What would she enjoy? Where should we go? I wanted to be a good dad, and as all parents know, coolness is correlative to one’s ability to conceive of and execute fun ideas. It was up to me to give direction, call the shots, and lead the way.
So like any good parent, I asked, “What do you want to do today, sweetie?”
From the backseat, I heard, “I want to go to Chuck-e-Cheese’s.”
“I don’t know where one is,” I replied, as we drove along a frontage road.
She responded, “There’s one!”
I was horrified.
I stalled and said I would have to think about it. I don’t care for animatronics. I have a sophisticated palate when it comes to pizza (I’m a youth minister). And I’m not very good at skee-ball. In fact, I stink.
But the “Chuck-e-Cheese’s as Dad’s Weekend Destination” campaign had been gaining momentum for weeks. Our daughter had found a token in our garage, and recognized the logo from advertising. She’d been talking about it. She wanted to go.
So I caved. How bad could it be? We eat pizza, get tokens, play a few games, and go home.
After running an errand, we went.
We played. I watched my daughter, overwhelmed by sights and sounds. Every time Chuck-e-Cheese appeared from behind a curtain, she did her best to get his attention, yelling and cheering and waving. She asked me plenty of questions about the games. And when it was time to play, we made the rounds. We spent our tokens.
But the last stop was the worst. Along the way we had collected tickets. The latest innovation in ticket-taking is a machine that tallies your winnings. Feed the machine, and it makes “munching” sounds. It eats your earnings. You would think the insult would be a little less brazen.
Next was the prize counter. There was a long line. We had our measly tally. Rather than wait and exchange our tickets for something small, we left. New to the drill, she didn’t know what she was missing. I took her for ice cream and conversation. I thought about what we’d endured.
My mind leapt to Isaiah 55:2 (MSG), “Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?” That’s what we’d done. Rather than settling for something more fulfilling and worthwhile, like a visit to a park, reading books together, slow walks, or creating artwork, we’d plunked down dollars for a diet of empty calories. I felt a little sick.
I then realized that Christian spiritual formation with children isn’t simply about practices. It is about experiences. It’s environmental. Every kid carnival or festival bombards us with signals that introduce or reinforce certain values and ideas. Every outing is an immersion in liturgy. If there is a practice we need, it is discernment.
I’m sure this won’t be my last parenting experience where I question the value of a purchase, a trip, or an experience. But as my daughter and I grow together, I hope to teach her the practice of listening to God, weighing our experiences according to the wisdom of Scripture, and remaining open to the possibility that not every stimulus we encounter is nourishing for our souls. I hope to teach her how to be a discerning woman, filled with grace, settling only for that which truly satisfies.
The key will be patience and prayer, and words seasoned with salt. I’ll need wisdom. And the spine to say no.
But most of all, I’ll need grace. Thankfully, in Christ, it can be found. As Isaiah writes, “Hey there! All who are thirsty, come to the water! Are you penniless? Come anyway—buy and eat! Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk. Buy without money—everything’s free!”
No tokens. No tickets. God’s feast is filling, and free. Thanks be to God.
— Ben Simpson is the Minister to Students at University Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas. You can connect with him on Twitter @bsimpson