Thursday, January 28, 2010


When my children were young, I swore that when they became teenagers we would not face the typical challenges parents and teenagers face. I naively believed that if I just laid the right foundation in the early years, the teen years would be smooth sailing. Foolish pride.

I would still argue that laying a good foundation in the early years will make a huge difference in the teen years. But now that I have my first teenager, I see how simplistic I was to believe that all the challenges of teenagers could be avoided by good parenting in early life. Of course, I must also admit that I could not write the book on parenting in those years. I certainly made my share of mistakes and failed more than once as a father. But I don't think I was a complete and total failure.

Now, several months into my first year parenting a teenager, I understand much better that teens really are different creatures. You have to interact with them differently. The little girl I knew is becoming someone new. It is not an easy process for her or for me. But it is a necessary process. She must grow and mature. Occasionally I still hear of parents who claim their teens are practically perfect and that their relationship with their teen is ideal and blissful. I confess that I am skeptical. I think that some parents have better relationships with their teen than others and that there are certain things we can do as parents to enhance that relationship. But I also believe that there is something in the process of a child beginning to establish his or her independent identity that creates an inherent tension and struggle between parent and child. This underlies the agony of the teen years. Of course I still have a lot to learn, since I'm only several months into this period. But my illusions of coasting blissfully through this time have certainly been shattered--and for the better.

Having said all that, I must also add that I really have much to be thankful in my teen and pre-teen. Yes, they have their weaknesses and sometimes they absolutely make me crazy. Some days I want nothing more than to disown them. But in my more rational, calm moments I realize that I could have much worse children. I don't worry about them getting involved in drugs or other activities that would seriously harm their lives. I don't spend my nights wondering where they are or what they are doing. They still enjoy spending time with me and my wife--at least occasionally! I do worry about them, but at the same time my worries are not without hope and the confident belief that their lives are in God's hands. This doesn't absolve me of my parental responsibilities, but it does give me a peace when I see my own failures and imperfections as a parent.

No, these teenage years will not be trouble-free. But I don't think they have to be completely horrible either. They will be messy, just like the rest of life. I hope and pray I can enjoy the journey, trusting in my God to bring us all through stronger, wiser and closer to one another and to him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dishes and God's Grace

Our children share the responsibility of washing the dishes in our house. They alternate days, because they found it too difficult to work together. They don’t like this chore and complain about it regularly. Yesterday was Teresa’s day and after much footdragging she finally went to the kitchen and did them just before Sharilyn began preparing dinner. As she worked on dinner, she needed several items that Teresa had just washed. But when she pulled them from the drying rack, she found that they were not really clean. We discussed how to deal with this. At times we have made the children rewash individual items that they didn’t wash properly. This time we decided that she should have a second day of washing dishes to help her recognize the importance of doing the job well. This morning when I put away the rest of the dishes though, I didn’t find any other poorly-washed specimens, so it seems that her failure was limited to a few specific items that are harder to wash.

This afternoon while enjoying a cup of tea in the gentle afternoon sunshine that streamed into our kitchen, I began to consider washing up some of the dishes myself. Normally washing dishes is not my job, but occasionally I will do it voluntarily as an act of kindness and to demonstrate servanthood to my children. They have a difficult time with the thought of doing any unpleasant task they are not obligated to do. So I hope by occasionally stepping in and relieving one of them of a required task, they will see an example and choose to emulate it. So far this hasn’t been highly successful.

As I contemplated whether to wash dishes for my daughter, I began to wonder whether I would be sending the right message today. After all, she was supposed to do them to help her learn to do a job correctly. Would my doing them show her gracious servanthood, or would it show her only that she could get away with being unthorough? I thought about the fact that she probably wouldn’t even receive my labor with thankfulness, because she rarely says thanks for any favor we do for her. Because of this I started to lean against doing anything for her. But then God interrupted my thoughts. He asked me to think about this in light of his love and grace. Does he stop showing grace to us simply because we fail to thank him for it? Does he stop loving us because we don’t respond the way we ought? Thankfully he doesn’t!

Considering this question further I realized that one of the main reasons we fail to receive grace as grace, be it from God or from others, is that we believe in our hearts that we deserve it. I operate as if I believe God must treat me with love and kindness, so when he doesn’t I’m put out and when he does I take it for granted. I see the same thing in my daughter. She doesn’t respond with thanksgiving to my acts of kindness toward her because she feels she deserves them anyway. She may not express appreciation for me washing the dishes in her place because she feels it was unfair for her to have to do them in the first place. Once again I see my relationship with God reflected in my relationship with my children.

I understood that my decision to wash or not wash should not be dependent on the likely response of my daughter. But I still didn’t have an answer to my original question concerning the balance between showing servanthood and teaching responsibility. I don’t know that one can make a hard and fast rule about this. I think it must depend on how the Spirit leads in each situation. Some parenting methods overemphasize discipline to the detriment of demonstrating loving service, while other methods overemphasize grace to the point of encouraging irresponsibility. I want to find a balance that displays both in healthy, proper measure. In the end I decided to wash part of the pile of waiting dishes. Our drying rack cannot hold that many dishes anyway, so to attempt to do them all would have meant stacking them in unwieldy towers on the drying rack. I left the items that Sharilyn had found unacceptable yesterday, so Teresa will still need to follow through on her responsibility to do those well. But maybe she will also see an example of undeserved kindness that will enter her mind and heart and eventually bear fruit. She hasn’t discovered my work yet, so her response remains to be seen.