So, I’m on this elevator, to see the doctor about my elevated cholesterol and general physical malaise. Across from me is a mom and her 8 year old son. He is all boy. His shirt is on inside out, his hair looks like uncombed wheat. And he is utterly delighted to be on the elevator. He is looking out the glass window as we go up: humming, whistling and bopping around with a kind of excitement and innocent joy God gives almost exclusively to kids. He is oblivious to me, his mom, to anything but the cacophony of beautiful noise inside his busy, happily chaotic little brain. I smile at him, almost unconsciously. It is a sacred moment. A child being a child and a 55 year old with arterial plaque wishing he could get away with being one. Then the moment is shattered. The mom notices me smiling and becomes self-conscious. And all of her shame about her parenting and her son embarrassing her in public suddenly kicks in and, in a well-practiced reaction, she hisses loudly and angrily through her teeth, “Ssssshhhhh!!!”
The boy, immediately yanked from his pretend world, snaps to and casts an embarrassed glance my way. Its like he’s thinking, “Sorry you had to hear that Mr. I must be doing something adults don’t like because she doesn’t “ssshhh” me unless we’re somewhere around adults. I’ll be good now.”
I desperately wanted to say to the woman “No, lady, you “Ssssshhhhh!” What he was doing was pure magic. You’re the one who’s publicly inappropriate.” Then I would lean over to him and say, “Kid, don’t you ever stop. I never have. I can still sometimes hear the whirring sounds of playful delight. I can still occasionally see delightful magic in an elevator ride. Not as often and not as well as you. But I search for adults who can still play with me, who can still see it. You’re very good. Teach others…Oh, and about your mom. She just can’t see the magic anymore. Cut her some slack.”
But I didn’t. I just stared at the numbers above me, waiting for the door to open. Sunday, I quoted John Coe, the Spiritual Formation Director at Biola University. He talks about moralistic parents who “exacerbate the original sin inherited heart habits by shame or guilt. These parents are often caring and kind but don’t know what to do with their children’s badness except to exhort or train their children to be good. They merely move the child into covering their bad by being good.”
So the child learns to think, “My parents can not handle seeing me as I am; they can not handle the truth of my badness. So, I must hide my heart from them and others. I’ll just try to please or I’ll pretend to please until I am out of their home…No one can love me in my bad. And no one can handle my badness but me. I am supposed to deal with my badness by being good. Being good will make me more acceptable and lovable…”
Coe says, “Many are taught about Christ’s work on the cross, the forgiveness of sins, that God loved them unconditionally. But the love modeled and experienced at home was a kind of conditional love. Their parents did not intend this and they even told their children they loved them unconditionally. The truth, however, was that their children typically experienced more love from their parents when they were being good than when they were being bad.” Or in this case, when they were behaving in a way that embarrassed the parent.
He says, “As a result of shame parenting, the child feels loved but not known.” Ouch.
“Healthy parenting models the love and ways of God to our kids, seeking to counter the effects of original sin by bringing our children out of hiding and covering.”
So, the child may one day say, “Dad, I’m glad you morally trained me. I’m enjoying the fruit of a good life. I’m even more thankful you took me on a journey into my heart so I now know that no amount of my being good can deal with my badness. I need Christ every day.”
The tragedy is this: we eventually come to believe that God loves us more when we’re good. Now we have a theology that not only takes the joy out of an elevator ride but a relationship with God also. I hate what I just wrote, but it describes many, many believers.
The gift of convincing my child that I want to know every bit of his person, good and bad, and that I will stand with him in all of it-that is a precious gift indeed.
We make the statement in our upcoming book, “The goal of our relationships is not that anything gets fixed, but that nothing is hidden.”
Such parenting, such friendships allow kids to grow up, safe, alive, free, trusting God, never losing the ability to be totally themselves in every moment, even sometimes spinning around and chirping in an elevator. Not that I’d know anything about that…