“Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”
Do you live with anyone like that?
Are the neighbor kids worthy of some iteration of Socrate’s description above? The ones in your den who bear so much resemblance to a younger you?
How about the crumb-snatchers you had in nursery the last time you were forced into that purgatorial role? Maybe a continuously sassy teenager in her pre-human hominid state?
Many of us (whether we have children or not!) have been tasked with the care of “tyrants”---but of course, these little pig-tailed wonders in their smocked dresses, as well as their muddy, super-hero costume, cap and cleat-wearing counter-parts are quite a joy too, aren’t they?
Not merely tyrannical, gobbling, contradicters, these little ones and the larger, adolescent ones they become, are often diminutive prophets speaking without shame or encumbrance the plainest, fiercest, most refreshing, revelatory truth you ever heard.
What Have I Ever Done in My Life?
At times they exasperate us with their bottomless pit of demands, and yet, we often cannot help but echo the full-hearted, teary-eyed realization of a dying John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, Gilead when he pens the following reassurance to a seven-year old son he doesn’t expect to see grow much older:
"I'd never have believed I'd see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle to me. You may not remember me very well at all and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."
Complicated and consoling, demanding and delightful, whining and winsome, children are undoubtedly, like us, a “broth of false and true”, and they are of particular concern to the certain Someone who welcomed them warmly while he trod the earth and has decided to change us all by entrusting so many of them to us.
A Boundary-less Affection
And of course, we communicate that Someone’s affection to them in the way we interact with them, the way we bother over them, receive them, and show our gladness for them.
Dan Allender has urged in his thoughtful work, How Children Raise Parents: “Thank God for your children, because they are the ones who grow you up into spiritual maturity. Far more than being concerned about how to correct, or convert, or counsel your children, thank God for what your children are teaching you. To the degree that your heart is overwhelmed with gratitude for your children, they will gain the core education they most need---the knowledge that they are truly loved, treasured, and delighted in. Only a genuinely thankful parent can invest in his or her children the conviction that they are the focus of unconditional love.” We’d like our kids to know they are beneficiaries of a boundary-less delight and an affection which demands no conditions, because our gratitude forms the air they breathe and informs our unflagging prayers, and is sometimes, complemented with our appreciative tears.
And such an aspiration is fitting, for like it or not, we are actively forming within our little “tyrants” their view of God and their perception of His “take” on them. We are builders, fortunately not solely so, of their sense of the plausibility of God’s gracious attentiveness toward them.
Thus, funny-man, Stephen Colbert can snarkily lampoon:
“A father has to be a provider, a teacher, a role model, but most importantly, a distant authority figure who can never be pleased. Otherwise, how will children ever understand the concept of God?”
Because of these formational dynamics, I’m profoundly appreciative to serve a church and to have children in schools where so many folks so fully adore the young entrusted to their nurturing attentiveness.
Bound to Someone Else’s Future
Wendell Berry has wisely asserted that “making a promise binds us to someone else’s future, not merely to our own self-interest.”
Parenthood creates an implicit self-interest melting adherence to the flourishing of our little ones’ tomorrows. And it is surely one of God’s most concentrated and dismaying forms of weaning us off ourselves.
These self-giving commitments can be exhausting and dizzying. And are guaranteed to be meddlesome to the heart of any who engage in it. It’s why the oft repeated phrase, “a parent is only happy as their saddest child” is so eerily and inescapably true.
Needless Drudgery? A Thankless Bother?
So it’s worth reminding any who have regular dealings with the young, whether through fostering or coaching, teaching or counseling, babysitting or grand-parenting---that we’ve been tasked with an enormity that is sometimes, because of its arduousness, misconstrued as needless drudgery or a thankless bother.
GK Chesterton refreshes us on this vocation of delighting in, instructing, praying on behalf of, and sacrificing for the young who need so many acts of monumental self-donation from us. Considering his words may spare us from the weariness of costly well-doing.
Addressing the apparent drudgery involved in the role of mothers specifically in the “excitement” of an increasingly industrialized age (which, with a tiny dash of imagination, we can expand more broadly as situations and callings dictate) he notices:
“Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, a woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t....when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean....
How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
Often in worship services, when situations call for it, I will introduce folks by occupation. So when a mother who spends her days with her brood needs a congregational introduction, I may describe her vocation with such a gloss as, “She is everything to all her little ones.”
Many, not merely mothers, are tasked with some crucial aspect of “tyrant” care.
It doesn’t pay well. Sometimes it yields nary a dime. Introducing the young to the intricacies of this planet, to themselves, and to our Savior will rarely make anyone rich.
Unless of course, we are privileged enough to appreciate a gladdening kind of wealth reaped from enriching the least among us, a sort of inner-income we’ll never have to report to the IRS.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org