In May FDW is hosting a new series on stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by my hero and someone I consider basically my pastor, and he’s just amazing, Rocky Supinger.
Kids are good news and bad news.
For my parents, with their two sons, that dichotomy has displayed itself in stark terms as a tale of two sons, both good and both bad. One is a desperate-for-acceptance lemming who would sooner watch you drown than risk the ridicule of wet clothes (that’s me), the other is an impoverished savior who gives all he has away to people in need, strangers and friends alike. The latter dropped out of high school in 9th grade and got himself legally emancipated at 15 into a world of short-term jobs, drinking, drugs, and exploitative relationships. The other is a minister–but in a denomination that, to their moral horror, both ordains and marries gay people.
I often look at my daughter, who turns seven today, and see only the potential for bad. She’s a cherub, for sure. But even in her infancy I did this. Her hungry or tired cry, I was certain, held the seeds of rebellion, and I could vividly imagine a scene in which she shrieked “I hate you!” before slamming her bedroom door. Voicing this perception to my spouse both baffled and upset her. “She’s a baby,” she would protest. “Not your brother.”
My own badness comes out of her too. The other day she professed a serious resolve to be “more normal.” I nearly blacked out from the visceral identification with that desire and the searing awareness of the cruelty and loss it engenders. Right away I imagined my angel standing silently by as friends jeered a classmate, as I had done countless times, all for the sake of “normal.”
Here’s the bad news of parenthood: our most upsetting visions of our kids’ potential for malevolency are just as likely as not to come true, regardless of our parenting inputs. I think of my parents’ grief at my abandoning them to their hotel room for an entire weekend in which they had travelled to see a college play I was in. I was socializing with my friends. What had they done to deserve that? Nothing. Hadn’t they raised me better? Yes.
The good news, though, is that our kids will perform acts of courage and moral fortitude of which we are not capable, and they will do these, again, despite our parenting inputs. Hours of permitting my daughter to stare at an iPad will not condemn her to sociopathy. Case in point: the other day, in the midst of some family trauma, my wife delicately attempted to explain suicide to our daughter, who, for her part, returned an indignant lecture about all the things a person could do with their sadness–like, write it down and burn it–instead of harming themselves. Both her mother and I were baffled as to the origins of that vision.
I’m alternately comforted and terrified by the apparent inefficacy of parenting. This is surely overstating things, but our children are their own people who will soar into virtue and wallow into vice in their own way, and both our best attempts to guide them and our worst betrayals of them have less effect on their ultimate character than we think. They are marvels to elicit our wonder more than projects for us to perfect. They will inspire us one moment and destroy us the next more simply because, like us, they are human, and not because of how we parented them.
Thank God for that.