God says the darndest thingsWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
I entered parenthood six years ago with the belief that children were blank canvases needing painting, empty vessels requiring filling. It was my conviction that their curious little minds and evolving personalities required shaping solely through parental influence and direction.
But as I have watched my sons grow — Evan is 6 and Sean is 4 — I understand that it’s not that simple. As our boys settle into their identities, I am increasingly convinced that their canvases were born with many brush strokes filled in, and that their vessels were never anything resembling empty.
That is not an abdication of our responsibility; clearly, our children’s sense of right and wrong, work ethic, affinity for education and inclination to kindness come from our example. But I also believe these little people were born with large amounts of their personalities and centers intact. It’s not like shaping clay, as I thought it would be; it’s more like trying to color and reinforce clay that has already taken its form.
As Evan hurtles through first grade, he is asserting a very real idea of independence. We can take some credit for his initiative and fighting spirit, but what I see in him now has always been there, emerging as slowly and surely as a plant pushes through earth in springtime. We can channel Sean’s precociousness and playfulness, but those have been elements of his personality since long before he could speak.
In addition to the tendencies and traits they were born with, and the contributions of parents, family, teachers and culture, there is a spiritual element to their being that is more difficult to define. You may believe in God in any of his many forms and faces, from the old guy with the long white beard sailing through the clouds on a Flash Gordon Jet Ski to Allah to a cosmic muffin. But if you have children, I bet you will relate to the notion that children are little radio receivers through which God occasionally speaks.
This has happened to me twice.
One day in the month of Evan’s second birthday, he and I were on the living room floor playing with blocks. He liked to stack a few, then knock them down, then repeat. His bottle contained watered-down grape juice, the dark purple kind designed by nature to stain and ruin any carpet not designed by NASA for space shuttle use. As could have been foreseen by anyone other than a first-time parent, Evan managed to loosen the bottle top and spill the grape juice down his front and on the rug’s cream fibers. In a momentary panic, I righted the bottle and tried to stand up as I picked Evan up under his arms. None of my intended actions worked. I respilled the bottle, started to totter backward and nearly lost my grip on the boy. Now angry and desperate to stop the grape juice from further pouring on the rug, I regained my balance and sat Evan on the couch, much more jarringly than I intended.
I set him down so hard I expected him to start crying. But he looked me right in the eyes and said, with preternatural calm, “Daddy, don’t hurt Evan.” It wasn’t his voice or his tone. I remember taking a step back, grape juice forgotten, shocked and dismayed that my action had warranted what I understood to be a supernatural intrusion. I have never again allowed any crisis or emergency to blind me to how I handle my sons.
Nothing like that has happened in the ensuing four years, until a recent episode with Sean. Since he has been able to sit up and play, Sean has enjoyed princess dolls as much as he likes superheroes. He will play with dream castles and fire trucks with equal joy. He can set out a pretend tea party one moment and then wrestle or play soccer like a demon the next. We let Sean play and explore as he will; we are not going to yank a Barbie out of his little hands and force him to march G.I. Joe across the playroom floor. There have been a few times at school or at friends’ houses when I wish he had picked up Woody the cowboy instead of Cinderella, but in general we are not wringing our hands over Sean’s choices.
But we do have friends and relatives who make comments, and I know Sean has heard some of them. I do not know how to engage a 4-year-old in a conversation about gender roles and society’s expectations for sexual identity, so we stick to letting Sean be Sean.
On a recent Sunday, we were watching the animated “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!” in our living room. Sean was sitting on my lap, his little body warm and relaxed. Out of nowhere, as the Grinch pinched a Christmas tree, Sean, without looking up at me, said, “Daddy, I like the way I am.”
Startled, I said, “Sean, we like who you are, too. Don’t you know that?”
He shook his little head side to side, closing his eyes against imminent tears.
“Well, we do!” I told him. “We love you and your brother just the way you are. We might get mad at you sometimes, but that never means we don’t love you or that we want to change you. What made you say that?”
“I don’t know. I just like the way I am.”
For the second time, I felt like God was speaking to me through our children. How could a 4-year-old boy in preschool contemplate such a weighty concept as self-acceptance? How many millions of adults are unable to make such a simple declarative statement as “I like the way I am”?
Since that day, we have worked to reassure Sean that we love him as he is, even when he is in trouble or not behaving at his best. But the real lessons of parenthood are that we have just as many blank areas, and empty spaces, as our children. And just as we are trying to teach and mold them, God is trying to teach and mold us.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.