As a two-year old, our Grace had a certain “gift.” We were eager to get her potty trained, as were the garbage men (whom we’re sure drew straws every week, or received hazardous duty pay).
Steph called from the other room: “Greg, do you want to change Grace’s diaper, or run to get some milk?” Seriously, is that really an option?
Upon return, I was met with that “busted” look, or smirk… the kind that has you wondering what she knows, and which kid told her. I searched my memory. The look intensified. I searched harder. It could have been a scene from “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
So the story: Apparently while I was gone Steph was treated to a diaper of cataclysmic proportion… a DEFCON 1, Chernobyl Diaper. Though she was no stranger to diapers, she exclaimed: “Grace, this is disgusting! You’re old enough to use the toilet! You need to tell us when you have to go to the bathroom…”.
With her characteristically impish smile, our little, amazing Grace replied: “Holy Sh@$% Mom!” If that wasn’t enough, she added, “I smell like BLOODY HELL! Go ahead! You can say it! DADDY DOES!”
I’m sure it was one of those moments as a parent when the right response was nearly impossible, because you’re overtaken with hilarity.
Okay, so I may have uttered those words once or twice.
What’s my point? Our children follow us. We are forming them by who we are. We are paving their future. Their success as students, spouses, parents is being shaped in the present. The critical point is that no longer are we simply responsible for ourselves, we are paving their earthly and eternal destiny. Feel the pressure? Good. We should.
There’s a famous study of two men and their known progeny. Researchers were interested in understanding the impact one’s life has on future generations. One of these men, Jonathan Edwards, was a man well known for his outstanding Christian character and conviction. The other, Max Jukes, was an irreverent drunkard.
Edwards set the course for a U.S. Vice-President, 3 U.S. Senators, 3 governors, 3 mayors, 13 college presidents, 30 judges, 65 professors, 80 public office holders, 100 lawyers and 100 missionaries.
On the other hand, Juke’s set the course for 310 paupers, who, combined spent 2,300 years in poorhouses, 50 women of debauchery, 400 physically wrecked by indulgent living, 7 murderers, 60 thieves, and 130 other convicts. The “Jukes” descendants cost the state more than $1,250,000.
The two big points here are (1) the practical relevance of faith in our success here on earth (it’s so much more than external obligation divorced from real life!), and (2) the tremendous, enduring impact our lives have on our children, our children’s children… civilization.
As parents we’re either going to be a thermostat or a thermometer. A thermostat sets the moral climate. A thermometer simply reflects the moral climate of the culture around us. So some hard questions: Who’s determining the moral climate of your home? What you and your children watch, listen to, how you spend your time? Through these we are being offered food, and we are what we eat. It’s also true that for many there really is no norm, except what everyone else is doing. And yet so many parents are surprised that their children are inconsiderate, undisciplined, rude, given to self-indulgence….
People often tell us we have great children. My thoughts are three-fold: (1) They didn’t arrive that way (takes a lot of work); (2) If we let up for even a day, you would think differently, and; (3) I’m glad you didn’t see them 30 minutes ago. I’m constantly aware of how fragile their moral formation is– prone to this direction or that. So much more than learning a list of obligations, it’s the bigger question of imparting genuine character– that they deeply understand, own, become.
With children we are custodians of a future civilization. As such, parenting can not be partial, or part time. In the most essential aspects, it can not be delegated. By God’s design, parenting flows from our very identity. It is designed to break us from our selfish lives, to make us all better.
Quite often when people discover we have six children, they’ll comment (to the effect): “How do you do that?! I have trouble with two!” The truth of it is, when we got married we accepted the simple truth that our lives are not our own. That means our money, sleep, energy, gifts, material possessions… not our own! Each child simply puts an exclamation point on the end of that sentence.
Herein is the great mystery of joy in life: we discover ourselves only by giving ourselves away (Matt. 16:24). The most joy-filled people I know are those who live in this vision of self-gift. Family is thus the context of great joy. Self-giving love is the very purpose of family. Our very identity, definition and purpose is to pour ourselves out for the good of others. In this we become who we are… we image the Trinity! God is made known to the world!
On a practical level, realization of this joy takes more than an ethereal assent that it is right. It takes the vision and hard discipline, to structure our homes, our parenting, in light of God’s design.
Recently we were in a gathering of a number of families, and the conversation came up about what our kids do. They were all absolutely shocked that we don’t have video games, regularly watch television, give our kids cell phones (etc.) And yet they were shocked that our kids were polite, considerate and conversational with adults, attentive during presentations and at the dinner table… that they enjoyed spending time reading “big” books, having good conversation, engaged in creative play….
The truth is while I am a proud parent, I’m not so in any way that is not accessible to any other parent. Our simple norm has been this: Expect them to do what they’re able to do. Every time. Without exceptions. Without excuses. If we don’t, our negligence will become their life-long liability.
Let’s get specific. Expect them to make their beds well and keep their rooms clean. Expect them to be polite and respectful. Expect them to be intuitive of the needs of others, and to act on it. Expect them to practice their pianos, to read good books, to have good, thoughtful conversations. Expect them to have the capacity to find joy in life, to build meaningful, lasting relationships, beyond the cyber world. Expect them to regularly tune out the world for some moments and be captured by God’s real presence in prayer, and to connect God’s presence to their daily lives.
I don’t know how any parent, who really understands the great nobility of parenting, could look at a stay-at-home Mom (or Dad) and ask, “What do you do all day?” As if parenting is merely a bunch of minimalistic survival logistics! With all due respect for those among us who genuinely, really need the assistance of someone watching their kids all day, I have to echo the words of my brother-in-law: “We didn’t have children for other people to raise them.” Particularly in this culture, we need to think long and hard about whether we’re really sacrificing things for our kids, or sacrificing our kids for things.
So God gives us a great design. The bar is set much higher than the culture. It is the path to genuine joy. But seriously, how do we get there?
When my wife’s mother died at the young age of 39 (sleeping with her head on her husband’s shoulder on the way to the pro-life March in D.C., carrying baby number 13), she left her husband to raise twelve children under the age of 18. He didn’t make a dime over $25,000. Many relatives encouraged him to break up the family. He refused. While things were hardly perfect, many around him were stunned how he was able to provide for them, even to put every child through Catholic schools. When he died he certainly left us with no worldly treasures to speak of, but what he did leave us was of unsurpassing value — a legacy of faith — a living example that what God calls us to, He will provide for.