What do I tell my kids? How do you handle stuff like this with yours? Those types of questions have been very popular the last four days, for understandable reasons. People claim they are asking because I am a priest, because I have seven kids, or because we seem to have our act together more often than not. That last reason causes Karen and me sometimes to look at each other in amazement. If they only knew. Often, she and I feel like we are in a prevent defense against a fantastic NFL offense. There’s no way we can cover the kids individually, and a normal zone won’t work well either, so we find ourselves more concerned with big picture teaching and then hoping the kids apply those principles on a case by case basis. Trust me, our kids are not always well adjusted. Joshua is two! Need I say more?
But Karen and I also live in a different world than most of those whom we encounter and even those whom we serve at St. Alban’s or through our various ministries. Our bishop during the discernment process often reminded us that we had our family before God called me to ordained ministry. There was a reason for this order. He thought that part of our life learning would be to figure out the meaning behind the order . . . together. Now, we have since gone on to have three more kids, been to seminary in perhaps the last place to be thought of as an “ivory tower” location, been called to serve a church in OH, been called to serve a great church in Davenport, and been called into unique ministry opportunities -- all of us. Amanda believes she is called to be a missionary teacher in Africa. Nathan and Sarah both enjoyed their mission trips (Honduras and Tanzania, respectively), and both are trying to figure out what they will do with their lives. The older kids have experienced some particular tragedies and found God using them and their experience to reach into the life of friends. The younger kids are concerned with simpler activities. They occasionally fight over who will lead the evening prayer at dinner time, and they thing it a special day when they get to come to church with dad. And Karen and I are blessed and fortunate to see God moving in the hearts of our children.
All of that is not to say that everything is always great. One of the downsides to being the priest’s kids is that you are always expected to participate in every youth event at church - always! Like adults, kids get worn out with life, and sometimes they just want a break. To make matters worse, when other kids are shy about volunteering, guess who gets to be the acolytes? There are days when kids just want to worship in the pews, yet dad will tell them they need to wear a robe and assist. So, we have our moments just like everyone else.
I offer all that as a warning. Rabbis are quick to tell us that there are six different ways in which our children learn. Sometimes I am convinced there are more because those six ways don’t always work! What works for one child may not work for another, and what works for a family may not work for another. But here goes . . .
In general, Karen and I answer questions with what we hope are age appropriate answers. The catch is that we have always done this about any subject. We have tried to carve out a role where our kids know we are a resource. If they have questions, they are free to come to us and ask us. We’ll answer follow-up questions for as long as they continue. Sometimes conversations will go on for several minutes in a row; at other times, answers will be digested for a while before there is any follow-up questions. And, this is really hard, sometimes mom and dad have to confess they don’t have all the answers. There are quite simply some things that are inexplicable.
Is that how you got out of talking about the CT shooting? Quite the contrary, our conversations about the shootings were all over the place, but very on point. But each child in school had different questions. As children who went to seminary with their father, my older kids know there is evil in the world. It is not just an abstract force, but an open rebellion against God. Terrible things happen. Human beings enslave other human beings. Human beings kill those trying to help other human beings. They slam planes into tall buildings to kill some and terrify others. They know this. They understand this. They live this. Their questions centered more around the responses. We have talked about gun laws, about mental illnesses, about the lockdown they had in school because of an escapee a couple years ago, about the fact that Mr. Bywater (he’s ordained now, but he will always be Mr. Bywater to them) is the perfect minister for that community since they lost their child in a different kind of tragedy, about how Bryan† and Paul† and their respective churches have some difficult times ahead but also some interesting opportunities, about their friends’ shock and horror at the events, about the appropriateness of social media in the hands of “younger” kids, about how other parents have discussed or refused to discuss the events with their friends, about peoples’ responses on FB, about the press incredible determination to cover all things about how adults think they can plan for and protect against anything (they were amused at my stories of us being taught to hide under desks in the event of a Soviet Union nuclear attack when I was a kid--”did they not understand the physics of the explosion or resulting shockwave in those days?”, about the availability of weapons in those countries they have visited, and so on.
With my youngest in school, the conversations have been very different. He knew about the shooting when I picked him up Friday because some of his friends had heard about it through Twitter and Facebook (parents letting 8 year olds on Twitter and Facebook is a different conversation altogether). He asked if it was true, if the people were sad, and if I thought it could happen at Rivermont. That’s basically the gist of our conversations. I was honest with him, but not without hope. Everyone at school, especially Mrs. D his teacher, will do everything to keep him safe. He knows it might not be enough, but he thinks they know what they are doing. And he knows God knows what He’s doing, and that’s enough for him for now.
What do I recommend to parents in light of tragedies? Be consistent in your parenting. If you share things, continue to share things; if you present things in a particular way, continue to present them in the same way. Our children look to us as steady influences in their lives ideally, so I think now is not the time to change parenting approaches. But if you are a parent who tries to share and do so appropriately, bathe those conversations in prayer. Ask God to loose your tongue or to bind it, as He deems appropriate. God is faithful and will appear when two or three are gathered in His name. But always be honest. If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, don’t lie to them. Don’t try and bs them. They know when we are lying far more than we ever give them credit, and they often feel that lies mean their parents feel they are incapable of dealing with the truth. What’s more, we tend to get caught in our lies which, in turn, impacts the relationship negatively. There is a freedom in the truth. Parents cannot protect their children all the time, no matter how hard we try. Admit it. As they grow, they will learn its truth.
In an age appropriate way, be honest about what has happened, but be truthful. Sometimes we couch what has happened in language that harms rather than helps. How many children have been made too afraid to sleep because a loved “went to sleep” and never woke up or began to fear God because He “needed another angel?” We might mean well with our euphemisms, but we need to understand their potential affect upon our kids. But also be reassuring. We may not be able to protect them entirely, but we will always do our best, as will teachers, law enforcement, firemen/women, and others in their lives who try and care for them.
I think we should also do a better job of naming evil. I wonder, in our ever increasing attempt to try and understand the other, if we have not confused our children to the point that they are more easily victimized. Bad people do bad things. Avoid them. Tell us when they ask you to do bad things or do bad things to you.
There is one lesson from 9-11 that I try and encourage parents of younger kids to understand and inwardly digest: younger children do not understand time as well as adults or older children. In this information overload society, many of us will watch and listen to as much about events as possible. Sociologists and mental health professionals noticed after 9-11 that this effort to watch and learn had a negative impact on younger children. Younger children were terrorized by the repeated images on television that day. They mistakenly came to believe that every plane was highjacked and every tall building in every city was knocked over. If you cannot read and cannot understand how television replays work, imagine what such repetitive images might do to you. If you have young children in the house, turn the channel. As much as you might want to watch CNN or FOX or whichever station you prefer, in the interest of helping your young child not become terrorized, turn the channel when they are in the room. The information you crave is available on other mediums or replayed over and over and over on the channel you prefer.
One last lesson I offer. Get your kid to church! As an Episcopal priest, I naturally have a heart for the way we worship when we do it well. But as a priest in God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and as a parent, I care less about denominational choices. Find a church that reads and teaches the Bible. By that I mean avoid a church if the clergy is always preaching about the new book he or she read. Cling to a church that wrestles with Scripture. Find a church that sings your kind of songs. If you are into traditional hymns, find that kind of church. If you are in to metal, find a church that plays Christian metal. If you like a variety of music, find one that has variety. Obviously, a youth group is huge plus. Kids often do well learning in groups. But the lack of a youth group can be overcome for a time.
I say all this not to increase numbers or help my fellow clergy out. The Bible is full of stories. Some are told as histories, some are told as songs, some are told narratively, and others are told as eyewitness. The stories over time will teach children bit by bit about tragedies and, far more importantly, of God’s amazing power to overcome evil. As I encountered parents at the Putnam this past weekend, I was often asked if I had ever heard of such a terrible event as Sandy Hook. As one who had read about Pharaoh’s effort to kill newborn Jews, about Herod’s effort to kill the babies in Bethlehem, about what the worshippers of Molech in the land of Canaan did to their children, about what Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian conquerors did to their subjugated peoples, about what Rome did to some of their newborns, I am certainly familiar with such tragedies. I am also familiar with how God overcame each of those tragedies, and that sense of history gives me hope for those embroiled in this tragedy. Our job as clergy and youth ministry is to tell these stories and God’s victories to the generations that follow. We do this not for a paycheck but because we are called to share the hope we have in God.
We live in a society where I hear far too often from parents who claim they are Christian that they wish to give their kids the freedom to choose their own system of belief when they grow up. Part of the problem, of course, is that their primary responsibility as parents is to raise their children to know that they are loved by and redeemed by God (that pesky baptismal covenant!). If we shirk our responsibilities and parents and do not impress His wisdom upon them as children, what faith system do we really expect they will adopt when they are adults? Many of us who have spent time listening or reading the stories of Scripture all have favorites. When tragedy strikes our lives personally, we are able to look back on that story that sings to us and remind ourselves of God’s love of each one of us. One of the consequences of “Christian” parents raising children outside the faith is that their children lack that common history. They begin to feel that they are alone, that the problems they are facing are unique, and that they are insufficient to help themselves in the end. We are fostering a hopelessness in our children. We are fostering a generation disconnected from others. If we really want to help them and really give them hope, we should be more determined as parents to fulfill the role He has given us in their lives.