Life. Is. Difficult.
This is one of the most enduring truths, yes? Life is difficult.
Life is difficult – in many ways it is full of stuff to endure – to ‘deal with’ – from broken friendships, to loneliness, to sickness, to grieving family members, to unemployment, to financial stress. And really, sometimes just the blunt reality of there not being enough hours in a day for all the things that must be done – let alone the things we want to do is difficult.
Life is difficult.
We know this. We live this.
And yet, it is also one of the greatest, deepest truths we prefer to conceal as much as possible.
I’d like to start this morning with some questions. I’d like to start by naming what I’d like us to wrestle with together.
Although we know life is difficult, what are we teaching our children?
Are we teaching them this truth?
Are we teaching them the grace found in the midst of this truth?
Are we teaching them to wrestle with life’s difficulties?
Today is Children’s Sabbath. For 22 years, the Children’s Defense Fund has sponsored Children’s Sabbath Celebrations, as “a way for faith communities to celebrate children as sacred gifts of the Divine, and provides the opportunity for houses of worship to renew and live out their moral responsibility to care, protect and advocate for all children.” The Celebration is truly interfaith, “supported by Catholic Charities U.S.A., the Islamic Society of North America, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., the National Assembly of Bahá’ís in the U.S., the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and more than 200 other religious organizations and denominations.” This Sabbath day is a call to remember the biblical command to care for and protect the least of these among us – in this case, the youngest and most vulnerable – children.
The theme that the Children’s Defense Fund coordinators have chosen for this year’s Children’s Sabbath is gun violence. We know that we live in a culture marked by violence and revenge. We need to be willing to talk about our own infatuation with and dependence on weapons and warfare. Violence is woven into the fabric of our society. And we must tell the truth about the impossibility of squaring the Gospel’s call to peacemaking and nonviolence with our own default posture of calls for war and retribution.
But. That’s not what I want to spend my time today talking about. It is still worth addressing, but, let’s be honest, violent crime in Lawrence, Kansas, is not exactly our primary battleground – excuse the word choice. Though, to be sure, matters of gun violence are worth addressing – and we will get there.
What I want to wrestle with together this morning is the call to protect our children. I want to spend some time asking what it really means to protect our children. We know well the call to protect – as parents, as mentors, as teachers, as a community of faith. We understand that this is something we are commanded to do, and something we want to do.
And yet, what we often confuse with protection of our children is no protection at all. In truth, if many of us tend toward anything, we tend toward overprotection. I want to wrestle with the idea that overprotection really may not protect our children at all.
We often understand the call – the motivation – the desire to protect our children as a call to remove all hardship, struggle, or pain from their lives.
And yet – that is not all that helpful is it? Is it really helpful to them in the long fun? Even in the short run?
There’s a Jewish teaching, from the Talmud, that says, “A father is obligated to teach his child to swim.” We are not entrusted with children to keep them close, keep them from pain and struggle – because that deprives them of life. But rather, we are entrusted with children in order to raise adults.
Our job is to raise and nurture children that they might actually leave us. At least, in our Western idea of child-rearing we believe this to be true. Theologically speaking, we certainly ought to view nurturing, raising children – and not just as parents, but as mentors, extended family, the faith community – as guiding children to become mature, functioning, contributing members of their families and communities. We want to help them, guide them, nurture them, shape them with a faith that will not be shaken when inevitable hardship and tragedy strike. We want them to be able to work through and live with pain and grief without losing or leaving their faith behind.
Think about how much we deprive children when we think it is our job to get them to the ‘other side’ – to adulthood – smoothly, without bumps. Especially when we know the reality that living without bumps is not feasible. We know from our own lives that it is impossible to avoid bumps, hardships, struggle.
And, if we are honest, we know that out of those bumps, hardships, struggles, we have become the people we are. This is not to gloss over grief and disappointment and darkness – but it is to acknowledge the struggle. We want to protect our children so much we desire to take these things away – as though we could actually do so – as though it were appropriate to do so even if we could.
Think about how this works even in seemingly innocuous ways: when a child’s parents seek out special treatment – questioning teachers instead of encouraging children – they give them unrealistic expectations of the world. When we don’t talk about death, or when we seek to shield them from illness and suffering, or even disappointment or failure, we subtly teach them that these things are anomalies rather than part of what it means to be finite beings in a finite world.
I grew up with some unrealistic expectations of the world. I was a smart kid – a bookish kid – successful at doing school. And part of doing school well was having the kind of parents who didn’t mind contacting my teachers to clarify or advocate on my behalf.
Sounds innocent enough, right? I maintain that my parents didn’t badger my teachers. Even though my parents were decidedly not helicopter parents, I had to deal with the unintended consequences of some unrealistic expectations when I left home for college. I remember feeling overwhelmed and dealing with the unfairness of collegiate academic life, (meaning I was getting B’s), and calling home to talk to my dad about it. Or probably more accurately whine to my dad about it.
When he not only didn’t whine alongside me, he also didn’t offer to call up my professor to, um, remedy the situation; I couldn’t believe it. It was my situation to deal with – and if I couldn’t resolve it with my professor, dealing with it would mean dealing with the fact that sometimes – maybe even often – life would not work out to my distinct advantage.
In some ways this is a harmless example – but it speaks to the disadvantages we pass along when we jump in to fix things, or our version of protection is to remove all risk, hardship, or pain from our child’s life. In reality what we do when we do so is to deprive our children. We deprive them of the opportunities to mature, to develop into resilient, self-reliant adults, and to develop their own strength, maturity and wisdom.
Where does this impulse come from?
The other side of over protection is, of course, fear. And our fears are worked out in constant worry. And aren’t we awfully creative and loyal in our worrying? Our children catch onto this. Our children are keenly perceptive, aware, and susceptible to our fears. Worrying begets worrying, which ultimately communicates to our children that the world is an overwhelming, threatening and an inhospitable place.
We have to tell the truth.
We have to confront our fears.
When we overprotect our children we enslave them not only to their fears, but we hand down our fears.
One of the primary ways we can start to reframe our ideas of protection (as opposed to overprotection) is to start telling the truth.