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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Promise of Pain

My thirteen-year-old daughter lost three checks from her employer, the neighbor lady whose dogs she walks five days a week. My girl only gets around to submitting bills to her boss once every four or five weeks, so these are large-ish checks. After much searching we managed to find two of them. “I guess you gave Miss Ann those other dog-walks for free,” I told my daughter, who scowled and grumbled.
Yes, we could ask Miss Ann to write a replacement check. But I’m absolutely not going to, and if Miss Ann offers to do so, I’m going to discourage it. Not because I’m a mean parent, but because my daughter is currently very disorganized and a little irresponsible. And she won’t work toward improving in those areas if she never suffers because of them.
People only change when it becomes too painful to stay the way they are.
That’s the very core of discipline: we make our kids’ lives a little uncomfortable by taking away something they like or giving them something they don’t like so they are motivated to change an unproductive or unwelcome behavior.
It’s the core of natural consequences in adult life too: If I don’t fill up the gas tank, I may end up stranded; If I fail to show up at work, I won’t get paid; If I don’t secure the ladder before I climb up onto the roof, I may fall and break my legs.
 No one likes pain; we would all prefer to avoid it (which is why motivation theory works). Incidentally, it’s one of the points people often use to argue that there must not be a God, because why would a good God allow all this pain in the world? I won’t go theological here, but let me just ask: If you never persevered through pain, what would your life be like right now? Would you have finished school? Would you have stayed through marriage troubles? Would you have run that race, learned that instrument, or lost that weight?
If a person never persists through anything difficult, it’s probably because s/he never had to. It never became more painful to stay the same than it was to grow and change.
The father of an adult son once complained that his son wouldn’t move out or get a job or contribute to the household in any way. I suggested the father start to charge the kid rent. The man spoke to me as though I had an IQ a little lower than Forrest Gump’s: “He can’t pay rent,” Dad said slowly. “He doesn’t have a job.”
Right. And as long as he gets free room and board, he’ll never get one.
(Seven years later he still hasn’t, incidentally.)
I want my kids to live good lives. Honestly, I wish they could live pain-free lives. But a pain-free life is a stagnant, immature, and growth-free life. My kids (and I) must suffer some pain in order to learn, mature, and become wiser, better, and more responsible people. This is true until the day we all die.
And I’ll bet that the next check my daughter gets from Miss Ann will not be stuffed into a backpack or back pocket, but will get signed, sealed, and sent to the bank immediately.
Learning that life lesson is worth picking up a month’s worth of dog doo for free.

May we have you over again? Yes, please! No, thank you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors

When I did my student teaching practicum in 1993 my supervising teacher at the high school told me that she saw a shift in kids’ behavior in the 1970’s, specifically with respect to how they talked. The explosion of television sit-coms (Happy Days, Sanford & Son, All in the Family) seemed to have changed how people viewed and expressed humor. “Everything became about the sarcastic retort, the one-liner, and one-upmanship,” she told me. “They’re much more disrespectful with each other, and with adults.”
Given the breakdown of public discourse—when was the last time you had a contra-partisan conversation on social media that didn’t devolve into name-calling within two or three exchanges?—it seems my mentor may have been onto something.
Television is, at its core, about ratings and profits. The larger a show’s audience, the more it can charge for advertising spots. And frankly, morality and good behavior don’t sell. Jerry Springer, Sally Jessy Raphael, & Geraldo didn’t build their talk show empires with segments on financial advice, car maintenance, or cute animal tricks. They exploited angry exes, homosexual strippers, self-mutilation, and bestiality, to list the first few topics that came up when I Googled “Jerry Springer”.
We’ve sensationalized and celebrated the very worst in humanity and called it humor, education, news.
Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? (The term “art” is used here very, very loosely.)
How did we end up with a thrice-married, five-times-bankrupt, reality TV personality in the White House? Because “he tells it like it is!” and he “fights back!” and he “stands for what we stand for!”? Right. No. We scooped him out of the tabloid talk shows and made him our king. He’s the poster boy for everything television studio audiences want to see: lewdness, loudness, and hostility.
If you disagree, then do your own research. Next time you’re consuming some media (watching TV, reading a magazine, or browsing your social media feed), ask yourself what the thing you’re seeing is trying to sell you. Right now I’m trying to sell you the idea that we’ve been duped into believing that what we see on TV is real life, that that’s how we are and how we ought to be.
The jewelry ad that promises, “Make her fall in love with you all over again” is trying to sell you hope that your marriage will get fixed if you just buy your wife some bling. The Instagram friend who posts a photo of her cherubic toddlers mixing up cookies in a kitchen that looks like the set from a Crate and Barrel catalog shoot is trying to sell you a particular image of herself. Those click-bait List-of-35-Whatever social media posts are trying to sell you whatever you’re willing to click on so they can get kickbacks from the 872 ads they’ve mingled in with their content till you can hardly tell which is which.
What are television shows trying to sell you? While they’ve all got an implicit worldview (Star Trek, for example, espouses a lot of Bahá'í philosophy), for the most part they’re not selling you anything. They’re actually selling you. Your presence in front of the screen ups their ratings numbers so they can feed you to the ad agencies, who want to siphon off your cash. Same thing with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. You are the commodity that the advertisers are buying.
If that doesn’t bother us, we’re probably not giving it enough thought.
Which is probably why we are where we are.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Farewell, Freddy

Our neighbor’s dog Freddy died this week.
Freddy has lived in this neighborhood longer than we have. He may have been the first doggo to bark at me after we moved in back in 2007. You couldn’t walk past Fred’s house, if he was outside, without getting barked at. He’d give one solitary Woof, to let you know he considered it rude if you strolled by without stopping to give him a pat and a scratch.
His parents called him The Mayor, and that seems to be just how he saw himself.
My two older kids have a dog-walking job for the lady who lives three houses down. Her two dogs were friends with Freddy—rumor has it he considered one of them his girlfriend—so he often came out of his garage to rub noses and sniff behinds with Robie and Hovey. When they went out of town, Fred’s parents even hired my kids to dog-sit a couple of times. Fred had a complicated meal structure, and didn’t much like to walk when you wanted him to. It was a good exercise for my kids in managing a schedule, serving a demanding eater, and dealing with a smallish, recalcitrant being. You know, parenting.
Several of my kids’ friends in the neighborhood walk and sit various dogs at various times. I’d often see Ryan on the way to care for Fred or Nena, or Andrew coming down the street for the afternoon shift with Robie and Hovey. Ryan’s older sister Casey used to dog-walk too, but now she’s a senior in high school, showing and riding horses, working on plays and singing in the choir, dating, and getting ready to leave for college next fall.
One by one these kids will leave the neighborhood.
Oh, Freddy.
That dog redeemed the name Fred for me. My first serious boyfriend in college was named Fred. He led me to believe we were going to get married.
He led a number of girls to believe that.
When I met Freddy the dog, I thought he had the most unfortunate name, and because of that I thought I could never come to love him.
But I was wrong.
Many, many a morning I stopped to talk to Fred and his mom on my way back from taking one or more of my kids to the bus. This year, however, my youngest is in fifth grade, and her school is right around the corner, and she made patrol captain, so there is no way she’s going to let her mother accompany her to school. I’ve had bus duty morning and afternoon for the past eleven years.
Now I don’t.
So I didn’t see Freddy much this fall. I wasn’t out and about like I used to be.
My son came home from his morning dog-walk a few days ago and said that Fred’s parents didn’t expect him to live more than another day or two. They were right.
The neighborhood won’t be the same without you, Freddy.
It won’t be the same without Casey.
Or Andrew and Ryan.
Or my kids.
I really wish you didn’t all have to go.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What Did I Do Wrong?

One of my kids is making some choices that align with the brokenness of the world rather than the wholeness of Truth. It’s breaking my heart, knowing that this chosen path, if pursued much further, leads to no good end. In my prayer time the other day I cried out to God, “What did I do wrong?”
He responded, with purest empathy, “What did I do wrong?”
We believe, as parents, that if we get it all right—send our kids to the right schools, pray the right scriptures, keep the bad stuff out and immerse our homes in the good stuff—we’ll erect a barrier around our children that will prevent them from ever straying from the good path. We love them, and give them all the truth and benefits we’re able, and deep down we really believe we have the power to protect them from themselves and from the world.
When someone else’s kid goes off the rails, drowns in a swimming pool, or climbs into the gorilla cage, the first thing the rest of us usually do is point fingers at the parents and say (if only in the silent, terrified pride of our own minds) that they somehow dropped the ball. We’d never let that happen to our kid.
I’m guilty of finger-pointing: What did you do to make your child turn to alcohol, get pregnant as a teenager, bully, shoplift, self-cut, shoot heroin, etc., etc.? Because I want to believe that I can make my kids be healthy, safe, and wise. That if I get it right, they’ll never be tempted to go wrong.
But it’s not true.
What did I do wrong? More than a few things.
What did God do wrong? Not a single thing.
He’s the perfect parent, the limitless provider, the wisest counselor. He’s never screwed up with a single one of us.
But I…
I traveled a labyrinth of dark trails between the time my parents’ control over me waned and I finally capitulated to God’s. Oh, I sinned. Why? Not because God’s love wasn’t good enough, but because my heart is dark, and my mind is conflicted, and my emotions are chaotic. I think I know what I’m doing all the time, but my own highest wisdom is laughable compared to God’s greatest foolishness.
My children all have that same agency. Every day they move further away from their father’s and my jurisdiction and closer to the end goal of being fully in charge of the management of their own lives. This is right, and the way it’s meant to be: children grow up and grow away.
And I can’t control their outcomes.
I’m butting heads with that truth right now. I can’t control this child. I can’t force insight, oblige wisdom, or coerce understanding. I still have power to enact consequences for behavior—thank God—but I have no power to govern my child’s heart. I never did. I never will.
This thing may be my fault. But it probably isn’t.
In the end, all of us have to negotiate the status of our own souls. We’ll stand alone, and account for what we chose and why.
All I can do is pray that God makes up for the ways I’ve screwed up parenting.
And I’ll hold onto the truth that he, in his perfection, loves this child even more than I do.
Right now that’s all I have.