If you go to a church that has a “Children’s Moment” in the worship service, and if your child participates on a regular basis, you know the tension of wondering what your child might say or do in any given week in front of the whole entire congregation. This pressure magnifies when you are the one giving the message. It’s tense to balance being a parent and a leader, and doing it with the whole church watching creates even more.
A few weeks ago, I was preaching and teaching about the section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to love our enemies. For the children’s sermon, I talked to the kids about enemies in their lives—people that were mean to them, bullies, people with whom they struggled to get along. My son announced both the first and last name of his enemy, nice and loud for all to hear. In a small town like ours, this is potentially the neighbor, grandchild or second cousin of someone in the congregation. I tried to talk over him, but he just said it again, louder. I could feel my cheeks getting red, and I tried to move on.
I wanted to help the children learn what it meant to love their enemies by asking them to do something for someone that felt like an enemy. I brought along plastic hearts filled with little toy erasers, stickers, crayons and other prizes. The kids looked really excited, and they wanted the hearts for themselves. I explained that they could each have one—but not for themselves. The hearts were for them to give away as a gift to someone that felt like an enemy. While they looked a little disappointed, they all still eagerly reached for the plastic hearts as I handed them out.
All except for my son. I thought he was just being polite and waiting for others to go first, but then he was the last one left and I reached over to give him one. “No,” he proclaimed loudly. “I don’t want one. I’m not gonna do that.”
I’m not sure if the gasp I heard came just from me, or from the whole congregation. Part of me wanted to shush him, part of me wanted to challenge him, part of me was proud of his self-determination. The biggest part just wanted to laugh out loud. The part that won just told him to take the heart and we’d talk about it later. None of me wanted to play out this complicated parenting moment in front of an audience.
Giving our children space to disagree with us is difficult at any age. Far too often, the church promotes an image of the perfect family as one in which children silently tune in to the desires of their parents and obey without the slightest hint of resistance. Authority and obedience, rather than self-differentiation and independence, receive praise from the church crowd. When our child resists us in public, we can feel embarrassed. Even if in our parenting we want to encourage their self-expression, we can feel like the world is judging us for having a child that does not abide by some external standard of good behavior (i.e., obedience). I certainly wondered if my congregation was measuring me a poor parent (not to mention pastor!) because I couldn’t even get my own son to participate in a faith activity.
And yet, raising our children to think for themselves, make good decisions and navigate their own relationships is precisely what most of us are trying to accomplish. My son had calmly and clearly expressed his wishes. He did not disrupt other participants or speak negatively about the activity. Isn’t that a model of good behavior? Why should I feel embarrassed about that? Obedience should not be the only measure of good behavior. Courage, compassion, tenderness, inquisitiveness, respect, and the ability to say “no” should also be values we cultivate in our children. Why should I want obedience in front of an audience and all those other virtues the rest of the time?
Parenting in public is hard. Maybe we can all try to think about the bigger picture, and set obedience in its rightful place—as one of the virtues we are trying to cultivate in our children, but not the only one we wish to see on display in front of a crowd.
The reality with my son, he explained to me later, was that his teacher had explicitly said that they could not bring anything to school unless they brought enough for everyone in the class. So his refusal to participate in my exercise had nothing to do with rejecting my faith or being fearful of an enemy or expressing a spirit of defiance. He was just following the rules. I told him I was proud of him—for listening to his teacher, for speaking his mind, and for being honest with me.