A long while ago, seemingly years before I had reached the end of what Leila Lawler calls ‘The First Decade’, providence ordained for me to read her piece about ‘The Second Decade’. I should have saved it, and in a different kind of world I would take a few minutes to comb through her archives to find it. It was exactly the kind of jolt I needed to wake me out of the stupor of baby vomit and self pity. What you do in the first decade with your children, however many of them you have, is going to have some kind of effect on what they are like in the second decade. Auntie Leila recommended terrors like Eating Dinner All Together and Talking To Your Husband at the Dinner Table. There were a lot of other important recommendations but those were the two that stuck with me over the years. Those and the niggling thought that life won’t always be the same. Children grow, both in mind and body, and what happens then.
So now we are in the first glimmering moments of the second decade. Our oldest has survived infancy and is the size of a regular person–well, me, so, short. But it’s strange to have a third adult sized person around. She isn’t used to her new dimensions and she crashes into everything. I can see why parents packed off their young daughters to finishing school or lessons of grace. She needs to walk around with a book on her head or something. The sheer size of the children, increasing almost before our eyes, is completely alarming.
But more alarming, though not necessarily in a bad way, is the true, unavoidable realization that family is indeed a communicator of culture. You can’t help it, you’re going to communicate your habits, beliefs, and unquestioned cultural assumptions to your children. Whatever your values are, those will be indelibly marked into the psyche of your child. The trouble for most of us is that what we think we believe and value, and what we actually believe and value, are not always the same thing. I might say I love to read books, but if I am always playing mahjong quietly on my tablet, some small people will understand the great profundity that mother doesn’t actually like to read, she is tired and wants them all to leave her well alone.
This truth, of course, is there in the bible for anybody who wants to read it. The son is the imprint of the father. He will make manifest who the father is and what he does. It doesn’t matter what the father says about himself, or even how he understands his own life and priorities. If he wants to see who he really is, he can look at the life and tastes and priorities of his child and understand far better than filling out little personality tests on Facebook or asking his friends and relations how they experience him.
Veering sharply away from the potential abuses and ugliness that each generation passes on to the next, the reason I know that culture is communicated from the parent to the child whether the parent wants to or not, is because, after a decade of calming and soothing my own soul with pot after necessary pot of tea, and thinking that it was my own thing, because Matt drinks coffee and we live in America and the children are “American”, I have, against really my own will, raised a cohort of children who expect and demand to always be drinking tea. Excuse me while I pause a moment to drink my second cup….
Everyday around five o’clock there is shouting and banging and water boiling and I am dragged from my solitary moment of recovering my own sanity after a long day of muscling children through their various intellectual pursuits, and made to sit at our vast dining room table and pour tea into each child’s own carefully selected mug. ‘Does a child need her own peculiarly preferred mug of tea?’ I whisper to myself as I pour. But I myself raise a mighty fuss if I have to drink out of a cup that has not the right shape or feel in the hand. It should be no wonder to me that the children think this pickiness is part of their birthright.
Example number two? Because surely you wanted one more. I like to fancy myself as a secret, emphasis on the secret, political junky. When I read the Internet, it’s mostly funny and profane political blogs, and, because I’m a decent parent, I don’t read them out loud, because, well, I just don’t. But two days ago I forced my second child to come with me to Aldi, because of my poor hurting shoulder, and to my alarm and surprise, the only thing he wanted to talk about was politics. We talked it all the way there, through the store, and back. ‘Oh man,’ I whispered to myself, ‘I have illusions of self control.’
On the one hand, the fact of being who you are and communicating it to your children whether you want to or not, is necessarily terrifying. If you are a very bad person, this will be a bad thing. And who among us is not just a little bit bad, evil even. The sins of the parent go to the child and that’s the way it is. On the other hand, there is grace. The Christian parent who is always drinking from the well of God’s mercy should be somebody who is changing and being remade in the image of the Son. And if that is really going on, the child will experience that profound change first hand. If you begin life as a parent undisciplined, selfish, angry, and addicted to the Internet, but you constantly fling yourself onto the mercy of Jesus, by the time you are ten or fifteen years in, your child will have seen you change into someone better disciplined, less selfish, kinder, and maybe reading an actual book on occasion. The transformation itself will be communicated as part of the cultural identity of the child.
Moreover, the grace of reality means that you don’t really need to set out to be a certain kind of parent and raise your children to be a certain way. You are who you are. You could just show up for your children, moment by moment, not giving way to the existential angst of agonizing over What Kind Of Parent you are. Better a moment of honesty about your true priorities, and repentant leaning on the Holy Spirit to change what what needs to be changed, than trying to organize your child into some kind of desired, but not real, cultural identity.
And on that note, I have to go moan about my shoulder, because it’s that or gently stretching it, and I think we all know which is better.