I'd like to read a question posed by Erma Bombeck. She asks, "Where have all the children gone? I don't mean the ones who spend their days and nights propped up before the TVs and computer terminals, or the 35 minds in children's bodies, who operate a microwave oven and have their own door key before they're 6. Or the ones who log ten thousand jet miles a year visiting two sets of parents. I'm talking about the children who used to enjoy a couple of years of doing nothing but discovering things around them: exploring their curiosity, easing into a family, and being loved. It had a name; we called it "childhood." It was an important time in which a child could only guess what was across the street, behind the fence, or on the other side of the stoplight. For the moment he had to know what his home was all about and how safe he felt, and that no matter what, it would always be there and feel the same way.
"Where have all the children gone? They've passed childhood and proceeded directly to adulthood. Realistically, that's where all the action is today, anyway. Young children, more than any single group, have had to bear the brunt of the changes of the eighties our mobility, our redefined family structure, our changing technology, and new attitudes toward everything, including them. Children no longer are a dominant force, an excuse, a reason, a goal, a status, or a commitment; they are just there. I have no idea whether this is good or bad. I am just trying to imagine what it is like to be a child in these times. And to wonder if we could spare a few years so that childhood could once again flourish."
Erma Bombeck doesn't always finish with a chuckle, and I think she's put her finger on an issue of tragic proportions in our society. Perhaps it has crept even into this society called the church. Maybe it has crept into my own home.
Today I'd like to speak to the parents who care about their children.
I believe, and others will agree, that children in our society learn too much too soon. They watch the same programs we do. They see the same discussions on TV about sex and violence, and on the news about AIDS and homosexuality. They hear the platforms of the candidates, and they worry about our world. They learn adult secrets at an early age. Rare is the who evidences what I believe to be the basic gift of childhood, which is innocence and carefree play.
In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman said, "One doesn't have to go to exotic sources or evidence. If you look at the tastes and clothing, language, sexuality, and criminal activity of our children, you find them becoming more and more indistinguishable from adults. Childhood as a specific category of people is moving toward extinction."
We have, for instance, professionalized children's sports. Witness the Pop Warner National Academic Football Championships played in Alexander City, Alabama, known as "The Kids' Super Bowl." Now these kids get together from all the Pop Warner teams in the nation, and they have people like Edie Adams sing the national anthem; they have astronauts show up; they have stunt flyers in the sky; they have everything. They have 120 offensive plays on these football teams, in five offensive sets. We have professionalized, we have gone to Super Bowls for our children.
I found another example: In the newspaper The Oregonian, I read that Max Factor, Revlon, Clairol, Loreal, and Vidal Sassoon are creating makeup and beauty care products for younger and younger buyers. They say that the target age to enter the market is now get this 9 years of age. Now let me hasten to say, this is different from playing with a little lipstick or gluing on fingernails; this is serious for children to purchase, to use as they meet society. Little girls are being taught that they need this. One of the spokesmen, and I quote, says, "By the time they are 12 years old, these girls will be among the highest users of fragrance." By the way, a French manufacturer is manufacturing something at $25 an ounce, aimed at girls 9 to 14. By 15 they will be wearing more nail enamel, eye shadow, blush, powder, and foundation than most adult women. There's fierce competition in this arena.
Now, let me hasten to add, this is not a message about the evils of hair spray or football. Those are symptoms, symptoms of a much deeper danger for our children. That danger is that we are imposing adulthood on children in this society too soon, before they are spiritually, emotionally, and physically able to handle it. We are treating children as a society like little adults, and they are not.
The problem is not with our beautiful, talented, skilled children. The problem is not with our children; it's our driven, obsessive parenting that we want to talk about this morning. Even some of us struggle with this; it's very basic. Because when children are used as status symbols, when children are seen as partners, when children are decision makers in the home over major policy issues, or when children become therapists to an upset parent, something is drastically wrong in the parent/child relationship.
Did any of you happen to turn on the TV yesterday as this year's Little League World Series was being shown? I watched just a few minutes of it, and the boys from Taiwan were stomping the Americans. The score was about 17 to 1 at that point. One of the commentators came on and said, "We haven't seen these boys from Irvine, California, look this bad this whole year." There was a little fellow pitching whose last name was Garcia. I heard Jim Palmer, the great pitcher, say on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," "Yes, and we haven't seen S Garcia fold like this before, either." How would you like to be 11 years old and fold on nationwide TV? What are we doing to our children, subjecting them to that kind of exposure?
I mentioned that this is a message about children to parents. So allow me to be candid and meddle, if I may. Look at the Scripture with me in Psalm 127 to remind ourselves of some basic things. You know, the message of the Bible is not complex. The message of the Bible is this: God is God, and I am not. Think you can remember that? I have a hard time remembering that. God is God, and I am not. Although I'm my child's parent, I'm not God.
Psalm 127: Listen to these words, this gentle reminder that we so easily stray from. "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat for he grants sleep to those he loves."
When I read those two verses in Psalm 127, what I hear is an acknowledgment that God is God and I am not. I am not God in the task of building a home or in building a church, or in doing anything earthly, but especially in building into the lives of people I love. The Psalmist acknowledges that. But the symptom that I often see among parents is panic. They are overwhelmed with and consumed with the responsibilities of parenting. So today we have a new kind of syndrome in our country: it's the , overly concerned , the parent who feels their child will miss a golden opportunity at age 6, and the child will be a failure the rest of his or her life. We're deathly afraid that we'll end up with a dumb, , frumpy 18 on our hands. But let's face it: How many of you did not bloom until you were 30? There's a lot of time for our kids to grow up.
Now, I'm not saying that we live in a perpetual state of panic, but don't we all cringe when some child prodigy at our child's age has mastered the harpsichord, or some boy our son's age becomes Wall Street's newest frozen yogurt tycoon? Don't we all feel like, "Hey, my kid is 10, but he hasn't been in the Little League World Series, and he hasn't appeared on a nationally syndicated game show. He hasn't even been to Space Camp, for goodness sake." We have so many opportunities. We're driven and panicked as parents. We think, "My child is missing the boat!"
The Scripture says we need to decompress. Look at the text. It says unless. "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it." There's a condition on parenting. Who is the builder? Is it television? Is it Madison Avenue? The question is, "Is the Lord building your house, your family?" If not, the Scripture says, it's in vain, in vain, in vain. We can't work hard enough to make it succeed. We can't guard it with enough vigilance. We'll never sleep soundly unless God builds the house.
We're not designed to be perfect parents, so we never will be. The Psalmist reminds us of something so simple: to turn the responsibility back over to God. Instead of being panic stricken, let God have his way in your family.
One author has written a book called Parent Burnout. The question is, what causes burnout as a parent? He answers, "When parents constantly seek perfection as child rearers, they set themselves up for frustration, guilt, and in particular, anger. Responsibility without control is another cause of burnout. When a person holds himself responsible for something beyond his control, there's a high probability, in fact it's certain, that you'll experience stress. If a child does something wrong, this kind of parent has a tendency to say, 'What did I do wrong?' That's a good question, but it's not the only one that needs to be asked."
Then someone asked this author, "What types of parents are apt to suffer burnout?" Listen to what he says: "The saddest thing about burnout is that it happens mostly to highly motivated parents who embrace their responsibilities most enthusiastically. They're usually educated, people who are idealistic, and whose personalities shoot for perfection. Unconcerned parents don't suffer this condition. To burn out, you have to be on fire."
Do you hear the soothing words of Psalm 127: "Unless the Lord builds the house"? God is God, and you are not. God is God. We have a big responsibility as parents, and we need to handle it well, but there's a difference between being responsible for everything that child does and being responsible to our Master, who is the Father himself.
Let me give you three antidotes to this panicky parenting. Number one (this sounds like a cliche, but it's true; that's why you've heard it so often): Pray. Do you know what to pray about? Just place yourself before God, not to become defeated in introspection but to recognize this: If my children are going to serve the Lord, if they're going to grow to be what I want them to be and what God wants them to be, they need something more than what I am. Second, pray for your children. By the age of 2, there are so many more inputs than just you alone. There is the television and school and friends all kinds of inputs over which we have little control. Pray for the influence of your child's friends and the media on his or her heart.
A second antidote: Read and listen. We have a bunch of tapes in our library on parenting. You could listen to James Dobson, or a program called "The Art of Family Living by John Nieder. You see, the problem is that we tend to parent by trends and not by the truth. You recognize there's absolutely no evidence that academic preschool will prepare your child for Harvard University. There's absolutely no evidence none, folks that if your child reads by the age of 3 he or she will be a genius by senior high. Parent by the truth. Get some good input. Don't just ask, "What are my neighbors doing? What does the school want me to do?"
Here's a third antidote to panicky parenting: Let your kids be kids. Play gives the child a sense of adequacy, of control over his or her world. Play is the work of a child, and children should be allowed to play. I'm not talking about your 16; I'm talking about and younger.
I heard a great story on the radio a few weeks ago. It was about baseball. You know, they're hitting a lot of home runs this year, more home runs than they've ever seen hit, and so they speculate as to the reason. Some people say, "It's the ball; it's going farther." Some people say they're corking the bats; they're cheating more astutely. Others say, "The athletes are lifting weights, so they're stronger; they can hit it farther." Well, they asked one pitching coach for the Yankees. He said, "I can tell you why. We don't have any good pitchers." They said, "Why is that? We're more organized; we've got more Little Leagues and farm leagues and people playing baseball than ever before in the history of the world. Why don't we have any decent pitchers?" He said, "We don't have enough disorganized baseball. When I was a kid, in the summer we would leave the house after lunch, and we wouldn't come home for supper. We wouldn't come home till after dark after playing seven hours of baseball. Now kids go to a formal practice, Mom beeps the horn after 90 minutes 'Gotta go home' and the glove goes on the shelf."
Now, I'm not suggesting that everybody go out and play baseball seven hours a day, but what he's saying is, kids learn the natural mechanics of throwing not in a structured situation, but by doing it as play. Let your kids be kids. Let them do some disorganized things, and don't clean up the messes. I can't point to a verse in Scripture that says that. That's just my sanctified opinion, okay?
Look at verse 3: "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate."
The second symptom of parenting I see is in contrast to this awestruck amazement of Psalm 127, this receptivity of the Psalmist saying, "I am so appreciative and thankful and expectant of the gift that has been given me." As a parent, I do it; I'm assuming that you do as well; it's easy for me to possess my children and forget they're a gift from God. I don't own them. They're not mine. They are on loan to me for a period, and one day the Master is going to stand me before him and say, "Roger, what did you do with the inheritance I gave you your children?" He is going to hold Joanne and me accountable for what we have done with his children, Jill and Shelly. He will do the same with you.
The basic issue of parenting is that we forget who owns the kids. The psalm says they're a heritage, inheritance; not something that is owed to us, but something given out of the free will of the Master, out of the magnanimity of his heart. It says that children are a reward, not because we've earned it, but because God just wanted to give us a present. Some of you have wrestled deeply with the agony of childlessness, and you know, perhaps better than the rest of us, how precious is the gift of a child.
David Elkind says, "If it is to be done well, child rearing requires, more than most activities of life, a decentering from one's own needs and perspectives." Parents, God does not give us children so that our needs will be met. God gives us children as a blessing, and through us our children's needs are to be met. Not the needs that the children say they have, but the needs God says they have. Children are not given for us to achieve status or vicarious success; they are given to us that we might be good stewards. I wonder how many of us will give our kids the freedom to achieve what God wants them to achieve and not what we impose. Again quoting Elkind, "When young people assume that parents are concerned only with how well they do, rather than with who they are, the need to achieve becomes addictive. When children feel that achievement is for the parents, not for self, they either eventually give up or go into achievement overload, and we produce little TA performers."
I think you'll like this comment by a little girl her name's Martha Taft. She says, "My name is Martha Bowers Taft. My greatgrandfather was president of the United States. My grandfather was United States senator, my daddy is ambassador to Ireland, and I am a Brownie." I don't think that kids get together and say, "Look, let's get together all the championship teams from around the world and have a Little League World Series." That's the dad's idea. Small children just want to have fun.
So what are we as parents designed to do? Look at verse 4. It says, "Like arrows in the hand of a warrior." I'd like you to focus on two words. One is arrows. What does that metaphor suggest? An arrow, unlike a sword, can go where the warrior cannot. Children are described as offensive weapons that the parent ought to mobilize to go fight battles that are still far off. The implication is that God knows how to deploy them best, since he is the one who has equipped them with their capabilities.
Parents, we are to straighten our arrows through discipline. We are to sharpen the arrows through instruction. We are to aim the children by talking about faith and vision with them. "Son, have you ever thought that God could use the skills you're developing in the fifth grade for his cause around the world?" "Sweetheart, have you ever thought that that talent you have for the flute could be used for the Master someday?" "Have you thought, kids, that the kinds of skills you've gained from having a lemonade stand could help you be honorable people in the business world someday?" Parents are to aim that child. Parents are to talk about their children's future for the Master's use.
But the arrow has to be let go. That's what parenting is all about. I'm more attached to my kids now than I was when they were a month old. I'll be more attached to them when they're 16 than I am when they're 8, because I delight in my children, and I want to hang on to my kids. But the ultimate goal of parenting is letting them go.
I think about the family into which I married. The Joneses had six children, and those six children were released to marry six Christian spouses. Five of us couples are in vocational ministry, and the other is walking closely with the Lord, serving God faithfully. Out of them have come eleven grandchildren. So out of two faithful people who were willing to release, there's now potential for almost 24 people to serve Jesus Christ. The task of parenting ends in letting them go. Children are arrows, not swords.
Then there's the second word that says, verse 5, "Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate." The word is their: not my enemies, not your enemies, but their enemies. How do I equip my child to meet his or her enemy down the road? I have to say, "Child, I have you for this time, and my task is to take your hand and slip it out of mine and put it into the hand of God. I'm here to train you to look upward for your strength. I'm here to help you see that God is God and you are not." The battles that I face today will not be the battles my daughters will have to fight later. I'm to equip my children, under God's hand, as a steward, to meet demands that I have never perceived. My parents' job was the same for me. Yours is the same for your children.
Children are to be equipped, and then let go. The Bible calls it "leaving and cleaving." The psalm makes it very clear: We can't hold 'em. They're not here to fight our battles for us. They're here to fight new battles that the Master will deploy them to fight in their world, without me, without you.
What are your children learning? I can't be the Holy Spirit for you. I can't tell you what to take and what to leave, what to start up and what to let go. But God will show you. Let the Lord build your house, and allow God to come and meet with you as a parent so that his purposes are met in your home.
Roger Thompson is pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minnesota. He has also pastured Trinity Baptist Church in Wheatridge, Colorado. He is a graduate of Denver Seminary.