Updated: Jun 9, 2020
When you’re a parent, lost in the crazy whirl of day to day responsibilities and challenges, it can be tough to remember the goal. It sometimes seems as though the highest and best thing you can aim for is getting food on the table, and making sure everybody gets to soccer practice or tae-kwon-do on time. As important as it is to keep our children fed, and where they need to be on time, there are higher goals than staving off hunger so that we can make it to extracurriculars.
In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks speaks of two sets of virtues, the “resume virtues” and the “eulogy virtues”, and says we’re far too focused on the resume virtues with our children. We fixate on achievement, grades, college admissions, and anything else we can do to ensure they will fit in, stay out of trouble, and eventually become gainfully employed. These virtues also include things like being a team player, having good organizational skills, being able to manage people well, and being a self-starter, all of which are valuable traits, especially on a resume.
In contrast, the virtues we hear in a eulogy are those things that set a person apart, the set of qualities that made them memorable and that we hope to emulate, such as compassion, loyalty, integrity, and courage. As parents, we rarely think of these virtues in relation to our children, partly because we’re so intent on helping them “succeed” and partly because, frankly, we forget about them. They almost seem outdated, old-fashioned–the kind of things you read about in books by Laura Ingalls Wilder or articles in Guideposts. We wouldn’t object to our children possessing them, we may even hope they possess them one day, but they just aren’t on the day-to-day radar.
Why is that? Why is it that we don’t think about them? I think it’s because we may have become short-sighted and shallow. We’re driven forward by the current trends and fads prevalent among our peers–not our kids’ peers, mind you, our peers. Whatever group we spend time with and want to be accepted by is the group that will set the tone of our expectations regarding our children. Our group, in turn, is influenced by whatever cultural/media presence or personality we most admire and want to emulate. Of course, these aren’t the only influences we’re affected by, but because we spend a lot of time being entertained by pop culture, we end up absorbing–more than we might think–the particular perspective of pop culture, making light of things that should be taken seriously and getting upset over things that don’t really matter in the long run. Even among people of faith, we’re often so immersed in our favorite Netflix binge or the latest Bachelorette that our thoughts remain “in the sha-a-aaa-llow.” (See what I mean?)
The result of this is often shallow and expedient thinking in relation to our children. We find ourselves focusing on how they look, what their grades are, making sure they don’t stick out, and whether or not they’re in the kind of activities that will look good on a college application. In working to accomplish these external goals we often forfeit the opportunity to help them learn the more important internal qualities: to be content with and care for their possessions, to contribute to the work of the home, to struggle for understanding and skill in difficult subjects, and maybe even to accept failure graciously and learn to try again. We nag them about their behavior towards others while allowing them to be rude and disrespectful toward us.
We have an obligation, not to make sure our kids’ lives go according to the most desirable current narrative, but how to handle life when it doesn’t go according to any narrative that we would ever want to think about. What if college isn’t in their or your financial capability–will you suggest they take out a massive loan, or will you already have prepared them to save and work and make do with what is within their reach, say a community college or tech school? What if the only work they can find isn’t particularly satisfying–will they know how to live a richly satisfying life, regardless? What if they lose everything in a flood or wildfire or earthquake–things which seem oddly possible these days!? What if they’re tempted to commit adultery, or embezzle from their boss, or accept credit for something they didn’t do? The college they attended is irrelevant in the face of any of these scenarios.
In the Scriptures there are multiple examples of God’s children being in positions where they must face the sinful world in all it’s ugliness and unfairness. Think of Moses, born into a world hostile to his very existence, then given over to be brought up by a woman who served false gods; or Joseph, the delight of his father, sold into slavery by his own half-brothers, unjustly accused of sexual assault, and wrongly imprisoned–God forbid that anything remotely like this should happen to one of our children, but clearly God had a purpose in allowing these things to happen to these men when they were mere children. In fact, it was these very hardships that God used to shape them into the leaders they became. Their mothers must have been a part of their preparation for these difficulties.
Difficulty and unfairness are all too often a part of life, and while we are fortunate that there are often ways of changing a tough situation for the better, this is not always the case; even when change is possible, it is often a lengthy and costly process, in terms of both money and emotional stress. These are things we have an obligation to prepare our children for. We don’t need to outline every possible negative thing that might happen to them, of course, but they need virtue, and they need wisdom, both of which are in our power to help them acquire.
We must begin by remembering that our days are numbered. We don’t know how long we have to live, but we know we won’t live here forever, and that when we die there will be an accounting taken of what we’ve done while in the body. When we think of life in this way, our perspective shifts to more lasting values. Perhaps, if we can start to remember that the time we have with our children is finite, and that life itself is fleeting, we will have the presence of mind to impart truly lasting values to them; maybe then both we and our children will have eulogies to be proud of.
“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12