Sunday, June 13, 2010




I.
I’m just now watching the HBO television series called “In Treatment,” which must have aired originally a couple of years ago.  Someone recommended the series to me, and I can get the whole season very inexpensively through Netflix rentals, so I am.  
The basic premise of the show is that this therapist is, indeed, affected personally by what’s going on in the lives of several, not all, of his clients.  The series follows them, these clients whose problems and pains have an impact on the therapist beyond the counseling room, for the whole season.  Viewers see these clients working with the therapist all season long.  As is often wise for someone in the helping professions, the therapist has his own therapist, and it’s fascinating to see how he has to work in his personal life to be able to deal long term with some of the very complex and painful problems people bring to him. 
The therapist’s name is Paul, and one of his clients is an early teen girl who attempted suicide after years of sexual abuse by her gymnastics coach and as a result of her parents’ divorce, from which her father walked away, moved away, refused to allow her to live with him and the new woman in his life, and established a pattern of communication wherein he called all the shots; meaning, they could only talk or see each other only when he initiated it, which nearly always was random and fairly quick.  
I’m happy to report that this young teen, Sophie, makes great progress during season one, though there are plenty of bumpy roads.  In the final episode of the season, her father shows up as Sophie is about to enter the therapist’s office for her session.  He demands to attend the session with her, and Sophie talks the therapist into agreeing to this though Paul wasn’t comfortable with the abruptness of it.  
Just when we think that the father is going to play Sophie the way he has for years, the tables get turned on him, and Sophie chews out her father for how he treated her for two and a half years, and though he pledged his love for her time and again, she kept saying tearfully to him, “How can you love me when you don’t even know me?  Did you know, Dad, that my accident wasn’t an accident?  I rode my bike into that traffic on purpose; I was tired of the pain and tired of living.  You didn’t know that, did you, Daddy?  No, because you don’t know me.”  Very poignant, very powerful.
In the musical, “Into the Woods,” Bernadette Peters’s character sings an all too true song about children.  Here are some of the words:

How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say, “Listen to me”
Children will listen.
A story popped up this week in the New York Times with the title, “Stop Texting, Dad!  I’m Talking to You!”  Ouch from all of us technology addicts!  
Janice Im is an early childhood development specialist.  She was waiting for an elevator recently, somewhere in Virginia, and she witnessed an exchange between a parent and child that greatly troubled Ms. Im, though she wasn’t surprised because of the research she’s been involved in lately.
She guessed that the little boy waiting with his mother for an elevator was about two and a half years old.  That guess alone tells you that she is a childhood specialist; any of the rest of us would have said “two or three years old,” but very few would have guessed “two and a half.”  
Well, the mother was busy with her Blackberry, texting up a storm, and the little boy kept saying, “Mommy.  Mommy.”  His mother vacillated between ignoring him altogether and saying, “Wait a minute.”  
“Mommy, Mommy,” he’d say.
Silence.
“Mommy, Mommy.”
“Wait a minute.”
From there the kid began to tug at his mother’s shorts, which got him no further.  The Blackberry was still winning out.
Finally, in desperation, he bit her leg, and that worked!  He had her attention!  A word of concern from the article:

Much of the concern about cellphones and instant messaging and Twitter has been focused on how children who incessantly use the technology are affected by it. But parents’ use of such technology--and its effect on their offspring--is now becoming an equal source of concern to some child-development researchers.
Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, has been studyiing how parental use of technology affects children and young adults. After five years and 300 interviews, she has found that feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition are widespread. Her findings will be published in “Alone Together” early next year by Basic Books.
The title of Ms. Im’s book is scary, isn’t it?
So it’s not just children and teens blocking out their parents with technology; it goes the other way too, and it may be worse with parents who have more money than their children and may be able to afford the constant transition from technology types:  cell phone to laptop to iPod to iPad.  
How can someone feel or sense that she or he is valued by someone who never gives her or him undivided attention?  “No attention” spells lack of interest, and most children, it seems, are inclined to pass on to their parents the same kind of treatment they received from their parents.  This isn’t always true; there are no absolute rules to guarantee that children will grow up well and love the parents who loved them as the parents age.  
James Baldwin said:  “Children have never been very good at obeying their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”  According to Jack Canfield, “The greatest deficit in America isn’t the trade deficit. It’s the attention deficit of our children. The average child gets 14 minutes of attention a day from each of her or his parents. So the greatest thing you can give a kid is time spent listening to him or her."
Harry Chapin sang the haunting “The Cat’s in the Cradle” years ago; it made me wonder what I’d be like if I were ever fortunate enough to be a parent:

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son,
You know we’ll have a good time then
My son turned ten just the other day
He said, “Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw,” I said “Not today
I got a lot to do,” he said, “That’s ok”
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him”
I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I'd like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

II.
In Arabia, before the development of the Islamic faith, children were considered as property.  The Qur’an speaks specifically against the idea that parents own their children.  Instead, children are given as gifts by God to be held in trust according to Islamic standards; children--both females and males--are to be physically cared for and properly educated.
In Arabia before Mohammad became a powerful force, infanticide was practiced for various reasons, one of which was what one scholar called postpartum birth control.  The Qur’an speaks of a handful of “grave” sins, and these include:  polytheism, homicide, and infanticide.  Two related passages from the Qur’an.

Say:  “Come, I will rehearse what Allah hath (really) prohibited you from”: Join not anything as equal with Him; be good to your parents; kill not your children on a plea of want; we provide sustenance for you and for them; come not nigh to shameful deeds. Whether open or secret; take not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom.
O Prophet! If believing women come unto thee, taking oath of allegiance unto thee that they will ascribe no thing as partner unto Allah, and will neither steal nor commit adultery nor kill their children, nor produce any lie that they have devised between their hands and feet, nor disobey thee in what is right, then accept their allegiance and ask Allah to forgive them. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
Lest you think this is an outmoded concern, do I have to remind you of how many parents in this country kill their children for hosts of reasons including what they call discipline and because, they claim, God led them to or told them to kill the children.  
Muhammad was himself an orphan by the time he was six years old.  His mother died shortly after his birth, and by the time he was six, his father had died.  He was raised from then on by an uncle.  Undoubtedly because of his own experience as an orphan, thankfully a well-treated one, he always had a soft-spot in his heart for orphans, but he was opposed to adoption.  Faithful Muslims were to treat orphans as members of the community of faith, but not as members of their own households, which could conceivably confuse heredity and marital laws.  
While Muhammad embraced a great deal that had been
taught by the ancient Hebrews, he was not as embracing of orphans in his religious teachings.  They weren’t to be tossed aside, as we’ve seen, but they weren’t to be brought into families as equal, beloved members as was more likely done by the Hebrews.
The preacher in the book of Deuteronomy preached this as a part of her or his message:

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites [that is, the clergy], the aliens [immigrants, in other words], the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments” 
(Deut 26:12-13 NRSV).
Spiritual seekers and people of faith are supposed to take care of children; it’s our responsibility.  If they are our children, of course, we take care of them.  If they are parentless, they are still our responsibility; they are children.
All of our children are precious, but so are the children of others whom we don’t know.  No person is stronger than the person who lifts up and empowers the powerless, and children are powerless by virtue of their size and status.  We can’t let them be brutalized or neglected by any source, including their parents. 
One of the stories from the life of Jesus that many people love is where he blesses the children.  The story is told in at least two of the Gospels.  I think Luke had the greatest concern for outsiders among the four Gospels so I look to that Gospel first when I’m studying a passage about the peripheral people.  Families might value their children, but it would be hundreds of years before we’d begin to have whole societies who valued children for who they were as they lived their little lives--not for how they could become a part of a free labor force to keep family finances rolling or for how they might, if they were boys, keep the family name alive in the next generation.  

People were bringing even infants to Jesus that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the empire of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the empire of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17 NRSV).
So, blessing two birds with one breath, as it were, Jesus states boldly that children are important and that they are as deserving of his attention as are adults.  Jesus is also saying the way a child believes in whatever it is she or he believes in, with both utter innocence and with absolute acceptance is the way adults who want to be a part of his movement have to come into God’s empire as citizens of the empire--believing in it though only parts of it can be seen and believing in it with absolute acceptance anyway.  
Part of what the disciples did when traveling with Jesus was crowd control; otherwise, people seeking Jesus’ attention but especially his widely known healing skills would literally have overwhelmed Jesus.  We get the idea that not all holy men and holy women welcomed the opportunity to work children into their schedules.  The disciples were operating off that preconception.  Get these kids out of Jesus’ hair so he can heal those who really matter, the grownups.  
Jesus responds by saying to his disciples, “Don’t give the kids who want to be near me any grief, and don’t give the parents of the infants trying to have their babies blessed or healed any grief for bringing the little ones to me.  They count just as much as the adults.”  In other words, we can’t neglect the children.  
Anyone, then, who wants to be a part of the Jesus movement knows from the get go that caring for children, teaching the children, loving the children remains a major part of our responsibility in every generation.  James E. Faust has put it just the way many of us believe it:  “No gift bestowed upon us is so precious as children. They are proof that God still loves us.  They are the hope of the future.”
Many Jews, past and present, have not/do not believe in a life after Earthly life.  Some do; most don’t as I understand it.  That is why for many generations children took on an extra value for many Jews.  For a substantial number of those Jews who didn’t and who don’t believe in an afterlife, people live on through their children and grandchildren, their descendants.  Those Jews weren’t concerned about rewards or punishments for themselves in some unknown place, out there somewhere.  They wanted to make a contribution to the world in which they had lived, and they could do that by bringing up the children in all the right ways and leaving them to keep making the difference the now-deceased parent had been making or hoped to make.  A better way of envisioning this, I believe, that takes the pressure or burden off your offspring is not to expect them to follow in your footsteps, but to be empowered to use their respective gifts to make the world a better place.  They need to do it their way.
It’s admirable that Jews who see themselves as living on through their children and grandchildren aren’t worried about all the good things coming to them like prizes in Cracker Jacks boxes in another world, but are much more concerned with continuing to want this world to be a better place, and who can we trust more to keep our concerns going, in their own ways, than those who knew us best, our children?

III.
If you listen to my sermons with any kind of regularity, and I’m not assuming that just because you’re in a pew here that you are necessarily listening to me, you’ll know that parenthood is central in my life and that my sons mean the world to me.  As far as I know, this attitude is shared by all Silverside parents.
Not meaning to shock you, but I’m not the perfect parent by a long stretch, yet, I do think I got it when it came to understanding that my children were gifts to me and their mother.  They didn’t ask to come into the world; we brought them in, and it was our joyful responsibility to care for them and share life with them in all the positive ways that are possible at the various life stages.  It never occurred to me that Lindon and I should have kids because of what they’d be able to do for us.  They didn’t owe me anything, and they were not around to serve me or my interests. 
Parents who burden their children with this, “You owe me,” song and dance have forgotten how many votes were cast to move ahead with conception.  I do believe children owe respectful parents respect.  As far as forming a pool of free labor or providing personal domestic or valet services, no.  
Parents who dare to say to their children, “After all I’ve done for you...,” are parents who have no understanding of unconditional love, and unconditional love is the only kind worth having.  Conditional love eventually turns out to be no real love at all.  Children, sadly, and many adults don’t know the difference between conditional and unconditional love.  They, therefore, make the mistake of saying yes to what looks like love to them, but that eventually will obligate them to whatever the person promising pseudo-love demands.   
For a pile of complicated reasons, I kinda sorta missed out on most of childhood--not completely, but mostly.  And one of several joys of parenting Jarrett and Carson was the opportunity to revisit childhood and fill in that gap, reclaim some of what I’d missed.  In ways, I re-grew up with them.  In order for that to have happened, I had to learn a great deal from my sons, and I did; I still am learning from them.  
From the Children’s Defense Fund:

USA Today reported this week that the national poverty crisis now affects 1 out of 5 children in the United States, up from 1 out of 6 just four years ago. This astonishing figure is a sober reminder that the recession isn't just stretching our safety net, but it's also threatening the success of the next generation of Americans.  Indeed, childhood poverty in the United States ignites a devastating chain of consequences that leads to equally devastating places:
Four-year-old kids living in poverty are 18 months behind their peers. These gaps in early childhood persist throughout a child's youth, with clear and established links to the high school dropout rate, teenage pregnancy and unemployment.
Only a little over 15 percent of fourth graders from poor homes are reading at levels considered proficient by the U.S. Department of Education. According to a recent study from the Casey Foundation the clearest sign a child will drop out of high school is subpar reading scores in elementary school. Almost half of all high school dropouts are on government assistance and a high school dropout is eight times more likely to be incarcerated.
One of the best ways to support our children in their struggles is to support whole groups of children who have struggles similar to the ones with which our own kids contend.  As parents, naturally, the most pressing concern we have is that things are right for those amazing people whom we call our kids.  But crusades for educational reform and medical research for one child aren’t going to go very far.  
Chances are, until all children fair well, few children will fair well anywhere in the world.
Regarding relationships with children for which we are most directly responsible--as parents, stepparents, and grandparents--I have some guidelines.
  1. Children are children and should be allowed, even encouraged, to delay adulthood until childhood naturally fades. When the Apostle Paul wrote about love he included a reference to putting away childish ways when he became an adult. Childish ways aren't childish to children.
  2. Children are like snowflakes. No two are exactly alike, even identical twins.  Therefore, expecting the same patterns of behavior from several children including siblings is an indication of being ill-informed about the nature of human beings.
  3. There are childhood emotional bruises that will never completely heal.  Time does not heal all wounds, and children are breakable.
  4. Children are inclined to mimic the behaviors that they witness in their parents' lives even if they detest those behaviors, even if those behaviors are extraordinarily subtle.  So, children of divorcees are more likely to divorce than children whose parents stay together healthily.  Children of alcoholics are more likely to have substance abuse problems than the children of parents who do not have those illnesses and struggles.
  5. Children cannot learn what they are incapable of taking in developmentally. This includes spiritual lessons.  The church forever more has been guilty of trying cram doctrine down the throats of children, doctrine that even informed adults don’t understand fully.  
  6. Unless given a reason not to be, children are inherently trusting and have to be taught in this crazy world that a substantial number of adults are not to be trusted.  This is one of the saddest commentaries on the modern world and one of the burdens on children that didn’t used to be there to the degree that danger is there today.
  7. There is no good reason to keep children away from clear teachings of Jesus, but not every story about Jesus is a story for children.  I’d favor a lesson on “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” over a story on one of the miracles lest children think of Jesus as a magician or an early relative of Harry Potter.
I am the child,
All the world waits for my coming,
All the earth watches with interest to see what I shall become.
Civilization hangs in the balance,
For what I am, the world of tomorrow will be.
I am the child,
I have come into your world,
About which I know nothing,
Why I came I know not;
How I came I know not;
I am curious;
I am interested.
I am the child,
You hold in your hand my destiny,
You determine, largely, whether I shall succeed or fail.
Give me, I pray you,
Those things that make for happiness.
Train me, I beg you,
That I may be a blessing to the world.