Every parent and most people just trying to do their jobs have come up against vacant eyes when they’re trying to make a point. Often what we have to say is really important, making that empty look so much more frustrating. It can be tempting to save our breath.
We have a lot of time with children we’re raising. The first comment, and the second, and the twenty-third may not seem to make it through. Like vegetables in the soup, however, if they’re in that broth for a long time, they’re bound to adopt some of the savor. The flavor of the home our children are cooked in never leaves them, and often that flavor is made up of a lot of things said and apparently unheard.
A friend, who has a son who has left the family religious circle for several years, recently shared that at a family gathering (something he has the strongest concern about preserving, even among his more apparently religious brothers) he responded to a playful jibe about his religious attendance by announcing that he had gone to church unrequested for the previous few weeks. She was shocked and surprised. She had come to accept his choice, though it still pained her, and thought it would be for life. He found his way back on his own, her young prodigal. I’ve heard more stories like this than I can count. It happens a lot, these prodigal returns.
I spent a lot of my early parenting being frightened of a great many things. I wasn’t going to be good enough. I wasn’t going to get everything in. I was going to miss correcting something and my children would suffer their whole lives for it. It was a compulsive sort of soup to be cooked in. As time went by I realized that there is too much to a meaningful life to smash into 18 years, so I’d just have to hit the high points and plan to still be around to fill in as requested. It was then that I saw that the flavor of the soup was my true attitude and values, not the breadth or perfection of my instruction.
The issues that seem to have stuck deepest were the ones I felt most deeply about. My children are independent souls, determined to shape their lives the way they think best, and that’s the way it should be. I don’t have to say much anymore, however, about what I think is important. They know. They’re microchipped with some knee-jerk views of life because that’s what they grew up with, and no matter where they go or how they choose to mold their life, they’re on alert to signals from home base.
Knowing that, there are things I would go back and change. I wouldn’t worry. When their eyes glazed over, I would laugh instead of spiking my blood pressure. I would narrow my eyes and tell them that they were mine (bwa ha ha), because I was just going to keep it up, and I would grab them and hug them, then let them go stomping away. And I would be more consistent, because I would have hope that the hard things I was doing really did matter.
I have heard leaders in my faith say that their kids may not remember what they talked about on family night, but they will remember that they always had it. That’s really nice, but personally, that wasn’t enough to motivate me to drag together something when I was tired, to brave the boredom emanating from that sea of vacant eyes when I’d rather do something more restful. Knowing that my concern to bring them all together for family night, week after week, would be a homing device that would bring them back through anything – that would have motivated me to crawl through a desert thirsty to do it.
Learn from my mistake. What you consistently do matters. Your love for your family will penetrate them permanently, flavoring their lives. Your love for God will be indelibly stamped on their souls. The things you set up as gods in your home – whether scripture or career or television or play together – will be the gods they keep, or the gods they have to fight, all their lives.
That sounds intimidating, but it’s not. Who we are, truly, is the homing signal, as long as they know we love them. It’s the frequency to which they’ll tune in when they return from wherever they go. But they can only know who we are when we talk about how we feel, why we do what we do, what matters to us, and when we do what we say. We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to care about what we say we care about. When we stumble, if we tell them that we did, they’ll know where we were going, and it’ll be almost as good as having never stumbled.
It has made my life so much less stressful to forget about making them listen. I know they hear what my life says. If they wander, it will bring them back.
Don’t worry. Keep at it. They hear.