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There is a zoo less than a mile from our house. In fact, we tell visitors how to find our house by saying, “Go up past the zoo.” (When all our kids were still at home, we used to add, “Actually, we’re part of the zoo.”)
The elephants were always a main attraction for our children and their friends, who seemed endlessly entertained not only by their size, but by that remarkable and unique arm/nose/hand/drinking straw/trumpet/radar tower combination called a “trunk.”

Our own adult fascination with elephants and their trunks didn’t start until we were able to observe African elephants at their home, on the Serengeti and Masai Mara in Kenya. There, instead of the slow and clumsy and sleepy creatures in the zoo, they were fast and agile and alert, holding their trunks high to pick up scents, running through the tall grass at 30 miles an hour and changing direction on a dime when something unexpected appeared in their path.

When we were able to approach them slowly and cautiously, from down wind, we got a whole new education, particularly on how parent elephants use those amazing trunks with respect to their baby elephants. The parent’s trunk is a gentle shower for baby’s bath and a talcum duster to apply the fine African dust afterward. It’s a shrill trumpet of warning if the baby is stepping out of line or into danger, and it’s a stout rope blocking the baby’s passage toward somewhere the parent doesn’t want him to go.

With a little research, we later discovered that an elephant’s trunk is such a complex and intricate implement that it takes about 50,000 separate muscles to control it. Automation engineers and robotics experts have tried in vain to build a mechanical arm with similar strength and dexterity. The trunk is surprisingly tender and light of touch as the mother elephant caresses and fondles her baby, then remarkably strong as it effortlessly picks up and throws aside a 500 pound log in its baby’s path. It’s hard to imagine anything in nature that is so strong, so tender, so versatile, and so flexible.

If only our love for our children could have all those same qualities. Firmness and flexibility, strength and sensitivity, toughness and tenderness, discipline and discretion, steel and sweetness, restraint and release, intervention and independence.

Love without discipline can be dangerous and damaging. Love that is unintelligently applied, that gives too many things the children haven’t earned, can spoil our kids, rob them of their own initiative, and give them false perspectives about how the world works. Picture a family where kids get everything they want, money whenever they ask, more clothes than they need, their own car when they’re sixteen, no household responsibilities, no discipline to speak of, parents who bail them out whenever they get into trouble. It’s not hard to predict the effects of this kind of “spoiling.”

On the other end of the spectrum, parental love that is too demanding and too harsh doesn’t feel much like love at all. Parents who try to express their love mostly through unbendingly strict rules and overly demanding expectations can suck the joy and tenderness out of family relationships. Picture a family that is punishment-oriented, kids always being grounded, rules for everything, early and inflexible curfews, children expected to earn every dime of spending money, no help with college even though the parents can afford it. Again, it’s easy to predict some of the results of too much “toughness.”

The Lesson of the Elephant’s Trunk is the fine balance between “tough love” and “tender love.” It’s about adopting the best aspects from both ends of the spectrum. Kids do need discipline, schedules, clear expectations, and family responsibilities. But they also need tolerance and tenderness and help with no strings attached.

  • Like the elephant’s trunk, our love needs to caress them and hug them every day.
  • Like the elephant’s trunk, our love has to set clear limits on where they can go and what they can do.
  • Like the elephant’s trunk, our love must shower them with approval and dust them with confidence, but it must also warn them loudly and clearly of danger.
  • Like the elephant’s trunk, our love should remove barriers in their path but let them walk the path under their own power.
  • Like the elephant’s trunk, our love must be versatile and flexible, seeing children’s needs and willing to be sometimes tough and sometimes tender.

Another beautiful image of free African elephants is the baby’s first use of his own trunk, to reach up and hold the tail of his mother so he can follow in her footsteps. Children learn to use their “trunks” by the example of ours. If we want a child to grow into an adult possessing both strength and sensitivity, then we must be sure that our example, particularly in how we treat that child, has the right balance of firmness and tenderness.

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