Dad’s Corner: The Importance of Choosing Your Own Shirt

Journal entry – July 12, 1990

I’ve been feeling very close to Christi (6 years old) these days. She seems to have made a leap into another kind of maturity like Gregory (8) did some time earlier. We read The Frog Child tonight. They giggled, especially Christi, at the part about the bear.

I spent the morning with Christi going to the YMCA and she went with me to make a pastoral visit to Mary C. She was a good conversationalist and is beginning to be a little self-reflective. “I have a lot of things to say! I can just keep on talking and talking.” Yet it wasn’t chatter. I was enjoying what she was saying. It was interesting and came from a calm, collected place that didn’t demand attention, but conveyed a real interest in something she wanted to share with me. It wasn’t the “Watch me daddy!” thing, but a genuine call and response in which we were free to be alone, together, like in the Divine Liturgy. I felt spoken and listened to and she did too.

We stopped at the YMCA and she picked out a sweatshirt that had “Mind-Body-Spirit” imprinted over the Greek letters Chi-Rho along with the verse from John 17:21 on the oneness of all people in GOD with Christ. That made me happy that she wanted it. She chose the colors she liked and it was good to know I could enjoy her choice even though my choice would have been different. I told her this, trying hard not to give the impression that I wanted her to choose the one I liked. This seemed to tickle her, that we were different, and that was okay. Or maybe it was just her joy that she had chosen something on her own that kind of confirmed her unique being.

Leaving a child free to discover can be difficult, because parents have often worked hard and learned painful lessons we want to pass on, for the best of reasons. Not doing that, not dominating the child and turning them into little obedient robots involves a small amount of passion-bearing. A parent must intentionally and willingly suffer what it takes to leave a child free to be who he or she is, even when it isn’t what we think they ought to be.

Christian author Calvin Miller wrote a story he called Penteuchio, a play on the words Pinnochio and the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. Claudia and I heard him read it years ago, during a time when Gregory and Christi were teenagers, giving us fits as they questioned and challenged the ways we raised them, meandering off into things we hoped they wouldn’t.

So, in Calvin’s version, this old woodworker used to pray fervently that God would grant him to know what it was like to be a father since he had never had any children. One day the old man’s wooden puppet became a real boy. He was overjoyed and began to teach him all sorts of things, and loved him with all his heart. But it didn’t last for long. Storms blew in unexpectedly, and after a while the boy began to do unpredictable things that hurt the father’s feelings, that made him angry and worried for the boy’s future. The more he tried to correct him, the more Penteuchio rebelled. Words were lost on him. He might as well have put his fingers in his ears when the old man spoke to him. Finally, one day while Penteuchio was sleeping, the father tied him fast to a chair. Penteuchio wrenched and wrestled and when he couldn’t get free, he suddenly began to sniffle.

“Papa, Oh papa,” he said, “this rope is so tight. I can’t even scratch my itches. Won’t you just release my hands. I’ll be a good boy. I promise!” The old father’s heart swelled with compassion and he did just that. “Oh thank you Papa, thank you. I feel so much better. Won’t you just release my leg too. I’ll be good. I promise I will!” It was music to the old man’s ears, and little by little, he untied Penteuchio, who had become the model of piety.

Breathing a sigh of relief as he left him completely free, which is what he’d wanted to be able to do in his heart all along, Penteuchio turned and looked at the old woodcarver directly in the eyes and before he could say a word, he kicked him in the shin as hard as he could, jumped out the window, ran off, and never returned.”

“Oy ve, Lord, this you give me as a son?” the old man complained. “All I asked was to know what it is like to be a father, and you punish me like this for all my labors?”

After a short silence, the old man heard a sigh that seemed almost like his own, yet with such heartfelt compassion it made him pay close attention. “Yes dear one. You wanted to know what it is like to be a father and I have answered your prayers. Now you know.”

The challenge of parenting is threefold. First of all is love, for without this nothing else matters. The second is to teach our children the ways we have learned to live through our living more than our talking. And the third is to forgive them as we ourselves have been forgiven for departing from those ways.

Barry Estadt, one of my mentors used to remind his students “Christ did not come to change the world, but to embrace it.” Ever since Adam and Eve, each and every one of us has tested that embrace, if only to be sure that we are loved for the persons we actually are and not for the saints we pretend to be in order that we might be loved.

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