s been the real key. We seek education because we’ve learned the true value of it. That concept of value came from our parents.

            My thoughts at least,

    • Wolfgang Amadeus

      I am saying this rather – ah, as a devils advocate. How do you know we ARE NOT getting more ignorant as time passes. Just look at our track record. IF we were smart- then, trying to create another man, and foresakeing the Lord, wouldn’t be an issue.

      Just a thought. 🙂

      Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang

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