An open letter to parents
What do we want for our children? If you are reading this pastor's column, my guess is that you want your child/teen/adult offspring to have faith in God. Right? And you probably also value the wisdom and teachings of the Bible. So, when Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me," (Matthew 19:14) we are warmed by the image of his open, welcoming arms.
"Let" them come implies that the children want to be with Jesus. I believe this is the natural state of the very young. There is a significant body of research and anecdotal evidence that shows how easily children understand God's love for them. I have engaged in work with young children on a spiritual level quite a bit, and have plenty of examples to draw from. But spiritual language and behavior does not seem as natural when they reach their teenage years, at least not for many young people. What happened?
I want to pose the question today about the outcomes we hope for in our children. In education these days, outcomes drive the curriculum. It makes sense; if you want graduating seniors to know where Iraq is, you have to show them a world map.
But I wonder whether we apply this logic to the spirituality of our children and teens. If we want our children to be kind, they need to have models of kindness, and opportunities to practice kindness. If we want them to believe in God, we actually need to talk with them about our faith in the home, because instruction at church does little to achieve this unless it is backed up by faith in the home. Perhaps you do make a point of these things in your family.
Dr. Dorothy Law Nolte asserts in her popular poem that "Children learn what they live." "If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect."
We like that poem because it is true. It is a sobering piece though. It actually begins with the negative:
"If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight."
What are our children "living" these days? I observe children and teens running here and there, schedules so full that they have little time to relax. Teens need a lot of sleep (about 9 Ĺ hours), but rarely get it. And so they are running on empty a good share of the time. How does that affect their ability to learn, and to practice kindness, and to celebrate the goodness of life in an atmosphere of joy and peace? Lack of sleep affects their mood, their ability to learn, and even makes them more likely to engage in at-risk behavior.
Coaches naturally expect their athletes to give 100 percent. We applaud that, because we live in a culture where achievement and winning are important. I love sports; they are a great way to teach teamwork, and they develop character and fitness. How hard should we push the students and still maintain their mental, physical, and emotional health? I'm sure it is a tricky question for coaches and parents. Sports are supposed to be fun, to be a source of recreation. Wouldn't it be great if we could have a committee of coaches, teachers, and parents for each student, looking at all the demands on their time, and agreeing on healthy limits? Your child doesn't have a committee; he/she simply has parents.
If we want to grow healthy, well-rounded kids, they need to learn to make choices that are best for them. We may need to teach them to say no to some great opportunities, for the sake of their own well-being. We can point out the stories of Jesus withdrawing from activity, protecting his time apart to pray. Connecting with God takes time.
If this generation can learn to exercise restraint for the sake of health and personal peace, I suspect our world will end up being less shrill and combative, less anxious, a more welcome place to live for everyone.
Parents, do your children have time just to relax, and play, or just hang out with their friends? Do you make worship a priority for the sake of your children's long term spiritual health? Can your family eat together on a regular basis? Family mealtime is worth the effort; it gives you time to talk, to encourage, to laugh, to tell stories, to pray together.
This is why God has given us the Sabbath. It is a gift, not just another duty to add to our long lists. It is given to us by our Creator because our bodies and souls need it. This is spacious territory, where nothing is expected of us except to be ourselves, grateful for all of God's gifts. Time to wonder who we are and who God is, and to look at the bigger picture. Time to enjoy this world and the people in it.
Perhaps it is time to consider the outcomes you hope for, to evaluate what your children's routines are teaching them about what is important. I pray that they are not learning this: that they are only worthy if they stay busy and keep producing results every minute of every day. The good news of God's reign is that they are worthy simply because they exist. God loves them, and wants to love the world through them.
So I will attempt to add a couple of lines to Dr. Nolte's poem.
"If children live at a healthy pace, they learn what well-being feels like.
If children live with Sabbath, they learn what a joy it is to be alive."