My last sermon included a confession about a difficult lesson I learned about cultivating instant gratification in my son. We live in the era of readily available and easily attainable stuff. I can buy almost anything with just a click and even have it within two days, delivered to my doorstep. It is a wonderful problem solver in some ways, but it also creates an unreasonable expectation in children, maybe even adults. I started to hear out of my son’s mouth with alarming regularity, “Can we just order it on Amazon, and have it delivered in a brown box?” He’s four, and he knows that we can just get stuff, quick and easy, but at what cost? I was responsible for this. I had failed to convey that we can’t have everything we want, and sometimes the fast way is not the right way. There is intrinsic value in waiting. That is when I started looking at important lessons for children and the theological implications these seemingly innocent lessons really convey beneath the surface.
1. Sometimes it is not that we want the wrong things, but that we go about getting them the wrong way. Instant gratification feels great, and can be a real perk with technology, but God is not now and never really has been about instant gratification. As disciples we walk a rocky, long path following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. It requires prayer and the process of discernment. When we spend so much of our lives basking in instant gratification, we teach our children that it is preferable to the God-commanded way of discernment. I have never offered a prayer that went unanswered. I have received answers I did not expect and some I did not like. I have even received the answer I desired, just not instantly. Patience is a virtue and a necessity in the lifelong journey of discipleship. So we had better start teaching our children its merits here and now, or discipleship will seem even more impossible and undesirable.
2. “Because I said so” is a good answer. There was this trend of leaving this staple of parental response behind, but in doing so we raised children to expect to understand the why behind every response, except that we do not always get a why with God. God can see things and knows things that we cannot even comprehend, much less hope to have explained to us. There are plenty of instances in Scripture where we are commanded to do something and the why of it goes unsaid. We just have to take some things on faith. So now I follow-up “because I said so” with something along the lines of “I am your parent, and I have experience you do not yet have, so you cannot yet understand, but I promise you that I am saying this because I love you.” I want my child to know that I am not refusing him something because I am a nasty mother, but because there are things I cannot articulate to him at his age, and he will need to trust in me and my judgment. It is exactly the same response I have received from God over the course of my life. I hate to admit it, but God had been right one hundred percent of the time. I just needed time and distance to see that. Loving someone includes keeping them safe and looking out for what is best for them, not just giving them everything they think they want.
3. When a child does something wrong, we immediately want to make the child apologize. While we should instill in every child a sense of humility and a willingness to admit mistakes, we want to be careful to convey why such actions are important, and that will fuel the right motivation for saying “I’m sorry.” When my son does something to hurt or offend another person, I have to take the time to talk about why it was wrong, what it did to the other person. I try to get my son to put himself in their place. “Would you want someone to take something from you? Call you stupid? Or ignore you when you asked to play nicely?” I want him to see that his actions affect others, and that he has no right to hurt another person, even when he feels hurt himself. I have had to say repeatedly, “It is OK that you are having a bad day, but you cannot take that out on another person.” I insist that he express that anger, sadness, etc. in an age appropriate manner whether he wants to talk about it, sulk in his room, go hit a ball around the yard, or any other means of getting out the emotional energy. Yet he cannot be rude, hurtful, or violent toward a person or animal. That’s not how Jesus tells us to handle ourselves, and I hold him to that same accountability. I make apologizing about the relationship that has been fractured or broken. I ask him, “Do you want them to be your friend tomorrow? Then you had better consider how you made them feel, and what would help to make you guys friends again.” Reconciliation is a fundamental theological emphasis in Christianity. While apologizing plays a vital role in that, it must be framed as a means of mending brokenness, not a knee jerk verbal response.
4. As parents and Christian ones at that, we have a responsibility of focusing our children’s attention on what is truly important in this world. It is a harsh truth, but no sport is going to save your child from eternal punishment. Santa Claus does not bring salvation. Nothing is more important than showing God our gratitude in worship. Yet we live in a world where all of these things compete with our faith. Children want to play sports. They want to get presents at Christmas. They want to sleep in or do other things than sit through worship on Sunday, but Christianity is about doing what is right, not what feels good in the moment. So we have the power and authority to insist on what our children will do and when. If you place the emphasis on sports and allow them to remove your child from the life of the Body of Christ on Sunday morning, then you are teaching them that something is more important than God. That is a truly dangerous theology to impart. When you introduce your child to Santa Claus, do you consider how to you make the shift to the primacy of Jesus? At what age does that happen, and how do you teach that Christmas is not about getting things, but receiving salvation born in the Christ-child? We need to carefully and thoughtfully consider what we are doing when we carry on a tradition that came from outside the Church. Not that Santa Claus is evil, but it takes a lot more articulation and work on the parents’ part to keep him from overshadowing Jesus. What about Sunday morning? What do you allow your child to become accustomed to as a viable excuse not to attend worship? Every time you make the command decision to miss worship, your child is discovering that there might be something more worthy of doing and putting into the time and energy. They will integrate those lessons and live them out as they grow older. That is why we go to worship even on vacation, do not take off just because it is summer, and refuse to allow secular holidays to draw us away from God. It is offensive to God to place anything before our worship, especially when God has placed nothing before saving us and loving us. It is the model our divine parent has placed before us, and the one we should use as earthly parents to our children.