Archives For Parents

Distant Fathers

September 30, 2014 — 9 Comments

miceChildren don’t get to choose their parents. They aren’t able to select loving parents in contrast to abusers. They can’t  express any preference about being in a home with a mom and a dad committed to them, and to one another.

But the home into which children are born matters a great deal in the direction and shape of their entire life.

It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that some settings are healthier than others. The ideal context (which very few of us are blessed to experience) is a home where mom and dad keep their vows to one another, and devote themselves to placing their children in the forefront of their concerns.

Those of us who are people of faith recognize a third pillar to this structure. There is spousal love, parental love, and love of God. When you have all three, you are fortunate indeed.

Sadly, for many, one or both parents are absent. They may be physically present (as my own alcoholic father was) but they are disengaged . . . unconnected . . . absent. I believe that when they are physically present but not really there, they often teach their children worse lessons than they would have learned if they were literally gone. But that’s a conversation for another day.

A study some months ago reveals that the absence of fathers during childhood can actually affect the brain of the child. Yes, you read that right—it can physically affect their brains.

In the study Dr. Gobbi and her colleagues compared social activity and brain anatomy between the two groups . . . the first, raised with both parents, and the second,  that had been raised only by their mothers. The results showed that mice raised without a father demonstrated abnormal social interactions.

This group of subjects also showed more aggressive patterns of behavior in comparison with their counterparts raised with both parents. In addition, these effects were stronger for female offspring. Interestingly females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug–amphetamine.*

Before continuing, it’s important to note that these experiments were conducted on animals . . . mice, to be precise. While we don’t normally think of mice as paternalistic creatures, neuroscientists assure us that these results are significant.

“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” claims Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the RI-MUHC, senior author and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. “We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”

California mice? Monogamous? Who would have thought!

Whether you place much stock in this scientific research or not, most honest individuals acknowledge the significance our father and mother share in our early formation.

C.S. Lewis’ loss of his mother and the great distance between himself and his father greatly impacted the development of his personality. Lewis goes so far as to make this confession in Surprised by Joy: “With the cruelty of youth I allowed myself to be irritated by traits in my father which, in other elderly men, I have since regarded as lovable foibles.”

Elsewhere, Lewis writes longingly of the intimate relationship he longed to have had with his own father. Describing the source of author George MacDonald’s guiding inspiration in life, he writes:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central. (George MacDonald: An Anthology).

I did not have that sort of relationship with my own father. I strove to give it as a gift to my children though. And today, while I continue to be their dad, I am acutely aware of the kind of grandfather I am.

Whether it truly affects those developing minds or not, I am committed to caring for each of them as well as is humanly possible.

_____

* You can read the quoted article in The Neuropsychotherapist here. The abstract for the original research is available here.

 

 

Misnaming Kids

August 21, 2014 — 5 Comments

baby namesWhy do they do it? I’m sure they considered it witty. They may have laughed as they inscribed his name on the birth certificate of their newborn son. (I doubt he shared the humor of the moment.)

Let’s think about this for just a moment. If your family name was Lemon, a totally respectable and not uncommon name, would you give your child a first name that is also a citrus?

That’s what I encountered as I completed the current issue of the military chaplaincy journal that I edit. One of the American Civil War chaplains I mentioned in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy bore the striking name “Orange V. Lemon.”

Really? Yes, really.

It reminded me of a quaint Canadian television series that my dad used to enjoy, The Red Green Show. His parents should have known that one color in a person’s name is sufficient.

Still, the temptation to be silly is irresistible to some people. Years ago I knew an attorney whose last name was Cain. Her parents had named her Candy, of course. Peculiar names are so common today, of course, that there are myriads of internet repositories for them.

Names are more important than many of us realize. I’ve written in the past about how my wife and I followed the biblical example of choosing our children’s names based on their meanings.

Even if that approach doesn’t appeal to a parents, there are an almost unlimited number of options that would not subject their children to unwanted attention.

Fortunately, when we get older, we have some control over what we are called. I was “Robbie” in my childhood, and graduated to “Rob” as soon as I could. “Robert’s” always been fine with me, since it’s my given name and what I expect someone I’ve never met to call me. “Bob,” however, is not okay. There’s nothing wrong with “Bob,” except that I’ve never been one. And when someone greets me as such it projects a very false familiarity.

Curiously, I recall reading in the Oxford dictionary of names that more primitive nicknames for Robert included Hob, Dob and Nob. So I suppose I should count my blessings when addressed as Bob.

C.S. Lewis chose his own name. Many people are surprised when they learn that he went by the name of Jack. How, they wonder, could one get “Jack” out of “Clive Staples?” Good question.

Lewis was not enamored with the name Clive. When he was only four, he decided to use the name of a pet dog that had been killed by an early motorist. The pet’s name was a human-friend designation, “Jacksie.” His brother Warren relates the event thusly, in his 1966 collection of Lewis’ letters.

Then, in the course of one holiday, my brother made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking “Clive”, and feeling his various baby-names to be beneath his dignity, he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced “He is Jacksie.” He stuck to this next day and thereafter, refusing to answer to any other name: Jacksie it had to be, a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack. So to his family and his intimate friends, he was Jack for life: and Jack he will be for the rest of this book.

It’s fascinating that Lewis’ family acquiesced to his demand, but it took. One small consequence, of course, is that this gifted writer is known today as “C.S.” rather than by his full names.

As for faithful Orange, I don’t know if he adopted any other name during his lifetime. He may have been quite content. It certainly did not prevent him from enjoying a meaningful life. He became a Methodist pastor and served as chaplain with the 36th Indiana Infantry.

parentsThere are a variety of reasons for expressing affection and care for one’s parents. Many feel gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made while providing for them. Others treasure memories of never doubting their parents’ love for them. Some enjoyed less idyllic childhoods, but honor their parents out of a sense of duty.

C.S. Lewis described the last type of family in The Four Loves. Rather than giving cause for their children to appreciate them, some parents raise obstacles to their affections.

We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters’ side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents.

Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance?

Dogmatic assertions of matters which the children understand and their elders don’t, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously—sometimes of their religion—insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question “Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?” Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?

Yes, there are several reasons for honoring our parents, even when they have not “earned” that respect. And now we can add another incentive to do so—because you might be sued in court if you do not honor them! While this statute has not arrived in the Western world, it is a relatively new law in the world’s most populous nation.

The recently revised law requires that adult children visit their parents “often” . . . without defining the specific frequency. Apparently, too many children have become preoccupied with their own concerns. (Shades of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.”)

Traditional Chinese culture is renowned for the value it places on revering elders in general, and parents specifically. In the Analects of the philosopher Confucius, an entire section is devoted to “filial piety.”

58. Confucius said: “When at home, a young man should serve his parents; when away from home, he should be respectful to his elders. He should always be earnest and truthful, express love to all, and follow men of virtue. Then, if he has the time and energy, he should study literature and the arts.” [1.6]

71. Confucius said: “When your father is alive, obey him. When your father has passed on, live as he did. If you do so for [at least] three years after your father’s death, then you are a true son.” [1.11]

72. Tzu Lu asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said: “Nowadays filial piety means being able to support your parents. But we support even our horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference between the two kinds of support?” [2.7]

73. Tzu Hsia asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “What matters is the expression you show on your face. ‘Filial piety’ doesn’t mean merely doing physical tasks for your parents, or merely providing them with food and wine.” [2.8]

74. Confucius said: “In serving your parents, you may disagree with them from time to time and seek to correct them gently. But if they will not go along with you, you must continue to respect and serve them without complaining.” [4.18]

75. Confucius said: “Never ignore your parents’ ages, which are both a source of joy (because they are still living) and a source of anxiety (because their deaths are coming nearer).” [4.21]

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, also demands respect for one’s parents. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12, ESV). And from the Letter to the Church in Ephesus: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

It is challenging to discern what it means to honor a parent who does not merit gratitude. Indeed, destructive (abusive) parents may well disqualify themselves from receiving honor, since they tacitly reject the very essence of what it means to be a mother or father.

Aside from these extreme cases, where only a biological relationship exists, we must be honest. None of our parents are perfect. But then the corollary is also true—none of their children are, either. It is in these common, shaded cases where our own character is tested.

C.S. Lewis lost his mother at a young age. His father remained distant, and sent his sons to distant boarding schools. During the First World War, Lewis was severely wounded and shipped from the front lines to a London hospital where he recuperated. While a patient he wrote the following to his father in Ireland.

Wherever I am I know that you will come and see me. You know I have some difficulty in talking of the greatest things; it is the fault of our generation and of the English schools. But at least you will believe that I was never before so eager to cling to every bit of our old home life and to see you.

I know I have often been far from what I should be in my relation to you, and have undervalued an affection and generosity which an experience of “other people’s parents” has shown me in a new light. But, please God, I shall do better in the future. Come and see me, I am homesick, that is the long and the short of it.

Sadly, Lewis’ father did not make the trip to visit his son at the hospital. Such is the nature of real life relationships . . . and such is the reason why honoring our parents sometimes needs to assume the form of a law, or even a Commandment.

May it not be so in your family. If your parents still live, I pray God will grant you great joy in honoring them. And, if you have children, I pray that the Lord will fill them with well-deserved affection for you.

_____

If you have never heard the song “Cats in the Cradle,” you owe it to yourself to ponder its powerful message today. You can view it here.

On Burying One’s Father

January 29, 2013 — 22 Comments

marine flagI just buried my father yesterday. Well, not literally, since the service was held in a chapel at the cemetery, but my family and I said goodbye to him in a traditional Christian service. Because he was a combat veteran Marine Corps sergeant major, he received also very impressive military honors at graveside.

It was quite nice. Although he had passed rather quickly, and completely unexpectedly, he had lived a long and full life. That sounds cliché, but during his 84 years he had a successful career in the Corps, enjoyed a long and peaceful retirement, was blessed with a loving and faithful wife, and found great joy in his three children, nine grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

Best of all, though, after what some would call a rather misspent youth, he became a good man . . . and ended his days with faith in Christ and with virtues such as repentance, forgiveness and charity evident in his life.

As the day of the funeral was approaching, I recalled one of Jesus’ conversations with several prospective disciples.

As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-60, ESV).

To some, Jesus’ words here sound harsh. However, the Messiah was not encouraging people to cease honoring their parents. After all, that would be in direct disobedience to the Commandments God delivered to us through Moses. No, Jesus affirmed our call to respect and care for our parents. What he was condemning was the excuses we make to delay accepting his invitation to follow him.

While we might offer a truly important reason for our procrastination, we often push back the spiritual “season” of our life with far more lame reasoning. “I’ll settle down after I get married, but right now I just need some time to “enjoy” life.” or “I’ll start going to church once I have kids and they can benefit from it.”

On Sundays we rarely think twice about disobeying another of the Commandments by ignoring the Sabbath and not preserving it’s holiness. Years ago Keith Green wrote a song “Asleep in the Light,” which featured the convicting lyrics:

How can you be so dead

When you’ve been so well fed

Jesus rose from the grave

And you, you can’t even get out of bed.

Most of us live long enough to suffer the loss of a parent. It’s something, perhaps, that you don’t really understand until you experience it yourself. Even then it’s difficult to console others by saying we’ve shared their loss. After all, every relationship is unique, and each human being processes grief in a unique manner.

C.S. Lewis knew well what it was like to lose his parents. His beloved mother died when he was quite young. In Surprised by Joy, he describes the pain. With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.

Alas, Lewis does not describe his father’s passing in his too-brief autobiography. What he does say, reminds me of my own father’s vast reservoir of humor and encouragement as his health waned. Lewis simply writes: “My father’s death, with all the fortitude (even playfulness) which he displayed in his last illness, does not really come into the story I am telling.”

Many of you who have lost your parents can empathize with me, and with the journey I am facing as I adjust to life without either of my parents. Because I loved them, I miss them. And the love makes the pain worth it. Besides, as Paul reminded young Christians in his first letter to the Church in Thessalonica, we “do not grieve as other do who have no hope.” Our hope is secure, resting in the very One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”