Before becoming parents, my wife and I took many things for granted. Things like free time, quiet meals and sanity. Now we have four children (ages 1 to 10 years) and free time, quiet meals and sanity are long forgotten.
While our kids often drive us crazy, I have to admit they’ve taught me a lot about myself. Kids smooth the rough edges off parents. If you’re impatient, kids will wear you down until you begin to learn patience. If you like everything just so, your children will teach you to live with a little chaos in your life. Some days your kids smooth your rough edges with the gentleness of fine-grained sandpaper. Other days the smoothing feels more like you’re a block of Parmesan cheese being grated.
When I was a child, my parents had a lot of rules for my siblings and me. They had good reason. Like the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, we were a stiff-necked people and our parents’ anger rightly burned against us.
Although God dictated all Ten Commandments to Moses at a single sitting, God revealed commandments to my parents one at a time over a period of many years. The Lord may have wanted his wisdom to unfold slowly, but the gradualness of the revelation was probably because it was difficult for my brothers and me to inspire new commandments while we were grounded.
God didn’t need a burning bush to speak to my parents. He had us. To be honest, God did reveal one commandment to my parents through a burning bush, but the commandment was “Keep matches out of reach of your children.” Eventually the bush grew back.
One of my parents’ most original commandments was “No wild raccoons in the kitchen.” My mom didn’t believe my older brother when he said he was going to bring a baby raccoon home. She never doubted him again.
My younger brother inspired my dad to create the commandment, “Don’t ever unscrew the gas cap on my car and fill the tank with water from the garden hose.” I won’t tell you why my mom created the commandment, “None of my sons may use shovels while I’m taking a nap.” Let me simply say that, when motivated, two young boys can move five cubic yards of sand in about an hour.
Now that I’m a father, I understand what my siblings and I put our parents through. And, in turn, I’ve caught a glimpse of the relationship God the Father has with all his children, including me. Now my wife and I are making commandments for our four kids.
First there is the greatest commandment: “Stop that.” All other commandments are derived from “Stop that.” The commandment “Quiet down” can be translated as “Stop that noise.” “Sit still” can be translated as “Stop that fidgeting.” Even when you aren’t in the same room with your children, it is useful to yell “Stop that!” every 15 minutes or so. Nine out of 10 times, your children will respond, “OK,” which proves that they were up to no-good.
When the commandments don’t work, I resort to using parables. Last summer I couldn’t get my kids to bring their things inside after playing in the backyard. Rather than scolding them, I gathered them around me and told the parable of the dirty laundry.
Hear this! One day a child was playing outside. As the day grew warmer, the child began to remove layers of clothing.
As he disrobed, a sweatshirt fell on the path, where his parents had to pick it up.
A T-shirt fell on rocky ground, where his parents had to pick it up.
Some socks fell among thorns, which really upset his parents because they had to go into the thorns to retrieve the socks.
Finally, when the child came inside and got ready for bed, his remaining clothes fell into the dirty-clothes hamper — probably by accident — and his parents were exceedingly happy.
“Why didn’t the parents put a hamper in the backyard?” asked my puzzled children. “Or buy the kid new clothes? We don’t understand this parable. Please explain it to us.”
“The child is you,” I explained. “I want you to bring your things in with you when you come inside after playing. Then, the clothes that fall in the hamper will bear fruit and yield a 100- or 60- or 30-fold, until we’re forced to do laundry because we have nothing left to wear.”
“Do you have any more wisdom for us?” my children asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” I said. “Try this parable on for size.”
As the youngest child came back from buying a Popsicle at the ice-cream truck, she fell victim to her elder sister, who stole the Popsicle and ran and ate it in the treehouse. The youngest child sat, crying, on the side of the road.
The youngest child’s other sister walked past eating her own Popsicle, but would not share it with her sobbing sibling. Likewise, the youngest child’s brother came by, eating his Popsicle, but would not share it with his sibling. He even taunted the youngest child, saying “Nah, nah, I have a Popsicle and you don’t.”
But a middle-aged man came upon the youngest child and was moved with compassion at the sight, chased down the ice-cream truck and bought the child another Popsicle. Then the middle-aged man lifted the child on his shoulders and carried her to where the rest of the family was gathered.
Which of these, in your opinion, was the child’s father?
“You can’t prove I took Annie’s Popsicle,” stammered Maria.
“I wish you drove an ice-cream truck,” said Paul. “Hey, if we get Popsicle juice on our sweatshirt, do we still need to bring it inside?”
“Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear,” I said. Not that my children have ears.
When I was in kindergarten, I prayed for proof that God existed. I wasn’t looking for God to reveal himself through the biggest miracle. I was only 5, so I was practical. I wanted God to place some graham crackers in a plastic bag in my coat pocket. Every day when I went into the coatroom, I dug my hands down deep into my pockets — but they were always empty. When I graduated to first grade, I gave up asking God for graham crackers. I was convinced he wasn’t going to deliver.
Thirty-five years passed. Then one day, I put my hand in my pocket and felt a plastic bag. I pulled it out and there in the bottom of the bag were three graham crackers. Sure, they belonged to one of my kids, but who’s to say God didn’t just take the slow-fulfillment route — using my daughter as the delivery girl — to grant my kindergarten prayer?
I had forgotten my kindergarten prayer but God hadn’t. God has answered many of my prayers using my children. Seeing my children through fatherly eyes of love, I get a small glimpse of the way God loves me. And that’s worth every moment of being grated like a block of Parmesan cheese.
Tim Bete is the director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton and author of the book, In The Beginning … There Were No Diapers (Sorin Press), from which this essay is adapted.
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