The Harsh Parenting Question

"So what?" is an excellent question in parenting and in life.

I sent my highly gifted and talented son Micah to South Carolina to work on his cousin’s farm. My other sons are likely to follow later. Why? Largely because of a question we’ve been asking of our children lately whenever they speak of how great life is in their young and comfortable home: “So what?”

I want my sons to turn their talents into impacts.

I want my sons to turn their talents into impacts.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Stay with me for a moment as I explain.

Asking “so what” stems from debate coach and friend Vance Trefethen‘s lesson on warranted impacts. Whenever someone makes a claim in policy debate, the immediate question that needs to be tackled is “so what?” If this cannot be answered, the claim is unwarranted, and it falls flat in a debate round.

Micah is a fantastic seventeen-year-old. He’s a national champion in speech events and a friend to anyone who meets him. He loves his family and is appreciative of his upbringing. All of this is awesome, and as his father I am most pleased with Micah’s character, his talent and his ambition. And as a debate coach and owner of a program that trains cream-of-the-crop kids, I know hundreds of students like Micah. They’re the awesomest of the awesome!

But so what? They must do something worth doing. Turn out some action from their training and make something of their upbringing.

Am I being harsh? I don’t think so. Try this with your children. It is well worth the exercise:

  • “I am a champion debater.” So what? Have you applied your skills to doing something great and noble and good?
  • “I won first place speaker.” So what? Have you used your speaking skills to help advocate good and wholesome values?
  • “I aced high school and college.” So what? Have your loved ones reaped the benefits of such accomplishments?
  • “I make lots of money.” So what? Are you hoarding your wealth or are you investing in the lives of others?

It may sound harsh, but “so what?” is the burning question we must be brave enough to ask our children. If they do nothing with their talent, their charisma, their education, their upbringing, they amount to nothing. Just like a debater making an unwarranted claim. They need to embrace their journey, or all their giftedness will fall flat.

Come to think of it, this is the same kind of harshness directed toward the three men endowed with talents in Matthew 25:14-30. You recall the parable: the Master gives 10, 5 and 1 talent (which was money back in Jesus’ day—how ironic that word’s connotation has changed) to three of his servants. The first two invest and grow their wealth, and the last buries his one measly talent. The Master asks for each to show how they have produced from their gifts, essentially asking the harsh question, “So what?”

I recall this parable as one of the harshest in the Bible. Kind and polite storybook Jesus becomes harsh and demanding schoolmaster Jesus. His parable consequence to the third servant? Yeesh: “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Trust me, parents. Seeing young people throw away their gifts is much more painful than asking this tough question. Ultimately, all the wealth and riches and giftedness and endowments amount to nothing if our children don’t come through and make godly impacts in life.

So, this is why I sent Micah to South Carolina to work on a farm: To work, to learn and to grow outside his comfortable and privileged home. He’s got a bag full of talent, but he needs to figure out how to turn it into something good. I bet when he returns and he will say he learned much, and he’ll have many good answers when I ask him, “So what?”