Thursday, April 28, 2011

True Gift

Have you ever met someone trying really hard to be someone they're not? It's painful to watch - especially if you know the person well enough to see their true gifts.

Each of us has a unique mix of gifts and talents. Sometimes it is hard for parents to see their child's true gifts. So many things get in the way. We have expectations: musical families expect musical children; athletic families expect athletic children. We aren't necessarily seeing this gift in the child; we are expecting to see this gift in the child. Another thing that blinds us to our child's true gifts is the child's behavior. It's often hard to see past constant wiggling or incessant talking to a child's creative or leadership abilities. We are distracted by what the child does, especially when the behavior irritates or embarrasses us. Our own dreams for the future or failure from the past can also color the way we see the child. We've probably all known someone who wanted to "go pro" in some field but didn't, for whatever reason, who is now pushing a child to "go pro". It's obvious - in other people. One more thing that can get in the way is the hectic pace of daily life. When children have no time to experiment, they miss out on a lot of self-discovery. Downtime is a child's laboratory.

Here's the good news. Failure to recognize the gift doesn't kill the gift, and parents are not solely responsible for helping a child find his or her gifts. When researchers at the Youth and Family Institute started looking at what factors were present for children who "succeeded" (stayed in school, stayed off drugs, had healthy relationships, etc.) they found 40 common factors among successful kids. One of them was especially pertinent to this topic; they found that successful kids had at least five caring adults in their lives. Every caring adult will see different things in the child - gifts that they recognize because they share them, or because it's something they prize in a person or simply because they are seeing the child through fewer layers of emotion.

So where do you find these caring adults? Like so many things with your children, it's simply a matter of paying attention. There are people all around your child cheering him or her on through life - teachers, coaches, scout leaders, choir and band directors, your friends, grandparents aunts and uncles or step-parents, even the person who sits behind you in church and plays peek-a-boo with your toddler. Make time for your child to be with these people. Listen to what they have to say about your child. Notice what they notice and learn to encourage those qualities in your child.

You can help your children be who they are created to be. Trust that their unique gifts will serve the world and support them in finding and using those gifts. They may wind up in a different pond from you but, with the help of other caring adults, you can still teach them to swim in their own baptismal waters.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Laying down your life

What would I be willing to die for?  As news trickles in about the death of journalists Hondros and Hetherington, my mind turns to this question.  My child, of course, is the automatic response.  Like most parents, I believe that I would ungrudgingly lay down my life for my child.  Stories abound of parents throwing themselves on top of a child to protect him or her from falling objects, gunfire or storms.  Parents starve so their children can live.  Parents will do wonderful and terrible things to ensure that a child is protected.  Surely this parental impulse is the purest love a human is capable of feeling and acting.

As I considered this question over the past couple of days, it occurred to me that I have never heard of a parent offering to go to the electric chair or the firing squad for their child.  Parents of innocent children in concentration camps would certainly try to exchange their own life for the life of their child, but this impulse doesn’t seem to apply when we are talking about a child who has committed a heinous crime.  

Another step down this road and another thought barges in: for what would I exchange my child’s life?  This is not a new question for me. I believe strongly that schools should be supported but when my child was sent to a sub-par school, I didn’t hesitate to move her to a better one.  I know that my presence as a volunteer, and her presence as a role model might have had a salutary effect on that school but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice her education for that goal.  Obviously, since I won’t even sacrifice her education, I’m not going to sacrifice her life, no matter how just the cause.

Tomorrow is Good Friday.  In the context of this question the story of Jesus’ death takes my breath away.  I cannot conceive of a love that would willingly set aside all Godly powers and take on human form.  I cannot imagine a love that would send the extension of self that is child to be helpless in this vile world. And even if I could somehow assimilate all of that, I cannot get past the idea that it was an exchange for someone else’s sin.  It was done for my benefit – before I had even committed the first of my daily acts of selfishness.

Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson once wrote that the thing that persuaded him of the truth of the resurrection was that if it was a conspiracy it would have fallen apart.  The perpetrators would have had a jolly time saving their own skins and pointing fingers at each other – probably even before the first head rolled.

This unfathomable, unimaginable, un-replicate-able love is what persuades me that Jesus was God come to earth.  Only the Being with the power to create life out of nothing could possibly commit so great an act of love.  There are no words of thanks that can suffice; I am left with only tears of humility in spite of the fact I know the end of the story. . .  Blessed Easter my friends.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Everybody's doing it!

From the Egyptian Revolution to March Madness to the Save Our Schools protests it seems that everyone has been jumping on one bandwagon or another this year.  The bandwagon effect, where people do and believe things merely because many other people do and believe the same things, is also called herd instinct.  I have spent many hours, both as a parent and as a Christian, contemplating this phenomenon. I've never met a child who hasn't said "everybody's doing it" to justify doing something; and I've never met a parent who hasn't said, or at least thought, "and if your friends decided to jump off a cliff would you do that too?"  It's a human tendency.

This tendency to jump on the bandwagon comes to mind for me every year as we approach Holy Week.  On Sunday a crowd is saluting Jesus with palms and covering the ground with their cloaks and on Thursday they are screaming for his crucifixion.  How did the tide turn, and who turned it?  Unlike a fall from grace suffered by people like Tiger Woods or Bernie Madoff, Jesus hadn't committed some scandalous act that was the breaking news story.  Jesus was going about his business, being the same preaching-teaching-healing person he'd been all along.  So why did the crowd change its mind? Why does someone who never even watches college basketball care who wins the NCAA Basketball Championship? The herd called.

As a parent, I feel like I should prepare my kids to evaluate what the herd is saying before becoming part of it. Yet I know how easily you can be sucked in. Remember Y2K?  I resolutely refused to jump on board the panic-mongers wagon.  I didn't stock up on food, fill my gas cans or lay in cases of bottled water. Still, on December 31, 1999, I found myself at the ATM machine pulling out cash and filling my car with gas.  Neither precaution would have made much difference, but my resolve against the bandwagon only extended so far. Deep down inside was a small spark of fear that made me doubt my own convictions. I expect this is what happened to that Jerusalem crowd. Doubts kicked in making them question their own judgment. And those doubts allowed them to be swept away.

Here’s what I want to tell my children: There is only one safe place in the midst of madness: Love.  Love at its fullest and most perfect casts out fear and doubt. It considers the cost of an action to everyone, not just to self.  Love would not allow crucifying an innocent man. Loving rulers do not inspire revolutions.  If jumping on a bandwagon is an act of love, by all means do it.  Otherwise, step back, evaluate carefully lest you be swept away by a wave of fear with no basis in reality or a stream of excitement about something irrelevant.

Would I have screamed for crucifixion?  I hope not, but I don't know for sure. I can only return to the fountain of love once more, asking the One who is Love to cast out my doubt.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sticks and Carrots

Sticks and carrots - also known as punishments and incentives - are standard issue in your parenting toolbox.  Like really good tools, sticks and carrots do far more than one simple task.  

Sticks:  A stick, used well, prods gently to help guide small directional changes. The best stick creates or points out the consequence of the child's action.  The consequence needs to be related to the change, comprehensible to the child and enforceable by you.  Early in my parenting years I was determined to use only carrots and never sticks but, after a weeks-long battle about staying at the tables, I turned to my 2-year-old and said, firmly, "If you leave the table again I will give your food to the dog and you will have to wait for supper to eat again." When she left the table, I scraped her plate into the dog dish and then watched her thunderstruck expression as she comprehended what had just happened.  I felt like the worst mother in the world.  But guess what!  I never had to do it again.  She had learned that I meant what I said.  She maybe didn't understand why I thought she needed to stay at the table until she'd finished eating, but she knew what would happen if she didn't.  And she didn't like it. She changed direction.

You have to mean it! We've all seen the parents who use the stick to no avail:  "If you don't come right now I'm just going to leave you here!"  I've never actually seen a parent leave their child and drive away, have you?  Only use sticks you are prepared to actually poke with!  

Carrots: Carrots are definitely multi-functional.  You can use them as if-then incentives: "If you clean your room first, then you may go to the movies with your friends." (The benefit here is obvious.) You can also use them to reward desired behaviors: "Wow - thanks for bringing in the trash cans!  Why don't you call Lisa and see if she wants to go to the movies tonight? I'll drive!" Even the most recalcitrant child will internalize the idea that good behavior reaps good rewards. Catching kids being good rewards you too - you spend your time being delighted by your child.  Contrast that with time spent trying to catch them doing something wrong!

Still, beware the carrot's dark side.  A smart child can turn the tables on you and begin to use incentives that cause you to reward them. Obviously, this is more like hitting your thumb with the hammer!

Our great parent God is beyond carrots and sticks and other tools. God simply delights in us.  We have been given the clearest and most difficult instruction for life and then turned loose: love God and love neighbor. Regardless of how well or badly I carry out those instructions, God continues to shower me with love; giving me tools and wisdom when I ask, and unconditional love all the time.  I'm starting to think this is what parenting adult children may look like, but I'm just getting started down that branch of the parenting river so I'll have to wait a while to give "expert" opinion there.  Good luck with your sticks and carrots this week!