Note: On on January 11, 2009 I began facilitating a parenting class for DaySpring, the church I attend in Waco. I’m going to be offering some of what I’m doing there in this space over the Spring.
There are some stories you know you are going to be telling for the rest of your life….
When my daughter Abby was about 3 years old, her mother (my wife, Holly) went away to enjoy a weekend with her girlfriends for the first time in Abby’s young life. Abby was not all happy about the prospects of me being the only one to take care of her from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening. I did my best to create a good time for us. Nonetheless, the weekend was punctuated with tearful moments when Abby would say, “I miss mommy.” I would say, “Oh, I missed mommy too… Let’s read a book!” and then we would move on, usually without too much distress.
On Sunday evening I had to be somewhere shortly before Holly was expected to be back in town. I asked one of Abby’s favorite baby-sitters to help me out. I returned home to my wife and joyful daughter. When I walked in the door Holly gave me a hug and whispered, “Don’t forget to ask me later about what happened when I got home!”
Once Abby was in bed for the evening Holly and I had our chance to talk. Holly told me that after the initial happy encounter with Abby, she sat down to chat with the babysitter for a few minutes. Before long Holly realized that Abby was calling the babysitter “mommy.” Both Holly and the teenage babysitter were amused and fascinated by this. Finally Holly asked, “If she’s mommy, then who am I?” To which Abby replied, “You are the bad witch.” (this often gets an “eyebrow raise” when I tell this story)
The three of them played with this little fantasy for a little while, and then Holly asked, “How do I get to be your mommy again?” After a moment of consideration, Abby said, “You have to go to the sand pit and be eaten by the snake.” Holly asked, “Where is the sand pit?” Again, Abby was thoughtful, then she took Holly by the hand, let her to another room, placed Holly inside the room, and then closed the door on her. After what seemed like a rather long time, Holly asked Abby through the door, “Well?” A litte voice replied, “Did the snake eat you?” “Yes.” Abby pushed open the door and declared, “You’re my mommy again!” Abby jumped into Holly’s waiting arms and then continued their evening together.
What are we to make of Abby’s dramatic enactment? Not only was this a rather amazing way for a three year old to tell a story, but Holly and I simply couldn’t figure out where she came up with her images. A bad witch? A snake in the sand pit? We certainly had not been reading stories to her with these characters. And although her Sunday School teacher may have told a story about the serpent in the Garden of Eden, her use of this image was not in line with that story. To be honest, we must acknowledge that we can’t really know why she did what she did. For example, it could be that she just randomly picked a game to play with her mother, and it is purely a coincidence that the game seemed oddly related to the circumstances of the weekend. This seems unlikely to me, but it is a possibility, no matter how remote.
It could also be that Abby had been influenced by some mythological stories that had been told to her by someone other than her mother or me. If so, we don’t know how and when this might have occurred. Being that Abby was our first born, we monitored her exposure to television like hawks. I don’t think she realized there were shows besides Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers until she was five. So its unlikely she heard stories about witches and snakes from the tube. But, again, I have to accept the possibility.
However, one other possibility is that Abby was born with these images nested deep in her soul, and they emerged spontaneously when her anxiety and her circumstances called upon them to tell a story that she needed to tell, but was not intellectually mature enough to describe otherwise. Those of you familiar Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes are probably already smiling.
For the purposes of this conversation, though, I simply want to make three points:
- We tell and absorb stories in order to make sense of our lives.
- The stories we “choose” will shape our lives in more ways than we can imagine.
- A central task of parenting is to offer our children stories which are invigorating, hopeful, and redemptive.
For those of us who are Christians, we want our children to embrace the Christian story as that core narrative. However, this is very difficult for at least two reasons.
- The culture offers very powerful competing stories.
- We parents are usually somewhat confused by our own stories.
For example, in the Christian story, your value is determined simply by your standing as a child of God. The Christian story tells us that the goal of life is to participate in God’s redemptive plan by embracing an ethic of sacrificial love.
Over against this story is the primary narrative of our culture which is Produce and Consume. The culture begins teaching us at a very young age that our value is determined by our ability to produce something the culture wants and by our willingness to consume what the culture offers.
We also contend with hundreds of sub-plots, offered by our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our political parties and even by the religious groups with which we choose to align. Each of these stories presents a different spin concerning who you should be and what you should value. Some of these stories are wildly inconsistent with Christian Faith, while others can be supportive of it.
Is it any wonder that we find it difficult to help our children embrace the Christian story when we ourselves can be so conflicted?
For now, I want to suggest that you spend some time reflecting on the stories that are shaping you. Can you name some of them? Can you accept that you are also being shaped by stories of which you are unaware?
The DaySpring class will ultimately get to some very practical ideas about parenting, but the first few sessions we’ll be examining our stories. We’ll be discussing how these stories shape us, and how we might align them more fully with the Christian story.