One hot summer afternoon a little girl went running into the house, swimming suit still wet. She had a strange look on her face. She had been swimming with friends. A teen-age boy had joined them. They had played water tag. Then he took them to some trees and asked if he could lick their toes. At that point the little girl ran for home.
This is what she said to her mother: “I didn’t know what to do. Linda thought it was funny, but I didn’t want him to. It made me feel …. I don’t know.”
A mother sighed with great relief. Her child had trusted her own inner feelings. And although this incident may not have turned threatening, there are times when a child’s survival depends on listening to the small voice inside and trusting that voice.
The home is where we learn to do that. The family is the place where we “catch” what it means to trust that who we are and what we are is good. Healthy children know what they feel.
It’s tough being a family today. And the family is changing once again. For the first time in 140 years the family is growing larger in America. No, people are not having more kids. Kids are coming home — and often with grandchildren. After watching the Walton’s all those years, many families are having a chance to try it out themselves.
And the family is again at the center of attention in our national political agenda. The violence in our cities forces us to look again at the family as the indispensable unit of a civilized society. But the importance of the family is never in doubt in the Bible. Moses’ farewell speech, before the tribes of Israel enter the promised land, resounds with a family focus. Concerning God’s laws, Moses declares, “make them known to your children and your children’s children…. Assemble the people for me, and I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me as long as they live on the earth, and may teach their children so” (
Moses’ words went right to the heart of their need. If they are to be a nation, the family will be the place where the teaching, the commands, and the will of God shall be passed to the generations that follow. The future of our nation does not rest with a handful of political leaders who make and sign laws. Our nation’s future will survive or fail in our homes and families.
A home is where a child is listened to. How many times has this happened? A child comes home from school unhappy, throws down his books and declares that school is really lousy. And Parent says: “You think you have it so bad. Why, when I was your age I had to walk to school in the snow (Grandparent adds how many miles in the snow). And I had to earn my spending money (brief description of capitalism). And we didn’t have (here follows long list of computer games, etc.). And we had four hours of homework every night.”
I love the story about the family that went out to dinner one night. The waitress took everyone’s order and at last one little boy was asked what he wanted. The mother said, “the special with mixed vegetables.” The waitress said to him, “what do you want — a hot dog?” The kid nodded. “The special with mixed vegetables,” intoned the mother, none too happy. “Do you want mustard on the dog?” “The special with mixed vegetables,” said the mother, starting to come unglued. “Do you want a cola with that hotdog?” the waitress asked calmly? Now the mother was in a fit of rage as the waitress left. But the kid looked up at his mother and said, “She thinks I’m real.”
I’m not arguing for hot dogs on demand. I’m reminding us of how very important it is for us as parents and adults to listen and to learn how we stand in our children’s perception. Our lives need to say to our children, “What do you need to tell me? What do you need to say?” Our temptation is to rush in a fix-and-mend or a make-right. And sometimes making things right is the worst thing we can do for our children. Children learn from laughter and love. But the lessons from tears and failure are just as important. No failure, no growth.
You see, we start out as parents needing to make everything right. An infant has to rely on us for everything at first. But if they grow and we stay stuck in doing everything for them, as if they were still infants, both parent and child will be very unhappy. As children grow, the motto of many parents becomes more and more, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” And while you are standing there, listen.
Reading obituaries in The New York Times, I came across an interesting one. Steve Oliver died at age 42 in London. He was a composer of operas and theatre music; among other things he did the music for “Nicolas Nickleby” and the opera “Beauty and the Beast.” He died of AIDS. And the last line of his obit said, “Mr. Oliver’s publisher said he was survived by his parents, but the company would not provide their names.” And I can only wonder what happened in that family. Was there a moment as a child or even as an adult when it was not okay to say anything? Was there an end to listening?
I would like to invite our new parents today to listen and love. Make no boundaries, set no limits to your love. I am not saying condone or approve of anything and everything. In the parable of the prodigal son there was a waiting parent — and the parent rather than the wayward child is probably the key to the story.
Not only must we listen to where they are, we must tell them where we are. Moses’ sermon stresses that: make the ways of God known, teach them to your children.
I started this sermon with a story about a child who trusted what she felt. The second step is for her to stand up for what she believes. How can she do that unless it is modeled by her parents?
Occasionally we meet a parent who claims moral neutrality — “I want my children to make up their own minds about faith.” Or a parent will say, “Religion was rammed down my throat and I am not about to make my kids go to church as I was.” Of course, part of that makes sense. Faith is not something to ram down the throats of the young. Faith is something we lay on their hearts. Teach them, says Moses. Make God’s ways known.
As adult or parents, don’t say, “You must believe this!” Rather, “This is what I believe. This is important to me.” That’s how our children learn that we are real.
In the last few decades we have witnessed a retreat of spiritual authority in the home that is devastating. Read Christopher Lasch’s Haven in a Heartless World for a fuller treatment of that theme. Our culture has passed authority to the peer group. Parents are often neutral. Parents don’t often share what is most important in their lives. But the children of these families are devastated. Lasch says,
“The child who scorns his parents as weak and indecisive … conjures up another set of parents in his fantasies … they appear to be as vengeful and punitive, as terrifyingly arbitrary and unjust, as the real-life parents are helpless, reasonable, and bland.” Lasch goes on to say that when a child perceives parents as remote — morally neutral, if I could add that — the child comes to believe that issues of justice and morality are reduced to the issue of strength. Anything is okay as long as you can get away with it.
Lasch goes to great lengths to describe family today. He describes parents as cool and detached — parents who then ask, why the drugs, why the suicides? Teach them about God, Moses says. Teach them. Make God’s ways known. Tell them who you are. Tell them what is important to you. Let them know where you stand.
When I was a teenager my grandmother mentioned to me, in one of our late evening talks, that there was a certain point of time on weekend nights when some kids went home and others stayed out. She suggested that I know which group I wanted to belong to. She didn’t tell me what I had to do or threaten me with punishment. She told me what she knew and laid it on my heart. It was a wise word and I learned from it.
So I say to you, glad parents, faithful adults: teach them, teach them, teach them. Make God’s way known to your children and to every generation, for they are not even ours: they belong to God. Just as we do.