For my daughter and her mother water is both safe refuge and playground. I, on the other hand, had a mother who viewed the bathtub as a potential death trap, requiring constant vigilance. Plunging into rivers, lakes or swimming pools was only for the foolhardy. I worked to keep my phobias from my children.
Like my children before them, my grandchildren learn that to be in the water is as natural as dry land – and sometimes more fun. Their apprenticeship in the water flows naturally – “OK, let’s try this!”
Watching my children parent and my wife grandmother I have come to a renewed appreciation of the importance of training and the critical nature of intentionality both in specific actions and in setting the frame for life.
Each week my wife picks up our three-year old granddaughter and pauses in front of the wall containing photos of various configurations of the family. The technique is almost Socratic. “Who’s this?” As Grandma works through all the aunties, cousins and, occasionally, the uncles she always says something like, “There sure are a lot of people who love you.”
The message sounds clear and persistently, “You belong, you are loved, you are part of something larger.”
My wife, like her mother before her, caretakes the family news and connections. “Grandma has to leave now to watch Cousin Dylan play ball.” Or, “You and Papa will have a special time next week because Grandma will be in Vancouver watching Cousin Taya dance or Cousin Riley play hockey.” And on it goes, nurturing the connections and sometimes establishing the parameters “We don’t do that at Grandma and Papa’s house.”
Grandma establishes meaning.
“Your Papa must really love you to share his chocolate with you!”
Reminders are also given. “He’s really going to need a good uncle during those years!”
I remember having lunch with Will Willimon when he and Stanley Hauerwas were on tour speaking to their book Resident Aliens. Over pasta, Willimon was recounting some story about his daughter pushing the boundaries. I don’t remember the issue but I remember his response to his daughter: “We’re Methodists. That’s not what we do.”
The other morning I went in to say hello to the Syrian refugee family our congregation is sponsoring. They assured me it was fine to eat even though they were fasting. It is the season of Ramadan. It’s just what faithful Muslims do.
As individual choice becomes the uncontested virtue and the options increase in our postmodern culture I am struck by how intentional and necessary the setting of a framework becomes. If not intentional about their rituals, patterns, beliefs parents and families are sucked into the slipstream of a consumer ideology where the path to the good life is linked with, if not defined by, the ability to consume or accumulate goods and experiences.
Fundamental questions of life will be answered: what makes a great life?; What is the source of hope? What is the place of sacrifice? What is the meaning and implications of love?; How important are values and virtues like respect, courtesy, compassion, empathy, fairness.
We engage such queries intentionally or we simply let ourselves and children splash with no training in the larger cultural pool.