Throwing the ball back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. The endless repetition, the can-you-read-the-same-story-one-more-time. There were times I just thought, Give me a gun. [Father of small child quoted in “All Joy and No Fun” by Jennifer Senior]
In her fun and informative book, Jennifer Senior talks about how parenting, particularly of small children, disrupts flow and makes concentration harder for busy parents. Children are the last permanent relationships in our society, she says, “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” New parents who have experienced years of autonomy suddenly find themselves trapped in a world of sleeplessness and boredom punctuated by moments of sheer panic,”lurching back and forth between those two poles — boredom and anxiety –rather than being able to comfortably settle somewhere in the middle.” To be sure, it is joy and it’s all worth it. We know that and truly feel the truth of it. But it’s not often fun! Mercifully, there are often “bursts of grace” when the child presses her cheek to mommy and time stops, or suddenly dad gets an eight-year-old bear hug with no rational explanation available to the adult world for the exact timing of said hug.
I read Jennifer Senior with Christian and pastoral eyes. I know the value of children. The joy. The responsibility. And I love my children very much. But, face it, sometimes the disinterest I have in doing something with my kids makes me feel downright evil.
I admit it. When I go out to throw a ball with my son I sometimes have to tell myself I will throw fifty passes before I say, “Dad’s got work to do.” And I do exactly fifty throws. I count them! And, worse, when the kids were smaller, I have to admit that the dreaded jobs I’d avoided for months sound exciting and irresistible compared to reading the same little story for the three hundred and sixty-first time.
But I’m reminded of G.K Chesterton, someone I read when I didn’t have to read Dr. Seuss. In the child’s incapacity to be bored with the same action over and over and over again, he saw the glory of God. “Children are pashas of excess,” says Senior. True, but G.K. Chesterton observed,
“. . . children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
I didn’t have children for the first ten years of my married life. And it took me almost ten years of having children before I started accepting the fact that I needed children more than children need me. In children I find out that I don’t have the capacity to endure in joy. My endurance is growing as I get more childlike in my faith. Because to be childlike is to see things with different eyes.
The toddler that visits my house wants to play the silly game I started playing with her the first time she came to my house, touching the dangling lights and choosing our favorite color. Every. Single. Visit. It’s as funny and intriguing and interesting and pleasurable to her as it was the first time we did it many times ago. Another toddler wants to play with my flashlight every time he visits because when he first came I set precedence by letting him play with my flashlight. But my adulthood and individualism and selfishness and the allure of something more important have stunted me and shriveled my spirit so that the thrill of a thrown and caught ball, the pleasure of a silly story, and the fun in a senseless activity vaporize after a few repetitions. My big-people-ness misses out on the the intriguing fact that flashlight toddler can come to my home and not ask for the flashlight until he sees me. Why?
Because he doesn’t just see the flashlight. He sees me as part of his flashlight world. I think I’m bored because I am thinking about the wrong thing when it comes to activities and things that children like and do. I see the book, the light, the game, the ball, the flashlight. I’m focused on the action, the thing; a child is involved in the action or thing. It’s a world to live in. It is a pleasant context wherein they live out certain joys.
Someone asked me if I got bored with the good weather in California. I thought it was crazy, but I’ve heard about people who think that the constantly good weather is boring! But that’s because they think about weather all the time. I don’t think about weather every day. If I did, I’d be bored. Instead, I relish all the things I can do and enjoy in the same weather day after day. So, I’m never bored with the weather. In the same way, the action or thing becomes a world, a context, and, for the child, it’s a thousand times better if that world and context is shared and owned with someone. Games and activities and books and films are all contexts for joy and pleasure. Each activity becomes a home for certain joys. All my children friends have relationships with things and actions, involvement with these things, into which certain people can enter and relate with as precedence and opportunity dictate. My little toddler visitors don’t do the touch the lights game with anyone else. That’s their way of relating to me. I am the touch the lights and pick our favorite color person. That is where they enjoy me. That is the world that I can be involved in with them. It’s their way of saying, “Welcome to our joy place.” My son wants me to throw the ball to him. It’s not about a ball to him. It’s about sharing involvement with him. And the reason I feel guilty when I finally quit is because I’m not just ceasing to throw a ball and moving on to more important things even though that is what my adult logic is telling me. I’m stepping out of his world. Separating.
As parents we have to ask God to give us the strength to be child-like. Not childish. Not immature. But godly and wise and patient and joyful. And that means becoming strong in the childlike joy of doing the same thing over and over and over again and enjoying it like it is the first time we’ve ever done it. It’s a boring blessing. Boring because we have to grow up and be childlike. A blessing because time stops and we make friends with pure and undefiled little people who remind us that life is not so much about what we do but with whom we do what we do.
I partake in the ordinance of Holy Communion every week. I am not bored with it even though it is the same thing over and over and over again. But it is not about bread and wine, a religious ceremony. It is about a shared involvement. My childlike faith understands it clearly. When I am not childlike in my faith, I’m bored. When my faith is warm and alive and childlike I hear my heart saying, “One more time, please, one more time.”
That’s why I need the boring blessing of parenting. My children need me, true. But I need my children.