Parenting is hard.
It happened to me again on Sunday morning. We just moved to Oregon last week and were about to try a new church. Our morning routine is pretty typical: we tell our children it’s time to get dressed. Our first and third child diligently put on their clothes, while our middle child finds a thousand and one ways to stall.
Driving. Me. Crazy.
Intellectually, I could sympathize with the boy. I remembered that I hate it when people tell me what to do and when I need to do it. But when it comes to getting out the door on Sunday mornings, I’m run much more by emotions than by intellectual sympathy. And this Sunday morning I was on edge. (I know, very Christianly of me…) After asking nicely a few times, I soon started raising my voice at him, demanding that he get dressed! Of course, the more I demanded that he get dressed the more he insisted on not getting dressed. At this point, I was hooked in a rivalry with a five year old.
Again, intellectually I know that this is the point where I need to step away, but my emotions held sway. For a parent, this is the time when that voice starts up in our heads: Who’s the parent here? You can’t lose to a five year old! You must show him who’s boss or he will run you over! Don’t give an inch or he will take a mile!
Fortunately, my wife saved the morning when she came to the room and calmly asked him to get dressed, which he did immediately. Her success only infuriated me more, so I stormed out of the room like the mature 35 year old that I am…
It may seem counter-intuitive, but my son’s response to me was mimetic, or imitative. We were imitating each other’s desire. “But wait!” You may be thinking. “Your son didn’t want to get dressed and you wanted him to get dressed. You wanted different things. How could that be imitation of desire?”
On the surface, it looks like we had different desires: to get dressed and to not get dressed. But if you dig a bit deeper below the surface, we were run by the exact same desire – the desire to be in control. The more I desired to exert control over my son, the more he imitated my desire to be in control.
Of course, my desire isn’t really mine and his desire isn’t really his. The desire that possesses parents to be in control of their children is itself mimetic. It stems from the cultural messages I referred to earlier that state: Who’s the parent here? You can’t lose to a five year old! You must show him who’s boss or he will run you over! Don’t give an inch or he will take a mile!
In the book of Exodus, God speaks through Moses and provides Israel with the 10 Commandments. The second commandment has the statement that “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (20:5). I’ve never liked that passage – there are so many things wrong with it theologically. God’s “jealousy” aside, God is just, and since God is just God can’t punish children for sins their parents make. God doesn’t scapegoat children because of their parents. But if you want to understand Exodus literally because you understand the Bible literally, you will have to take it up with the prophet Ezekiel who explicitly contradicts Exodus by saying, “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own” (18:20)
Theologically, the statement from Exodus is problematic, but anthropologically, it rings true. Whenever I get caught in a mimetic rivalry with my children I am creating them in my fallen image. I create a pattern of desire in them that is prone to rivalry for control. That is the sin of the parent and parents pass that sin on from generation to generation.
The Good News of Forgiveness and the Redemption of a Father
The good news for us parents is that Ezekiel was right. God isn’t in the background punishing our children for our sins, causing generation after generation to fall into this pattern. God doesn’t punish us; we punish ourselves. And since God doesn’t punish us, there is hope for transformation.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”* Now, children can be snot nosed little brats. Of course, we adults can be snot nosed big brats and snot nosed big brats are much more dangerous than snot nosed little brats, but that misses the point.
One of the many things I appreciate about my son is that he is quick to forgive. While I stew over our mimetic rivalry for control and then experience guilt and shame for getting in a rivalry with a five year old, he has already forgiven me and moved on. At age five, he doesn’t hold my sins against me. And that, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said to become like little children. Children don’t hold our sins against us.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus consistently connects the kingdom of heaven to the act of forgiveness. So, when he said, “unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” it’s not a stretch to state he was suggesting to mimic a child’s natural ability to forgive.
The sins of the parents might mimetically extend from one generation to the next, but the forgiveness of child can stop that mimetic cycle. Further, the forgiveness of a child can redeem his sinful parent.
And this parent is thankful for that.
*My colleague Suzanne Ross has a great essay on this passage called Beyond Power Struggles: Teaching Without Rivalry.