I 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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