This post is the first of a series, and is meant to be preceded in reading by an introductory letter. Please read that HERE.
“Children should be seen and not heard.” ~ English proverb
“The LORD your God is with you,
He is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
He will quiet you with his love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.”
Zephaniah 3: 17
“It’s you I like.” ~ Mister Rogers
When we were children, my sisters and I spent Julys with our grandparents. We lived in Pittsburgh; they lived on Long Island. We would travel there at the end of June and my parents would stay for a week, then they would return home while we stayed behind.
Over those weeks, my grandparents pretty much left us to our own devices. Our grandfather taught us to sail and dive and occasionally took us on errands; we helped our grandmother with chores. But on our own, we walked to the beach and home again. We played with our cousins and some neighborhood children. It was a normal and quiet life, unmarked by special activity: we never once went for ice cream or to the movies, never played a round of mini-golf. Our outings were to church and library, grocery store and, with our grandfather, the lumberyard. For the most part, we lived with our feet in the sand and our noses in books until our parents returned for us at the end of the month.
But one thing was certain about that time with our grandparents: they enjoyed it. They enjoyed us. They wanted us there with them.
One way my grandmother made this clear was at the start of the day. I remember coming down the stairs looking forward to my morning greeting, because it was always full of delight. “Well, good morning!” my grandmother would exclaim, all smiles, with an embrace as if I had just arrived after an absence of months. My being there–the mere fact of my presence in her kitchen–was for her an exaltation.
Looking back on this as the mother of grown children, I’m grateful and a little amazed. What a beautiful thing for a child to be welcomed like this, not just at the beginning of a visit, but every day.
It was a gift to be enjoyed.
The Problem with Enjoyment
Fact: (with rare and tragic exception) parents love their children. But do they enjoy them?
Here’s something I’ll bet you’ve noticed about caring for children: it’s daily. Sometimes it’s tedious. It looks like meeting needs and weighing demands, keeping schedules and finding socks. It’s preparing meals and cleaning plates, teaching chores and repeating yourself. Through and under all of this runs a deep and necessary love. It’s that love, in fact, that motivates it all. It’s why you make them brush their teeth and take them to soccer practice.
But it’s that very ordinariness that can make it all lackluster, that can suck the enjoyment clean away. You are tired, they are tired, and if they don’t go to bed five minutes ago, you may very well lose it.
The enjoyment of our children is embattled in another way, too: sometimes we don’t enjoy our children because of our children. I, for one, have known first-hand what it’s like to have my child turn into a screaming dragon in the check-out line at the K-Mart. And while I’m not naming names, I am willing to admit that there was absolutely nothing I found enjoyable about her at the time.
Our children have tempers. They have moods. They have quirks and tendencies that can amount to maddening. They are mean to each other; they are rude to us; they embarrass us in public places. Their knock-knock jokes stop being funny somewhere near round five or they were never funny in the first place and we are too tired to muster a laugh. What’s to enjoy?
No one is enjoyable all the time.
And yet I argue that we do best not just to love our children, but to enjoy them. I think one of the best ways to teach our children the gospel love of Jesus is all wrapped up in enjoyment.
Isn’t Love Enough?
Quick answer: Yes.
But bear with me a minute, because love and enjoyment communicate differently. See:
When I was in middle school, my dad had to change jobs. Suddenly his daily commute became an hour each way, a tedium that he really disliked.
We could have sold our house and moved to a different part of the city, but he and my mother weighed this option against the needs of their three daughters who were thriving at school and church. To move meant upending this–and they didn’t want to do it. So we stayed in our community and my dad commuted to work, and that commute brought him a lot of stress.
He chose to do this out of love for us–but love can’t always communicate the way we want it to. At the time, my sisters and I couldn’t comprehend his sacrifice.
Love is essential to parenting, but it can be hard. It provides your meals, your home and your clothes, but it also disciplines you so that you know right from wrong. Love makes you make your bed or write a thank-you note or miss a friend’s birthday party because you’re sick.
Enjoyment, on the other hand, always communicates joy. And it isn’t just joy in a general kind of way. Enjoyment of a child communicates joy to that child about herself. It speaks approval and delight. It says, “I like you.”
A child who lives with this kind of a blessing is far more likely to believe the gospel, because when we enjoy our children, we are telling them something True.
The Bible shows us that God delights in his creation. And above all other parts of that creation, he delights in people. Of everything he made in the Genesis account, God said it was “good,” but when it came to human beings, he called them “very good.”
We’re told that we’re made in God’s image, but that doesn’t simply mean that we are, like him, thinkers and creators. It means that each of us bears his imprint, and uniquely so. We all know this at some level. Deep down, we recognize the inimitable value of the other: no matter how much we appreciate or fail to appreciate someone, we know that that someone is–in a world of billions–irreplaceable.
Parents know this better than anyone else.
Which is perhaps a reason why, when God sought to show his love for us, he sent his Son. As Father, he knows what it is to watch a child suffer and die. This was his son, his only child, the one of whom he said, “I am well pleased” (Matthew 3: 17, emphasis mine). The Father delighted in his Son, and this Son in his Father.
And now, through this Son’s death and resurrection, the Father makes himself adoptive parent to anyone who will have him. He wants everyone to be his child. There isn’t an unredeemable soul in the world.
Each person is precious to him. Each person uniquely bears his mark. He knows mole and freckle, penchant and habit. He knows what we enjoy doing. In fact, he made us to enjoy these things, and part of our enjoyment is God’s own pleasure in it.
The Bible says that he counts the hairs of our heads and stores our tears in a bottle. Why? All scripture points to the answer: because we are his delight.
He enjoys us.
Enjoying our children, then, communicates just a piece of God’s own enjoyment to them. Or, at the very least, it opens a way for them to receive that enjoyment. It makes God’s enjoyment of them more believable.
Parenting provides us a unique view on to the value of the other. And the truth is, despite their challenging tendencies and our exhaustion, we value our children deeply. We know more intimately than anyone the moles and freckles, the penchants and habits. We know their favorite foods and colors, their ticklish spots and where their scars came from. We delight in their uniqueness, in what makes them inimitably them.
The trick is in showing them that they are enjoyable. On any given day we tolerate them. We certainly love them. But we want to actively enjoy them.
Please remember what I said earlier: no one is enjoyable all the time, but here are some thoughts that might help.
Last week I spent time with a friend who has been a mother for just over two weeks. As her darling newborn slept in my arms, she told me about her labor and delivery, the trauma and fatigue and nervousness of having this baby.
And we laughed together over the absurdity of leaving the hospital. As new parents, you barely know what you are doing, and yet they send you off as though everything will be fine. And, often enough, it is fine–but maybe you’d like an instruction manual of some sort, a reference guide to consult in those inevitable moments of confusion.
It would tell you when to feed the baby, how to discern an angry cry from a pained one, how to clip fingernails without clipping fingers, how in the world to swaddle.
And, in my opinion, it should have one last little word of counsel, appended to the end of the list. Just a reminder when the nights have been sleepless or when the baby finally sleeps through the night, when you realize you have no idea what you’re doing or when you don’t have the energy to think about it:
This child has been given to you for just a little while, yours to comfort and care for and delight in. Enjoy!