The Hidden Calling of a Parent

Sad boy aloneI often hear parents lament, “I just don’t know my kid at all anymore. It’s like they’re a complete stranger.” I don’t argue with them. Because they’re right. Our kids are strangers to us. But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be…

AN ORDINARY NIGHT

A Saturday evening. Two brothers. Born four years apart. With an entire day of being together under their belts.

Cue the chaos.

Eight-year-old Aidan lays on the couch, nose buried in a book, looking for any opportunity to impale his brother on a foot or a fist. While four-year-old Quinn charges at him repeatedly, trying to ram his head into Aidan’s stomach.

It looks like some kind of bizarre mating ritual.

After repeated calls for a cease-fire, my blood finally cooks—frustration with a kid who won’t quit bothering his big brother. And my anger tells me I know this kid. Tells me I understand his malignant intentions. My anger tells me I have him figured out and what he needs is a good consequence.

So, my voice raises. I walk him to timeout, this little boy I know so well.

But what I see in his eyes isn’t malignant. It’s suffering and sad, and for a moment, I wonder, is my son a complete stranger to me?

THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF CERTAINTY

Anger erases mystery.

Anger is a slippery-hot beast, coming up from the depths to feed on certainty. As parents, anger is the place we go when we don’t have any other place to go. When we need to root ourselves in something that feels powerful and within our control. Anger compels us to devour our children with a certainty about who they are.

But when the anger passes, and we spit them out, we realize with remorse, we don’t know our children at all.

They are like strangers to us.

Just when you think you gave birth to selfishness personified, they break off a piece of chocolate bar and give it to their younger sister.

Or you hear the call from the bedroom, and you are sure the needy creature is asking for another sip of water, and you storm in face all scowling, and they whisper to you that big brother is crying in the bunk above.

Or just when you were starting to believe the grades and the good friends meant they were on the right track, you discover a bag of green grass in their pants pocket, and suddenly they are both stupid and delinquent.

Or the one you would have bet would cry like a faucet at grandma’s funeral stands by stoically, while the one you thought would be a rock ends up a puddle.

We are regularly startled into the strangeness of this little-growing-bigger person. We trip over their mystery in the most unexpected of ways. And for a while, we know we don’t know. But time passes and frustration builds again, and soon we are cloaked again in a false sense of familiarity.

Why does it grow back like that?

Perhaps, because they come from our bodies and our chromosomal strands, we expect our kids to be familiar to us, to think and feel like us, to act like us. Perhaps we are scared of their other-ness, and so rather than accepting they are strangers, we try to make them familiar with our anger. Maybe it grows back because parenting is an enormous responsibility, and the prospect of flying the plane-of-parenthood in the dark with no instruments is terrifying. Maybe it grows back because certainty is like a drug, and we’re all addicts.

AN EXTRAORDINARY NIGHT

As I see the shadow in Quinn’s eyes, I feel a shadow fall over my heart. And I decide the only thing I really know about Quinn is he loves his older brother. So, I sit him down and I say softly, “Quinn, you love your brother, but…?”

Quinn tucks his chin. Eyes cast down.

And I repeat the question, even quieter. Still nothing. I decide I’m pressing my luck and return to the dishes. But as I reach for the faucet, I hear a quiet-sad whisper from the corner of the kitchen: “But I want him to play with me.”

But I want him to play with me.

And a dad gets a glimpse: But I’m four and he’s eight and it won’t be long and he’ll be going off to college while I’m taking my first trembling footsteps into high school, and I want him to pay attention to me now, before the age difference means so much.

When your kid pulls back the veil like that, all the anger seems like violence. Your heart is in your stomach and your throat all at once. And you realize how little you know, how powerless you are to fully comprehend them, how finite is your ability to protect them from all of it, how little you contribute before they pull out of the driveway for the first day of college or the job that finally puts a roof over their heads.

You realize you don’t know your kid at all.

And how are we supposed parent in that kind of darkness?

THE LIGHT OF HOSPITALITY

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Children…are given to us so that we can offer them a safe, loving place to grow to inner and outer freedom. They are like strangers who ask for hospitality…and then leave again to continue their journey.” And the dictionary defines hospitality as “the reception and treatment of guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, and generous manner.”

Perhaps we are called to transform our little strangers into little guests?

Perhaps when our children arrived on that first day, all screaming and slippery, they were like guests, knocking on our door, asking for a place to stay for a while—a place of shelter from a dark and scary world. Some were invited. Some were not (oops). But either way, we chose to open our doors to them and to welcome them in.

By becoming parents, we chose to become hosts and to begin the life-long and transformational work of hospitality.

But what is this hidden calling?

It is not a call to become Donna Reed or Ward Cleaver. It is not a call to some kind of robot-like perfection, with plastered smiles and infinite tolerance. Hosts are not perfect, they are simply committed to becoming ever more warm, friendly and generous.

So, we grow to accept the strangeness of our children. We provide a safe harbor in which everything they are can be revealed, but in which the revelation is up to them and not forced by us. We allow our child-guests their autonomy and their freedom. We encourage them to be who they are, rather than who we want them to be. We instill in them the comfort of a critical paradox: they are deeply welcomed in this place, yet they are not expected to stay, either physically or emotionally. They are here for us to give to them, and then they are expected to leave, and, yes, to take a part of us with them.

I think the transformation could be a messy one, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. When a guest starts breaking stuff and screaming wildly, when do you draw the line? And when a guest bring the world into your home, when do you slam the door and lock it and tell them to make a decision about which side of the door they want to be on? And when a guest has stayed longer than was planned, when do you finally ask them to leave?

Maybe the idea of hosting our children leaves us with more questions than answers, but we must not discard the idea because we shy away from questions. We must embrace this new set of questions and step boldly into our calling, as parent-hosts.

If our marriages are the place in which we learn to lose and to be vulnerable and to unite with compassion, perhaps parenthood is the place in which we are, finally, transformed from guests-in-this-world into hosts-to-this-world. The place in which we learn the sacred art of hospitality. The place in which we learn, finally, to be a place of welcoming for a strange and scary world.

Comments: How do you welcome guests into your home? How might this translate into welcoming our children as guests? Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments!

About the Blog: While I have your attention (if I still do!), I want to thank you for your participation here at UnTangled. Whether you have been here from the beginning or just joined last week, whether you participate simply by reading or by regularly commenting here, on the Facebook page, or on Twitter, I deeply value your presence here. As a way of expressing this, my next Friday post will be a letter to you, a way to communicate to you more clearly about what is happening here at the blog and the important role you play in it. In the meantime, the next Tuesday Tip will delve more practically into ideas about parenting-as-hosts. Comment below, and your ideas might make it in!

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • joshuagamenman

    this was awesome. and made me cry. i tell my wife all the time that i dont ever want our kids to leave us. now, they are 7, 19 months, and 4 months. i realize they will become teenagers one day and it wont all be as warm and fuzzy as it is now, but i know i will love them more then, than even today, as every single day the love feels deeper.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Joshua, Blessings to you as you care for your young family and love them into adulthood!

  • Kim

    I wasn’t raised with good parenting, and when I became a parent, I had no idea what to do. I read LOTS of books to try to figure it out. One of my favorite lessons from that time is that they are not little people who are “being bad”, they are little people trying to get their needs met in the only way they know how (until I teach them new ways). It helped turn a lot of chaotic little-boy (and big-boy) moments into moments of “what does this boy need?” That attitude helped me learn to trust that they DO know what they need in order to grow into the person they want to become…and finding out who that person is for each of my boys is so exciting.

    I love new, positive thoughts about parenting, and I love what Nouwen said about hospitality…in this case, hospitality with the intention of creating people who are able to move on and be hosts themselves. Very cool 🙂

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Kim, this is a great reminder to trust the hearts of our children, to trust that they know what they need. Thank you! Your boys are lucky to have you for a mom!

  • Harriet Zalika Scott

    Parenting is indeed a mystery.

  • David Scott

    I think i am beginning to understand something about how our two kids relate from this piece especially about the younger one wanting to play with the older one.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      David, I just uploaded some video from a wedding we were at this weekend. In the background, our youngest son can be seen to make repeated efforts to get his big brother to play with him. It was heart-breaking to watch, and even more so to think that we so rarely observe it. They have a lot going on in their little worlds, they’re lucky to have a dad like you who is watching!

  • Slade Mitchell

    I really enjoyed the article–great insight. I’ve never viewed parenting through this lense. Definitely something to ponder. Thanks!

  • Deborah Suess Weaver

    What rose up in me was the power of CURIOSITY. Perhaps if as a parent I can remain curious–create that safe space for the guests who are our children–curious enough to take the time to understand. My youngest son has spent the last 18 months of his life (and he is not yet 18) in jail because of his violence and drugs. Perhaps if I could stop fearing his behavior and worrying about his future long enough to provide loving, extravagant welcome for who he is .. . maybe then we could get to the why and what he really needs. Thank you for your posts . . always right on.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Deborah, this is really challenging and thought-provoking: the idea that our worry and fear keep us from entering into a place of patient, attentive curiosity about our children. The word “curiosity” is going to stick with me this week as I parent!

  • Anita van Doorn

    The first thought that came to my mind when I read the lament of ‘i just don’t know my kid at all anymore’ was…How well do they know you? I know that my parents shielded me and brother very much from so called ‘grown up stuff’, but in general I grew up in a family where there were no discussions around a dinner table, even about the ordinary, daily goings-on. I occasionally got to hear the odd story about some cool thing my dad did when he was growing up, or something that my mum never got to do and so was a little bitter about when she was younger, but it wasn’t until i was very much and adult and was given the opportunity to see how I was not letting my parents into my life, that I realised that I never really got to know my parents, and were not giving them the opportunity to know me. And so I set about getting to know them. To ask what it was like when they were growing up, what they fear, what brings them the most joy, sharing my adventures and my woes. Now obviously a young child wouldn’t know to find this stuff out about their parents themselves, but as a parents we can tell our life stories to our children, open up to them, just start talking and the stories will come, and in turn, create the space where they feel they can open up to us just as much.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Anita, I hope others are following these comments and reading what you wrote. Its such an important reminder to empathize with our children, to understand that from their perspective, we too are enormous mysteries. Thank you for the reminder to pull back the curtain a little.

  • Catharine Phillips

    I have two children, one 25 and one 16. Both emerged into the world a surprise. And of course very different. I like the lense of parent as host. The beauty of child as guest allows me to experience each of them as different from me, and to ask questions knowing that I may not already know the answers. I remember when my son, after having spent the summer with his father, came back saying: Oh Salad… I Love Salad! (having hated it before he left)… a simple thing… yes… but profound in its own way. I am now privileged to see, at 25, what pieces he retained from his time as guest in my house, and what he continues to add to the picture. I look forward to something similar with my 16 year old daughter… who surprises me every day.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Catharine, what a blessing to see one of your children set out into the world, taking some of you with him and leaving some behind. Thank you for sharing!

  • Susan Taylor

    ‘Henri Nouwen wrote, “Children…are given to us so that we can offer them a safe, loving place to grow to inner and outer freedom. They are like strangers who ask for hospitality…and then leave again to continue their journey.” And the dictionary defines hospitality as “the reception and treatment of guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, and generous manner.”’

    I love this concept. I’ve never considered it from the front-end before, only the continuation of the journey. What a beautiful idea to imagine them as travelers traveling through and enjoying our hospitality.

    I’ve really come to appreciate the value of asking questions that begin with the word “what.” That word, more than any of the other w’s or the h, opens up many a conversation with my children.

    I also love the idea of children learning to behave as guests, that is, politely, hanging up the towels, replacing the tissue roll, putting things away, asking about their hosts. I think the entire concept brings much to the relationship between parents and their children.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Susan, thanks for adding this last part about the children learning to be guests. It begins to answer some of the questions I ask in the post.

  • peter walhout

    Thanks for the thoughts and pleasurable writing, Kelly. I like the idea that we are hospitable hosts to our kids; I just fear, then, that more often than not it means Jenna and I check our kids into a seedy Super 8 and plop them in front of the TV rather than sit and talk with them in a delightful B & B.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      That is a very provocative extension of the metaphor, Peter. I can certainly relate.

  • Cathy Horning

    As a mom of four adult children and many spiritual children, your beautifully written post resonated with me in so many ways. I indentify with and have experienced many of the scenarios you accurately portray, like this one: “My anger tells me I have him figured out and what he needs is a good consequence….So, my voice raises. I walk him to timeout, this little boy I know so well….But what I see in his eyes isn’t malignant. It’s suffering and sad, and for a moment, I wonder, is my son a complete stranger to me?”

    Even now I wince from the pain I remember feeling when I reacted in certain anger, but realized from the look in my child’s eyes that I got it wrong. I will be reposting this, and hope many others will read it.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thank you, Cathy. And I look forward to checking out your blog!

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