Father: I want to ask you a tough question. You can be honest with me. Please don’t answer as an employee of this school, but as a teacher. Is it too late for my son to become classical?
Gibbs: What do you mean “become classical”?
Father: My wife and I were quite excited when this school year began. Last March, we toured the school and heard the presentation on classical education. We read Doug Wilson’s book. We read Steve Turley’s book. We read Jain and Clark’s book. We spent hours online reading essays from just about everybody. Andrew Kern. Chris Perrin. We learned about Charlotte Mason. After all that, we started rethinking quite a lot about how we raised Mack. He loves video games. He loves pretending to kill people. The music he listens to is irritating, whiny, and vulgar beyond belief. He has half a dozen social media accounts and a phone which he is constantly checking, even at church. Simply put, he’s a sixteen-year-old boy who loves shallow things.
Gibbs: How long ago did you realize this?
Father: This is going to sound terrible, but I’ve known he loved shallow things since he was young. I thought he was normal, though. Most kids these days like video games. I played Super Mario Brothers when I was a kid and it didn’t kill me. Most kids listen to terrible music. Most kids are obsessed with sports and phones and thousand-dollar sneakers. For a long time, I thought, “If my son is like most kids, he can’t be that bad.”
Gibbs: I appreciate that line of reasoning.
Father: So, my wife and I are entirely on board with what this school is doing. I said we were excited when the school year began, but as the months have gone on, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s simply too late for Mack. He’s just not interested in what this school is offering. He thinks old books are dumb. He thinks Latin is dumb. Many of the families at this school have been here since kindergarten. Those families have developed habits that we haven’t developed in our home. It’s galling to read these books about classical education because when I read them, I realize all the things I should have been doing since Mack was an infant. Instead, he has many bad habits and many bad loves.
Gibbs: Given how far behind Mack is, you want to know if it’s worth it to send him to a classical school.
Father: No, that’s not it. I want him going to this school whether he likes it or not. But is it too late for what you’re offering to really sink into his spirit? At sixteen, is it too late to introduce classical ideas into Mack’s life? Will those ideas take? Or has he already developed too many bad habits?
Gibbs: You asked for an honest answer, which I am willing to give you. Before I do, though, I would like to say that there are students who have been going to this school since kindergarten and are nonetheless in Mack’s position, though their parents are not willing to admit it. Some parents gloss over their parenting failures with “I’m not saying we’re perfect, but…” which is a cop out. To admit particular failings as a parent requires real humility.
Father: Is that supposed to be actual encouragement?
Gibbs: Yes. As for whether it is too late for Mack to “become classical,” I would say the question is badly framed. This school is not trying to make him classical, but virtuous. It is one thing to hope your son becomes the kind of fellow who wears a coat and tie even when he doesn’t have to and another thing to hope he is charitable and gives to the poor. It is one thing to hope your son weeps for the beauty of St. Matthew’s Passion and another thing to hope he weeps for his sins.
Father: I agree; however, while the two occasions for weeping you just mentioned are distinct from one another, they are not separated by an unbridgeable chasm.
Gibbs: That is true.
Father: So, is too late for Mack to weep for the beauty of St. Matthew’s Passion?
Gibbs: Do you weep for the beauty of St. Matthew’s Passion?
Father: I wish I did.
Gibbs: Do you think it’s too late for you to “become classical”?
Father: It’s not too late to try.
Gibbs: Then neither is it too late for your son. But you can’t chastise your son for not wanting better things if you also refuse to seek after those better things. If you want your son to want something, you must want it. He has to see you wanting it.
Father: Will he take me seriously, though? I’ve had friends who converted to Christianity in their late thirties or early forties. Their children were sixteen or seventeen at the time and didn’t go along with it. If their children were five or six, they might have grown up and forgotten there was ever a time they didn’t go to church. That’s not true when someone is sixteen or seventeen. At that age, you remember. Children don’t like when their parents change. It always feels like a betrayal. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” At sixteen, though, is Mack just too old to “train up” in the way he should go? I am not really training him “up,” at this point. He’s nearly fully grown. After letting him listen to this terrible music for years… after allowing him to become helplessly addicted to his phone and screens and video games and all the rest… what am I supposed to do? I can’t just take those things away from him.
Gibbs: Why not?
Father: He’d hate me. He’d rebel. At this point, it would be more dangerous to take those things away than to let him carry on using them.
Gibbs: From time to time, I hear parents make this claim. They realize too late that they have allowed their sons or daughters to develop destructive habits, then fear to intervene lest their children become angry. I’m not insensitive or indifferent to this plea. I wouldn’t want my own children to despise me. At the same time, your fear of taking away his video games and vulgar music makes me think you don’t actually believe those things are actually that bad.
Father: Why is that?
Gibbs: If he was addicted to pornography, would you intervene?
Gibbs: If he was addicted to opioids, would you intervene?
Father: Yes, but opioids could kill him.
Gibbs: Nonetheless, he would be angry. Very few people go to rehab happily, especially when they’re forced. Pornography won’t kill his body, but it will corrupt his soul. What is more important, though? Protecting his body or protecting his soul?
Father: His soul, of course.
Gibbs: Your son has socially acceptable vices, though, which makes it a bit harder to take them away. In order to take away his phone or his music, you have to be willing to be thought a tyrant by all your friends who allow their own children to carry on in the same socially acceptable vices.
Father: I’m not really worried about my friends, though. We more or less stay out of one another’s parenting decisions. My friends aren’t great at parenting, but I don’t razz them about it.
Gibbs: Then you can allow your son to continue destroying his soul and avoid his anger for a while longer. However, if his love for you is entirely based on your willingness to let him do whatever he wants, he doesn’t really love you. His anger is merely submerged beneath a deluge of sensuality. However, I very much doubt this is the case. I suspect that your son loves you and that if you took away his disgusting music and his phone, or replaced his smartphone with a lame flip phone, he would be angry at you for a while, but that he would get over it. Of course, if you did this, you would also have to severely curtail your own phone use.
Father: But I use it for work.
Gibbs: I have used that excuse myself. It is somewhat true, and yet, for every minute I’ve spent using my phone for work, I’ve spent a hundred minutes using it for trivialities and banalities.
Father: I think you underestimate how upset Mack would be.
Gibbs: I think you overestimate how long he would be upset. Let us both admit that parents have become increasingly squeamish about offending or upsetting their children in the last twenty-five years. Nonetheless, our fear of upsetting our children or stressing our children out hasn’t made them any happier. Can you not imagine Mack being upset at you in ten years for letting him get addicted to his phone at such a young age? When all the reports come out which prove the disastrous effects of phone addiction on the human brain, can you not imagine your son saying, “Why did you buy me a phone when I was 15?”
Father: No, I can imagine it all.
Gibbs: If you think your son’s phone habit and taste in music are actually problematic, you can either deal with now or deal with them later. Or his wife and children can deal with them later.
Father: I suppose the idea of taking away his phone and prohibiting him from playing any video games at all just seems rather extreme.
Gibbs: Do you wish you had never given him a phone in the first place?
Father: I wish I had never given him a smart phone.
Gibbs: If you could rewind the tapes of your life, would you allow him to become a gamer all over again?
Gibbs: Then if you’re not going to take his smart phone away, and you’re not going to remove the Xbox from the house, what are you going to do about it?
Father: I was hoping sending him to this school would fix his problems, but that hasn’t worked out. I might be left with nothing but prayer.
Gibbs: He’s still in your house. He’s still your son. For two and a half more years, you’re legally responsible for him. That’s a long time. High school sophomores change far more easily and more quickly than adults do— for better or for worse. If Mack was gone off to college and entirely responsible for himself, you might be left with nothing but prayer. However, it still your responsibility to care for him, discipline him, punish and reward him, show him the right way to live. You’ve got to play the long game. Life is long. Your relationship with Mack is just beginning. You will likely have another forty years on this earth with him. Do you really think that when Mack grows up, marries, and has kids, he’s still going to be mad at you for taking away his phone when he was sixteen?
Father: Taking away his phone could cause a rift between us that never heals.
Gibbs: Not taking away his phone could cause a rift between us that never heals. You’ve got to concern yourself with what is wise, what is prudent, and what is right— not what is going to keep your son happy this week. If you’re thinking about what is going to keep Mack happy this week, you’re thinking too small. You’ve got his adult happiness to think about and his wife’s happiness to think about. You’ve got the happiness of Mack’s children to think about.
Father: Let me turn the question around on you, though. Can you not imagine the sudden removal of his phone, his music, and his games causing a rift between us which never healed?
Gibbs: I can imagine it, especially if this great purge of worldliness from your home were conducted poorly, with no explanation, no repentance on your part, no change on your part, and no redoubled effort on your part to show Mack that you love him. Even if removing these worldly things from your home is done well, Mack will probably still be upset. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time,” as St. Paul says. Do you ever discipline your son for any reason at all? Ever ground him? Ever take away his phone for a short period of time?
Gibbs: Is he happy when that happens?
Gibbs: And yet he still loves you. People get upset. They recover. I will concede there are certain things a father could do which might “mess up his children for life,” though I regularly see parents fearful that even the most trivial disturbance of a child’s happiness will snowball into a lifetime of therapy, violence, alcoholism, divorce.
Father: But those kinds of terrible ends surely begin somewhere, don’t they?
Gibbs: Yes, but this is exactly why you need to help your son tackle his vices now. Christ teaches that a man reaps whatever he sows— but this is a proverb, a riddle. Many years elapse between planting and reaping. What is more, a seed looks nothing like the fruit it produces. An apple seed is small, hard, brown, and bitter. An apple is large, red, fleshy, and sweet. Very few of the sins that a teenager commits have disastrous, immediate consequences. When teenagers think of the consequences of sin, they mainly think in terms of getting caught or getting away with it. They don’t think long term. They don’t think of sin as a seed which is being planted, or they think that a hastily mumbled confession of sin while falling asleep at night will “unplant” a seed. The same is true of virtue, though. Most teenagers only think of the short-term benefits of virtue, hard work, and obedience. It takes a powerful imagination to connect sloth and lust at sixteen with divorce at forty. The connection between the two isn’t obvious, which means most people doubt a connection even exists. The thing is, the kind of vices your son has will atrophy his imagination. Screen-based addictions make people inattentive, easily bored, short-tempered, impatient, and dull-witted, all of which destroy the possibility of a healthy romantic relationship. Would you rather your son have a good relationship with you or with his wife?
Father: His wife.
Gibbs: Good. I don’t believe cutting your son off from his vices will ruin your relationship with him. I think he’ll come to thank you. But even if it did ruin your relationship with him, it might be worth it if it meant his relationship with his wife and kids would be stronger. The thing is, human beings aren’t required to accurately guess whether their actions will turn out for the best. Christians must be wise and prudent, but God calls us to be obedient today, right now. If your son’s soul is sick, give him aid.