A World Fit For Children
Two weeks ago, we considered the role of fathers. Last Sunday, we thought about mothers. This morning is dedicated to children, of whom Christ said on a certain memorable day that when we receive a child in his spirit, we are in fact receiving Him. I realized as soon as I started work on this sermon that it would take half a dozen Sundays to share all I’d like to say about children, so I’ve chosen this morning to limit myself to a couple of things about which I have strong feelings. What you will hear comes from experience as father of three and grandfather of six, plus a lifetime of reading what others have said about child-parent relationships. Let’s begin with a topic about which there is probably more controversy than any other: the matter of discipline.
Not only do I believe it’s absolutely imperative in a child’s life, but my personal view — which is certainly not shared by everybody — is that a great many children are far too much indulged, that lack of intelligent and consistent discipline is the single most serious parental failure in modern life. If you read family psychologist John Rosemond, you will know pretty well where I stand because I usually find myself in agreement with him on the topic of discipline. A woman writes, for example, that her 11-year-old daughter smarts off constantly. “Just this morning,” she says, “I remarked on how pretty a certain painting was, and she replied in a snide tone of voice, “It looks stupid to me.” If I ask for any help around the house, she is likely to tell me my request is ‘dumb.’ She talks back and sasses me, even in front of her friends. What do I do?”
Dr. Rosemond does not believe that parents should accept that kind of behavior. He deplores the modern idea that parents and children are equals, occupying level ground, and that parents are unfair to demand old-fashioned respect. If he is wrong, my wife and I failed utterly with our three because we absolutely refused to tolerate disrespect. I will confess that it was much easier to demand respect, a generation ago, than it is now with all the movies and television sitcoms in which children sass and talk back to their parents, to teachers and police, and to anyone else in authority who gets in the way of whatever they happen to want at the moment.
So I approve of the advice Rosemond gave this mother: “Make clear to your daughter that if something’s bothering her, you’ll be glad to listen, but that demonstrations of disrespect will not be tolerated under any circumstances. When she ‘slips’ I’d suggest that perhaps she needs some time alone in her room to contemplate her future.” To the mother’s fear that the child might hate her, or threaten to leave home, Rosemond would say that unselfish love sometimes has to call even that bluff.
I can understand the fear struck into the hearts of parents when a child, rebuked or disciplined, threatens to leave home. I think the two of us loved our children, and love them now, as deeply and persistently as any parents alive, but on the one or two occasions when one of them said, “Well, I’m going to run away and find somebody nicer than you are,” even tender-hearted Billie said, “I’d hate for you to do that, but if you are determined to go I’ll help you pack your suitcase, and get a lunch together for you.” For whatever number of reasons, no one ever decided it was worth while to leave home.
Would we have started to suffer the moment they left? Certainly! Were we going to tolerate disobedience and disrespect? Absolutely not. And not because they were not loved, but because they were loved too deeply to let sentimental weakness on our part spoil their lives. I am reminded of a line I read in a novel not long ago: “If from infancy you treat children as gods, they are liable in adulthood to act like devils” — the reason being that they have failed to learn how to deal with authority figures, and are too easily offended when personal likes and dislikes have to be adjusted to the needs of others.
I saysuch things with considerable temerity, because being a parent, especially right now, strikes me as about the most difficult job in the world. How, for instance, does one walk a sensible middle ground between being a parent and being a pal? On the one hand there’s the father who is too busy, even when the family ison vacation. I was in a place on vacation one day, reading on a balcony, when I heard a conversation down below which was so poignant I wrote it down word for word. Little boy: “Dad, we’ll play this game….you hit the ball and I’ll run to a base, and…..” I couldn’t see dad but I heard the disengaged grunt: “Uh-huh” “Dad, if you hit the ball over there, that means you’re out…..OK, dad?” “Uh-huh.” Long silence. “Dad, you don’t have to hit the ball. I’ll hit the ball myself, OK?…Dad?” “Uh-huh.” End of dialogue. The kid gave up. Maybe he was just a pest who had to be ignored once in a while, or maybe he was finding out one more time where he ranked in his dad’s life.
On the other hand, I have known dads who were so afraid of not being liked, of wounding a tender psyche, that they let themselves be manipulated constantly. What I am about to say will probably sound eccentric to some of you, but I am driven up the wall by fathers who constantly use the apologetic mode when they make a request. “Jimmy, put the toy back on the shelf….OK?” “Billy, you’re not supposed to hit your sister with the bat….OK?” My dad never issued an order in my life that was followed by a question mark. If he had, I would have taken it as an invitation to argue the point, and we’d have been in a debate. We didn’t have debates, because we weren’t equals. He knew it, and I knew it, and I’ve have never been sorry it was that way.One of my greatest joys, always was going back home to see him again from wherever my own home happened to be at the moment.
It’s popular in some avant garde families for the children to address parents by their first names. This may strike some of you as stuffy and oldfashioned, but I tend to go along with radio commentator Paul Harvey when he says, “At a time when being a buddy to one’s son is popular,” he says, “I’m going to stay a father. I believe it may yet prove to be a bit of sad psychology when dads are called ‘Jim, Pete, Art or Jack’ by their children.” On several occasions, hearing a 10-year-old call his dad “Frank,” I’ve tried to imagine my father’s astonishment if I had said one day, “Tell you what, Bill, my allowance is the pits and you need to up it!” I loved the man dearly, and knew he loved me the same, but he was my father and not one of my pals, and the idea that we might be equals never occurred to either one of us. There were no regrets — on either side.
If I’m all wrong about discipline, I hope I’m right about something I believe with even greater passion: that the worst crime parents can commit against their children is failing to love and believe in them. The most important thing a child can expeience is the shaping strength of unconditional love and of warm praise at every possible opportunity. Instead of quoting experts, I’d like to buttress the point by citing true life examples. Here is author Mary Ann Bird’s celebration of the power of affirmation, even when it consisted of just seven words, spoken only once. “I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school my classmates made it clear to me how I must look to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth and garbled speech. When [they] would ask, ‘What happened to your lip?’ I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced no one outside my family could love me.”
In her short story called “The Whisper Test,” Mary Ann Bird“ recalls a second-grade teacher every kid in class loved, and how at some point in the year it was her job to administer the annual hearing test. “I was virtually deaf in one ear, but from taking the test before I had discovered that if I did not press my hand as tightly on my ears as I was told to do, I could pass it. Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something and we would have to repeat it back….things like, ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Do you have new shoes?’ I waited there for her words to me, which [I now think] God must have put into her mouth…. seven words that changed my life. [In her test for my hearing, which every kid in class heard, Mrs. Leonard whispered] ‘I wish you were my little girl.’” All of us, but especially kids, need people around who see more in us than we have seen in ourselves — more than is there, ‘til they create it.
I remember spending an evening once with a man and his wife from England who were visiting a friend in Wichita. Both of them were headmasters of schools near London. They were delightful, interested in things only a little, and in people very much. Quite naturally they talked of the influence of teachers on small children, and one of them — the wife — told a story about her small niece. Talking one day about two of her teachers, the little girl said, “I like Mr. Carter, but I love Mrs. Johnson.” The aunt was intrigued by the distinction. She said, “What makes you love Mrs. Johnson?” The little girl seemed surprised anyone would need to ask such a question, but she had the answer: “Because she loves me!” We are important to our children because we feed, clothe and protect them, but no other gift compares with loving them. We learn to love by being loved.
I’ve been solemn long enough, and no talk about children is complete without a recognition of how they are forever surprising us by their unique ways of seeing what we miss, and asking unexpected questions. It has been a joy to re-discover that in the lives of six grandchildren, and most recently the grandson who is just finishing kindergarten. When the teacher asked her class, “What is the color of apples?” most of the kids answered, “Red.” A couple of them said, “Green.” But I am intrigued by the one little guy who raised his hand and said, “White!” The teacher tried to explain to him that apples could be red or green or even golden, but that they are never white. She was out of luck. The one little guy was adamant, having inherited a certain stubborness from somewhere, and when the teacher shook her head again he finally said, “Look inside!”
Grandfather invited his little grandson to help dig potatoes. They had been at it for about thirty tedious and dirty minutes when the little guy dropped his toy shovel, looked into grandfather’s face, and asked the question that had been bothering him: “Why did you bury all these things in here?” It was the same precocious 3-year-old who came in one summer evening while his parents were setting the table for dinner. He surprised them by asking if he could help. His mother was pleased.“No, but I appreciate your asking.” He responded, “Well, I appreciate your saying No.”
And finally, by specific request, I repeat a marvelous moment in the life of a little boy who had attended one of those Ash Wednesday services where the minister reminds worshippers of their humble origin and destiny. On the way home the curious child asked his mother, “Is it true, Mommy, that we are made of dust like the minister said tonight?” Yes, darling.” “And is it true that we go back to dust again when we die?” “Yes, dear.” “Well, Mommy, when I said my prayer last night and looked under the bed, I saw someone who is either coming or going.”
Children…..discipline them wisely, laugh at their fresh ways of seeing old things, enjoy their unpredictable questions, and love them as if they were your hope and the world’s hope….because they are.
Accept the gift of our worship this day, most gracious Lord, and
grant us a good and useful week. Amen.