Most extraordinary events begin in rather mundane fashion. Such was yesterday evening, as our three adult children sit with my wife and me around the table. We’ve just finished dinner and I go to explain a point about a book I’ve given to my son. My comments are apparently tainted. Things like judgment, correction, and self-righteousness …
My son’s response is quick and pointed—that he’s an adult; that he grew up in this house and knows what we believe so I don’t have to patronize him. Eloquently, he goes to the real issue: many times, I haven’t listened to him—what his views are, to understand his take on life, purpose, religion, morality, God, you name it.
I stay quiet this time. No attempt to correct him or to explain myself. I glance around the table. Our other son looks down, as if he either can’t believe what he’s hearing or wishes we/I would get it right. Our daughter’s face mirrors agreement and she interjects, “He’s right, Dad. It’s like … sometimes you don’t want to hear us—you’re too set on straightening us out but we’re adults and we can figure things out.”
My wife remains silent; I wonder what she’s thinking and wish I had her wisdom right that second (over the years, she’s urged me to “just listen to hear their words; it’s more important to hear where they’re coming from.”). I’m thinking, I’m surely not as bad as he says.
Finally, he winds down and I take the opportunity to say, “Yes, we had this conversation eighteen months ago, when we were together on family vacation. I heard you then. I’ve really been trying to be a listener. Isn’t there a difference?”
He allows that yes, there is. I relax but he’s not done. My transformation to being a respectful dad still needs more work.
And that’s what it’s about—respect. Showing enough respect for these young men and woman who grew up in this house to take in his or her comments without having to correct or evaluate. That allows them to be their own person—that I consider them grown-up and capable of thinking for themselves. That’s what we tried to build into them, for crying out loud. Everyone wants and needs respect, especially from those of their own household.
Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus includes this admonition: Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Note there’s not one word to mothers how to relate to their children. I’m guessing Paul knew we dads were prone to ham-fisted assertions to our children—dogmatic, absolute, and presumptuous.
This all goes to something deeper—Why do we fathers tend to be like that?
Ever mindful of our God-ordained role of leader of the family, we become autocrats, authoritarian, so we don’t have to venture into the touchy-feely realm of emotions, of respect and feelings. It seems we’re so uneasy in our roles that we need automatic acceptance of our pronouncements, like Archie Bunker. Archie was funny because his words were outrageous, reflecting stereotypical insecure dads.
Back to my house: what follows around our table is a partial unclogging of misunderstanding from past unresolved conflicts. The discussion is sometimes passionate but respectful throughout. I can almost hear the tension hiss out of the room. It becomes the type of open, transparent sharing with our strong-willed offspring that most parents yearn for. Later, I get hugs and I-love-you’s from all of them.
I almost blew it. But it happened because mostly I listened, giving them my full attention. My instinctual defensive posture relaxed enough for me to listen, and to hear.
Yep, I still got some areas for improvement. I don’t wear humility gracefully but I suspect it will prove to be a more comfortable fit than my starched self-righteousness.