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A sermon preached by the Rev. John H. Nichols to the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, on September 30, 2007

How to Raise Sturdy Enough Children and Grandchildren

The Earl of Rochester once said, “Before I got married I had six theories about raising children. Now I have six children and no theories.” John Mason Brown once affirmed “Reasoning with a child is fine as long as you can reach the child’s reason without destroying your own.” And an unknown philosopher once commented, “Heredity is what a man believes in absolutely until his child begins to behave like an idiot.” Raising children is a humbling topic for everyone.

Anyone who dares speak of it needs to establish some credentials first. Here are mine. My wife and I, together, raised two children who are now adults, and we have four grandchildren. To the best of our knowledge, none of our children or grandchildren is a serial axe murderer yet. None is a mass murderer of any kind. They are not perfect or even nearly perfect, but they are so far sturdy enough for the lives they lead, which make my credentials on sturdiness as good as any and we all have very modest credentials.

When I talk about sturdiness I mean inner strength. I want children to have the strength to cope with the predictable crises of living. I don’t know what perfection would look like in a human being. I believe that success lies only in the eyes of the beholder. I suspect that trying to raise a perfect child or even a successful child is chasing an illusion. What we can do is raise children who can live productively, happily and bravely in a difficult world.

In the service that I use for the naming and dedication of young children I ask the congregation to commit to raising children who are “Aware of the world as it is.” It is tempting to write services which dedicate the child to a fantasy life of sweetness and light, but believe me they had also better be ready for the world as it is.

It is a world in which some people will expect them to prove themselves. Others will test them to see if they will defend themselves. Some may try to cheat them. Much as we value the innocence of children, there are real lions and tigers in those jungles they are about to enter, and some pretty difficult people too. They need to be prepared for the world as it is.

This same dedication service speaks of raising children who are also aware of the world “As it ought to be,” remembering that one person can make a significant difference if that person has courage as well as good intentions. One person can make a difference if that person is sturdy enough to face what must be faced.

Obviously this is not just a sermon about children. This morning I want to reflect with you on what it means for all of us to be “aware of the world as it is and as it ought to be.” I promise you, however that because I also believe that parents and grandparents are the most over-instructed people in the world, I will try to do this without laying down any guilt on those who happen to be raising children now. Instead of rules or instructions, I will speak of seven hopes I have for all of our children, and, of course, for all of us.
  1. I hope that our children can learn to differentiate between opinion, prejudice, wishing, fantasizing, blowing off steam and honoring the truth. I hope they will be able to know those occasions when they must regard the truth more highly than anything else. It isn’t always an easy thing to separate truth from wishes, fantasies and opinions. We tend to construct the data of our emotional lives with a view to what is easiest and most comforting for us to believe. That’s why three friends can tell such different versions of the same argument that we wonder if they really were present at the same place and time.

    While it is human nature to shade the truth in a way that comforts us, there is also a tendency in our world today to regard highly individual points of view as if they were a private form of truth, precisely and only because we do feel strongly about them. It is tempting, and very post modern, to talk about “my Truth” or “Truth for you,” but the real Truth does not belong to any one of us.

    Truth in science is always open to further discovery, and we can live with that. Truth in religion will never entirely be known. But the truth of what happens between you and me is something we have to take very seriously. It may not be comfortable. It may not be pleasant. It may not serve our particular interests. It may ultimately be challenged and disproved. It may certainly be less interesting than our own feelings or impressions, but when the truth is discovered it can break through all that blinds us, and it can reveal to us the world as we need to know it in order to be able to share it with people who may be quite different from us.

    I hope our children will regard the Truth highly, higher than all ideologies, all vested interests and all of the mental traps they may lay for themselves or others. They will need to be tough enough to know the world as it is before they can understand how to change it.

  2. I hope that our children and grandchildren learn to live with some comfort in a world where judgments, evaluations and even rejections do happen to all of us. Sometimes painful judgments can be helpful. I hope our children will be willing to be challenged, and I hope they may discover that if the judgments of others can contain a seed of truth – however disagreeable – that may give them a push they actually need. I would not want them to turn away from every difficulty, just because it is hard to accept that you can’t get an “A” in everything you do.

    It seems to me that over the last ten or fifteen years, many parents have gone to one of two extremes, neither of which leads to sturdiness in children. One extreme is to believe children ought to meet the highest standards in every skill they attempt. In fact, our children cannot excel everywhere any more than we can. So, recognizing that the impossible is expected, they give up trying. But the other extreme is to believe that no adverse judgment should ever be made over what children do. This, too, is unrealistic because the goal in life is to learn from or at least cope with evaluations – not to avoid them.

    If you saw two people playing tennis, and you observed that they were having difficulty sustaining a volley, would you think it might be helpful to them if you offered to remove the net and erase the lines of the tennis court? Or do you think it is only by working to meet difficult challenges that we begin to taste something of the sweetness of an active life?

    My wish for all of our children is that they become sturdy enough to find and use the gifts that have been given specifically to them – the gifts that will enable them to excel at something they enjoy. My wish for all parents and grandparents is that we find the strength to support our children’s gifts, the courage to challenge them to find and use their gifts well and the wisdom to know when they have struggled enough.
  3. There are however judgments and rejections that we do not learn from except that we find the resilience to get beyond them. For example, I suspect many of us have been through the seductive job interview. The person or persons who are interviewing us seem warm and upbeat. The job itself sounds like a day at Disney World. We feel we are at the top of our interviewing game. We go home eagerly awaiting the phone call, but eventually we find they have chosen someone else.

    When this happens, it feels like your heart and soul – the essence of your life – has been rejected. But that’s not true. You may want to refine your interviewing skills or your resume, but the greater likelihood is that you didn’t get the job for reasons that have nothing to do with you as a person. We all have to learn that and learn it well.

    Every year when college acceptances or rejections come out, a Boston Globe columnist reprints the same column for high school seniors who have gotten one or more thin envelopes. He writes it’s not about you unless you take it that way. A college chooses students who better fit a profile they have or an image they have that has nothing to do with your talent, your abilities or your soul. I hope our children and grandchildren will grow sturdy enough to recognize the truth of the statement that “It’s not always about you.”

  4. Along similar lines, I hope that all of our children will learn to take appropriate responsibility for their inner lives. We’ve all known people who we say “make” us angry or humble or afraid. Something they do provokes this feeling in us. Sometimes we can stop them from doing it. Often we can avoid them. Some people will even apologize when we explain how their behavior makes us react.

    However there are people who will intimidate or belittle or anger or try humiliate others from day one until the last day we know them. In a perfect world, we might say that a person who does all of these things should be convinced or forced to apologize and make amends. It rarely happens. And when it doesn’t happen, we have a choice either to make that hurt effective by holding on to it, or we can choose to let it go. “Letting it go” means we take responsibility for our emotional life.

    There are evaluations and rejections that are painful and personal and meant to be so. But whether or not they tangle up our lives becomes our responsibility.

    I also want to say something about the way we react to hurts that were on the past. It is possible that as our children grow to maturity they will spot a mistake or two they now believe we made while raising them. They may even favor us with a report of what they found. Even the children of religious liberals, whose parents worked very hard not to imprint them with any dogmatic values or beliefs, tend to complain that their parents did not imprint them with any dogmatic values or beliefs against which they could rebel. There is no way out. Sooner or later we all come to grips with the fact of having been raised by human beings.

    When this happens, the question everyone must answer is, “Now that you believe this mistake was made in your upbringing, what are you going to do about it? No one but you can do much of anything about it now. Only you can change the way you respond to what has happened or to what will happen to you. My fourth hope is that our children will find some way to prevent their hurts – past, present or future – from defining who they are.

  5. And I hope that our children will discover that by themselves they are incomplete. There is a phase in our growing up in which our own life is the highest drama, the most compelling tale and the most sacred story that we or anyone else could ever imagine. Adults who continue to have this exclusively self-focused view of their own lives are called, among other things, “Jerks.”

    Maturing means recognizing that by ourselves, we are incomplete. We enter and leave this world in the care of others, and we are never really alone no matter how much we imagine otherwise. The joy and laughter that comes our way, the comfort we receive, the confidence we have in our own abilities and the conviction we have that somehow things will come out all right – all of this comes to us because we are completed through our relationships. With maturity comes the realization that without some companionship each person is missing that part of himself/herself that others encourage.

  6. I hope our children find a goal for their lives that is greater than their own self-interest or a standard of values they will feel is worth their firmest commitment.It is so easy for well-intentioned folks to be tempted to sell their souls or their integrity for security. It doesn’t take much of a devil to complete that transaction.

    Under the pressure of events – some ordinary, some threatening – one thing leads to another, and there is a need to make some quick decisions. Most people – if they are sworn to no larger ideal for their lives, if they have no standard of values higher than expedience – most people will make the decision that promises the quickest release from what troubles them the most. After the first expedient decision, after the first mild betrayal of their better judgment, well that act of betrayal becomes easier and easier and easier. May we leave our children with a standard of values they will never be tempted to sacrifice on the altar of convenience.

  7. My final wish for our children, our grandchildren and ourselves is that they and we will not stop hoping for a better world or working to make their hope a reality. The great Unitarian reformer, Theodore Parker, once said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We see the truth of this in the history of our own country. Every major successful reform movement has succeeded because it had the strength to survive the defeats that lay in the path toward acceptance. That is the final form of sturdiness that I wish for all of us.

    In a sense, all that I have mentioned is what liberal religion, at its best, should be teaching our children. They are not alone nor are they free of responsibilities to other people. We can hope they gain a rich appreciation for the truth and a healthy optimism about living in the world where there are standards and values and even rejections that are not always easy to live with. We want them to become adults who have taken responsibility for their inner lives, but who recognize nonetheless that they are incomplete without the companionship of others. We want them to live hopeful lives.

    We wait and wonder. Sometimes we feel a little helpless, because we know they will have to do some of the most important learning on their own. Watching your own child go through a painful learning experience is one of the most difficult moments of parenting. It may be that this communal sense of helplessness is what gives rise to our bringing our children to church. We are in awe of the mystery of life that evolves within our children as they seek to find their own sturdiness and their own integrity.