Practicing with Children

Protect or Prepare?

I did not design it, but my last several posts have developed into a series on sin and grace. All Have Sinned talked about reckoning with my own sin. Grace Rules discussed my child’s guilt over his. Today’s post deals with those who sin against us.

My son’s most prized possession right now is a pile of tiny collectable sports figures, which he has worked all year to acquire. The other day, he took them outside to show to a couple of older boys from the neighborhood.

They immediately began to pester him to give them some of the toys. He offered to give them his duplicates, but they kept asking if they could keep this one or that one. Listening from the living room, I felt uncomfortable about the peer pressure being applied. I decided to let him handle it himself. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to give up his prizes to keep his friends, but I also didn’t want to zoom in, helicopter-parent style, and solve his problem for him. I was proud of him for sharing, but I worried that he was too naïve to realize the older boys might try to take advantage of him.

He stood firm about which pieces they could keep and which pieces they could not, so I did not interfere even though it sounded a lot like a hustle, with chatter and movement from hand to pocket and back again. I was proud of his generosity and his ability to defend his own boundaries.

When he went to reset his collection again the next morning, however, there were pieces missing.  I immediately concluded that they had left in the pockets of those older boys, because the toys had been nowhere else. My anger filled me with the desire to make things right for him, and to make those boys return what they had taken.

By contrast, my son began to look all over the house, then out on the front porch, then in the front flowerbeds and grass, but dissolved into tears when they could not be found. He was convinced that they had simply been lost in the shuffle. It never occurred to him that his friends might have taken something that didn’t belong to them.

And here was my dilemma: should I tell him what I think happened?

Part of me wanted to tell him, so that he would learn to protect himself against people who would cheat him. I wanted him to feel the anger I felt.  We could go confront those boys together and try to get the toys back. He would be tougher and savvier as a result.

Then again, I was touched by his innocent assumption that his friends would never do such a thing. It is the gift of children to believe that the world is a loving and kind place, and the burden of adults to know its cruelty. He will learn soon enough on his own that the world is an unkind place. Why hurry that revelation?

Another part of me wanted to secretly replace the missing toys, to hide them on the front porch for him to find. He tried to share, and did not deserve to be punished for it. The toys don’t cost much. I have the power and the money to make it all better again, and reward him for being kind and generous.

What is a loving parent to do in this situation? I want to both protect him from the world and prepare him to live in it. I might protect his innocence, but leave him vulnerable to further trickery. I could harden him against those who would take advantage of him in the future, but only by introducing a level of cynicism and distrust into all his relationships. I could protect his instincts toward generosity, but only by deceiving him about the truth. How do you help your children deal with “those who sin against us”? There is no good answer.

The whole situation filled me with a deep sadness—for him, for the older boys, and for the sin-sick world in which we live.  When he cried for the missing toys, my heart broke not just for the minor affliction of this day, but for all the more serious hurts he will endure as he moves through this world, for all the people and situations that will cause him pain. And not just for him. Those older boys learned their techniques from somewhere, and they have likely already been the victims of much meanness in their own short lives. All over the world, people hurt one another all the time, every day, in cruelties both heinous and mundane. What can we do to both protect and prepare our children for this world?

Then it hit me: this is what God must feel like every day, all the time.

The Mother and Father of us all gave birth to each and every one of us, and aches with love for us. Yet that Loving Parent watches every day as we hurt one another and sin against one another over and over again. How much God must want to step in and make everything right. How much God must desire to unmask the wrongdoers and settle the score. How much God must desire to protect us, yet know that our maturity requires learning for ourselves how to be hurt and give grace.

In the end, what I did looked a lot like doing nothing. My son decided to ask the boys if they had accidentally taken home the toys. I accompanied him down the street to find them, but let him do the talking. I somehow hoped that my authority and his graciousness might sway them to the right, for his sake and for theirs. It did not.  Instead, it became obvious to me that the missing toys were in their possession.  My son did not see it that way, and he left thinking the toys had simply been lost in the yard.

I comforted him in his sadness, walked beside him when he risked confrontation, but decided that the best I could do was to let him find his own way.  I neither masked nor revealed the truth, and let him reach his own conclusions. That felt like the best way to both protect and prepare. I had the power to do more, but I concluded it would not serve the growth of my son or the other boys to interfere. I quietly shed tears for the sorrow of it all, for my son’s loss, however small, and for the older boys who had the chance for redemption and didn’t take it.

I don’t know if I did the right thing or not, but I did gain a deeper appreciation of God’s parental love for all of us. The God who created the world for love must weep at the pain we inflict on one another every day. We often question why God seems to do nothing at all to stop it. Perhaps God is also caught between the desire to protect and prepare, the knowledge that humanity cannot come into maturity without sacrificing innocence. So God accompanies us into confrontation, comforts us in our sorrow, pleads with us to do right, and persists with grace and forgiveness when we don’t. Sometimes, that’s the best a loving parent can do.

JMK

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3 thoughts on “Protect or Prepare?

  1. My heart is breaking too for your son. It may be a small hurt, but really, no hurt is small when it’s your child’s. And nothing is harder than just loving them in their hurt, rather than trying to fix it all.

  2. I also feed deeply with you and your son, but also want to affirm your wisdom. The ‘nothing at all’ you did, is powerful and will help him grow into a gracious, but problem solving adult.

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