The Sort of Thing Good Parents Do

Dear Will:

My daughter is standing beside me—right over there—waiting for me to make a difficult decision so that she doesn’t have to. It’s the sort of thing I do too often: I tell my kids what to do instead of letting them figure it out on their own. It’s one of the things that makes me an ineffective dad.

But tonight—ever so briefly—I actually exercised some restraint. It was an imperfect effort at best inasmuch as I started to tell her what to do before catching myself, but at least this time I showed a little more forbearance than usual. For once it occurred to me (as no doubt it occurs to most parents on a regular basis) to ask her to lay out for me her various options, even while knowing that none of them was any good. Then I asked her which solution sounded like the best one to her.

I know what you’re thinking: Duh. This is the sort of thing that good parents do. They guide their children and help them learn to make decisions for themselves. But what I too often do is swoop in to solve the problem for them, depriving them in the process of an opportunity to grow and learn. I read somewhere that we males have a strong tendency to do that in relationships. We’re always trying to fix things, even when no one has asked us for a fix. We come up with solutions at times when maybe we should just shut up and listen.

It occurs to me that this little family vignette—of absolutely no consequence in the eternal scheme of things—is really not all that different from the way God oversees the activities of his children in this world of ours. The cynic or the agnostic wonders why He doesn’t simply intervene in the affairs of men and women on earth, eliminating the suffering, counteracting evil, solving our problems for us. “If He’s all powerful,” the thinking goes, “then why does He allow so much bad stuff to happen?” The flaw to that reasoning, of course, is that it fails to recognize that life has much more purpose than to get us from birth to death without too much misery. In fact, we are here upon this earth to learn for ourselves, to grow and become, to face tests and challenges and (one hopes) come out the other side better people for the experience. Were God always to intervene—to solve our problems for us in the same way I tend to for my children—there wouldn’t be much point to our earthly existence at all.

Meanwhile, my daughter has picked up on some subtle behavioral clues (namely, that I’m typing and not talking to her any more) and she’s headed off down the hall, perhaps to mull over her options (or more likely to see if she can get my wife to make the decision for her instead). I think ultimately I know which way this is going to go—as God pretty much knows ahead of time what our next move will be as well. Hmmm. Perhaps there’s food for thought in that as well.


Remember Who You Are

Dear Will:

When I was a boy, every time I left the house my mother would holler at me: “Remember who you are!” It was her way of reminding me to live as I had been taught and to uphold the family name. I have friends who communicate a similar thought to their children through a small sign, hung by the door for the kids to read as they leave each day. It says simply: “Return with honor.”

As a parent, I understand that sentiment. When my three children are at school each day, I hope that they will be enthusiastic in the classroom, fair on the playground, friendly and helpful in their interactions with others. Nevertheless, the command to “remember who you are” or to “return with honor” is really more of a wish when you come right down to it. Ultimately, the choices my kids make when not under my direct supervision are theirs and theirs alone—which is why my wife and I place such an emphasis on teaching correct principles in our home. Home is the primary place in which we get the chance to instill in our children the principles which we believe should govern their daily activities.

As I watched along with you the terrible aftermath of Katrina unfold, I was troubled by reports of lawlessness. When I heard that hospitals and doctors were under siege, that each night homes and businesses were being pillaged and law-abiding citizens shot at, I couldn’t help but wonder: What sort of a person believes that the absence of a viable police force implies a freedom to do merely as one pleases? I try to imagine the homes in which such people were raised, and I wonder what the sign above the door must have read: “It isn’t wrong if you don’t get caught”? “Take whatever you can get”?

But then I heard other stories—of thousands of volunteers spending countless hours trying to rescue and relieve the suffering, of hundreds of millions of dollars in donated aid, of strangers helping strangers and communities reaching out—and I was reminded that even though a crisis such as this can bring out the worst in some, it also brings out the best in many more. And although our immediate response to the disaster may have been horribly inadequate, I couldn’t help but feel that ultimately we will get it right. Because in spite of the lawless few, we remain a society in which parents still teach their children to “return with honor,” and mothers still remind their sons: “Remember who you are.”


Surrounded by Wild Roses

Dear Will:

If you’re anything like me (and I pray that you are not, in this case), you may have a tendency to allow everyday things to sort of blend together to the point that you hardly notice what’s always there. For instance, when I set a book at the top of the stairs with the intention of taking it down to the study later on, if I don’t follow through that same day the book becomes a fixture in the upstairs hallway. It’s as if it were part of the carpeting. I can become accustomed to things which are out-of-place to such a degree that they seem no longer out-of-place.

That bad habit is mostly just annoying, particularly if you’re married to me. Worse than that, however, is another side of that same phenomenon: the tendency to take for granted something remarkable because you see it everyday. When was the last time you paused to consider the amazing dexterity of your right thumb, the miracle of a flushing toilet, the sublime wonder of buttered toast. Hmmmm?

OK, I admit that even that is not really a big deal. What has me musing this evening is how easy it is for us to become unaware of the people who share our lives with us. The clerk at the store. The guy who delivers the morning paper. The 15-year-old kid who refuses to go to bed on time (that would be Luke). This weekend I realized, to my shame, that I devote much more energy to nagging/lecturing/chastising my kids about what they’re not doing than I do to reminding them how terrific they are for all that they do do. What kind of a loser dad am I?

I have a favorite poem by Wendell Berry. He wrote it about his wife, but I wish I had written it about my mine, because it speaks so well of the opportunity to rediscover something familiar:

The Wild Rose

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

And once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

How many wild roses do you have blooming around you? Do yourself—and your loved ones—a favor and tell them today how much they mean to you. I tried it myself, and it was wonderful.