June 25, 1990
Our friend Susan and her three children joined our three kids and they didn’t have a single fight all weekend. They climbed trees, painted faces, danced, visited the river and the water falls, and played made-up games while the adults talked about the inner work of spiritual life and what makes for a shared communal life that reflects Gospel.
Claudia and I were nourished by the conversations during the visit. We noticed we had been more aware than usual how precious a young child is, who is fully embodied and whose attention is poised and alert without being distorted by the kinds of worries and concerns that quickly slow down adults, cutting us off from a full experience of life in the moment. The children, all ten and under, had been little icons all week-end of the kind of simplicity and joy we adults often find it difficult to sustain.
But peace didn’t last long. After our friend’s visit Gregory (8 years old) got into a fight with a boy across the street whose home life was very different than Susan’s children and ours. Sitting on the back steps after the boy had gone home, Christi (age 6) asks, “Daddy can you play with us?”
“I know how. Do you want me to?” She struggles with this for a moment until she recalls the key to solving this kind of little grammatical riddle I’ve used with her before.
“Yes.” I say. But there is something about the tone of Christi’s voice that evokes some resistance in me. I suddenly experience it as coming from that place I’ve noticed before where she is only willing to do what she wants to do. It strikes me as the seed of a self-centeredness I try to suppress in myself when I notice it. Maybe that’s why it irritates me now, because I see myself reflected in her. It’s probably more my problem than hers! Someone wise said, “If you see it (in someone else) you got it.”
Meanwhile, Claudia, in the kitchen on the other side of the screen door, has overheard Christi’s request to go play and says she wants the kids to help her prepare the meal – to clean shrimp and set the table. She doesn’t ask that of them very often, but it seems that she has a similar sense that I do. “You’ve played all weekend doing whatever you liked” she says to Christi. I agree that it’s time to stretch some other muscles a little bit and learn to be willing to do what you don’t want to do, so you can be part of a community that cooperates together even when it isn’t “fun”.
Earlier in the weekend, the adults had discussed the topic of self-love and how we understood the inner spiritual struggle of getting free of being slaves to the giants that dominate us: pleasure and pain commanding our bodies, and like and dislike dominating our souls. In and of themselves neither of these twin gargantua are able to adequately guide our lives. We are created for much more than what they reveal to us.
St. Isaac the Syrian observes, “Knowledge of God does not abide in those who love comfort.” Pleasure and pain govern the undisciplined body and like and dislike confine the unmindful soul to worldly and vainglorious pursuits. We all know very well that some cures can be painful and some pleasurable things are not good for us to do, even if we would like to. Likewise it is right to do good things even when we would not like to. How do we teach this to our kids?
The children had become used to the pleasure and fun of playing as they wished all weekend without any obligations. Now Gregory is willing to set the table and Kelly helps mom with cooking the potatoes. Christi however, immediately responds to her mother’s request that she doesn’t want to help with dinner and says in a defiant voice that she won’t do it. She’s looking for more fun and off she goes and starts playing with keys on the piano.
Claudia says to me with more than a hint of irritation “She had all day to do that and now she starts.” Pricked a little by Christi’s defiance and reacting to Claudia’s frustration I go and tell Christi, “No, not now. You go and help mommy.”
Christi says she doesn’t want to. I am remembering our discussion of the day before, after our friends had left, how we had noticed that our kids acted selfishly at times and we wondered about this. We considered the fact that they didn’t have any consistent jobs around the house. We had been neglectful in not encouraging chores on a regular basis.
I tell Christi that she has to go and help her mother. She goes into the kitchen and complains that she doesn’t want to do it. Standing over the sink in the chair looking down at the shrimp she begins to scream tearfully, “I don’t know what to do!” Could it be she was afraid of what she didn’t know how to do? Had we misunderstood the situation? It’s painful to be expected to do something without being given the support to do it. Or did she not know what to do because her petulant rage had left her feeling helpless. Claudia responds by calmly showing her how to take the skins off the shrimp.
Whimpering, Christi begins to do it, calming down more as I place my hands on her shoulders gently, saying nothing. As I stand there with my hands on her shoulders, I am thinking to myself how Christi went to summer school every morning this week which she hadn’t wanted to do and how she had said to me “It was just more of the same – work” and she didn’t like it. We had discussed this several weeks earlier after the Montessori school had offered Christi and Gregory free tuition for a summer enrichment program because they especially valued Christi’s leadership and example in class with the younger children. In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten that encouraging observation.
We hated to forfeit the opportunity and we thought that going only in the mornings would still leave the children all the rest of the day for unstructured free play as they wished. Both of us had agreed this was just as important as working in school. Now I was wondering if the combination of “work” in summer school against her will in the mornings had left her feeling even more strongly a need to “do what she wants”, to play without having to focus and willfully sustain her attention. Freedom to play and explore with the imagination is as essential to children’s healthy development as learning to do chores.
I may have underestimated how much of her resistance was related to the disappointment of not being able to just spend time playing and being with her daddy who is often away working and if not, he is home working on his dissertation in his office. Young children ache for real time with their parents and their pain comes out in ways that often isn’t recognized for what it really is.
Okay, I’m beginning to get the picture now. Slowly it occurs to me that if I want my children to be unselfish and to love and care for others, they must have the experience of me being unselfish and lovingly caring for them by spending enough time playing with them that they want to help share chores in the house.
You can’t teach children to have empathy except by empathically responding to them. You can’t preach or force them to take responsibility apart from being in relationship with them, without turning them into conforming and performing little con artists instead of being genuine and real. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once observed, “God can save the sinners we are but not the saints we pretend to be.”
Funny thing. Christi cleaned the shrimp without any further resistance after her mom showed her how to do it. Her emotional pain vanished when her father put his hands on her shoulders with love and presence, reminding her she was not alone. The whole family was together. Love and work make good partners for a healthy community. At six years old, its hard to know if cleaning shrimp is work or play if you do it with your mother and father who love you and each other while doing it.
Now twenty-some years later with three children of her own, Christi and her husband Tommy are asking some of the same questions we asked, dealing with all the same challenges with their children. Christi is worrying about the same things with her children that we did with her, while Claudia and I rejoice in witnessing another generation passing on the torch in its own unique way, while bearing the same light.
The desert fathers say “No one can be saved without temptation.” It is also true that no parent is likely to have the joy of being a grateful, admiring grandparent except by having had their patience, empathy and resolve tested seventy times seven times by their children’s challenges growing up. It seems that parents must learn the lessons only children can teach them, whose love makes them willing students for as long as it takes to do it.