“I worry about us. We treat children with such disdain. We hate children.” ~ My pastor when we were discussing the Creflo Dollar episode
Sweet Honey in the Rock put to song the poem by Lebanese poet/prophet Khalil Gibran. “Your children are not your children.” These words no doubt make some people bristle as we really believe that we “own” our children, like slavers “owned” slaves.
Rearing children is daunting. I often said to my sons: “You have the seed of a man in you, but you’re not yet a man. I’m trying to rear boys into men that I’d be glad to be friends with were I to meet you in your grown self.” Most days I think we pulled that off. My daughters-in-love think so most days as each have thanked us for the men we reared. I remember a conversation between my older son and me. I was lamenting that neither of them had, as yet, finished a college degree. He begin to recount who they were in their character: men of integrity who respected women and children and loved God. “Mom,” he said, “you didn’t get it how you wanted it, but you got what you wanted in grown men.” I had to stop crying. And I had to remind myself that they made their own choices and would have to live their lives. They do. Not perfectly at all. They’ve had their struggles.
That is the way growing up can be. Full of struggles. But as parents we sought to give them tools to handle life–tools suited for their individual lives. My mother taught me that “train up a children in the way he or she should go” means exactly that: each child has her or his own path. You can’t treat all your children “exactly the same” as people often argue. The parent’s role is to be discerning and try to bend each child in her or his own direction. Sometimes we pull it off. Sometimes not. But as my ethics professor said to us: parents should take neither too much credit nor too much blame for how their children turn out, for good or ill. They are their own persons. We can “screw” a child up and they can become phenomenal in spite of us. Or we can give them all the loving boundary-laden discipline with a home full of laughter and joy and they can choose a deleterious life.
One of the things we gave our children was the right to speak their own mind at a very early age. You can say anything you want to say to me as long as you are respectful, we said. Ouch! They sometimes told us about our selves. And MOST of the time–they were right. Once we went out to dinner at a swank (enough) restaurant to honor an award my younger son had received. Something happened in the car that ticked me off. I began a tirade at the table that was, in fact, ruining the celebrative mood. My older son looked at me and said, “Mom. You’re out of control and what you’re saying is way over the top.” He said it in a low (and I admit, loving) tone. I was stopped in my tracks. I got up from the table and went to the bathroom to cry and then to laugh. I had just heard myself coming out of his mouth. And he was RIGHT. I went back to the table after fixing my face and thanked my child for calling me on my bad behavior and apologized to my family. We had a lovely meal.
But they were not always that respectful in their language. Once I walked out of the living room as my son (15-years-old at the time) was yelling. My first instinct was to yell back and to yank him. Instead, I walked into my bedroom and locked the door. He banged on it, screaming that he was talking to me. About 20 minutes later, when he calmed down, I went back into the living room and asked whether he wanted to talk with me. I was talking to you, mom, he said. I said, “No, you were yelling. And it occurred to me that I was being yelled at by someone who paid nothing to be in this house and for whom I bought all his food and clothing.” He dropped his head and apologized. It didn’t always go this way. We valued violent-free parenting, even if we didn’t always live it. But these kinds of interactions were more common than the violent ones we sought not to have.
Both my sons (and ALL my godchildren) have a stubborn streak. I mean an “I’ll-take-the-consequences-because-you-can’t-make-me” streak. And they often did. So my husband and I often had to check ourselves on who did the disciplining, to answer the question whether we were responding to a teachable moment or whether our buttons had been pushed. I walked away a few times with the words, “go deal with your son because I’d be beating the Valerie out of him.” That is, many times what we respond to in our children is the shadow side of us that we despise or with which we have not dealt.
I thank God that we were able to communicate to our sons the integrity of their own personhood–the fact that they were not “mini mes” and not beholden to think, believe, act, or emote like their parents. They are not ours. They belong to the future to which we cannot visit, not even in our dreams. They belong to God. We were given the daunting responsibility to see them from helpless baby to productive adult, allowing them their own mistakes and learning along the way. But we don’t and never did “own” them.