What is this? My fifteen year-old daughter, Caroline, has started driver’s education! Up to now she has driven in our empty church parking lot and the adjoining car-forsaken dead end street. Now she has her learner’s permit and Caroline is ready to be unleashed on the highways, byways, and ruthless roundabouts in our neighborhood. The problem is dear-old Dad is not ready for Caroline to pilot my car in prime time. I was looking for some back-up at the parents orientation when I asked “It’s probably a good idea to wait until our student has had a couple of supervised drives with you before we really turn them loose, don’t you think”? Big Ed, the teacher of 911 driving school (all the instructors are police officers) was no help, “Oh no, you want her behind the wheel right away”. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Caroline smile smugly. To set the record straight, Caroline is remarkably mature and I am confident will be an excellent driver. The key phrase in that sentence is “will be” as in “not yet”. All of you parents who have been down this road, pun intended, know there is tension between getting started, getting a learner’s permit, and getting the car keys. It’s a collaborative process of constantly renegotiating the boundaries, a parent-child give-n-take, push-n-pull, catch-n-release, and sometimes tug-of-war. The driver’s education experience is a microcosm of all parental progression.
What does this mean? Being in the driver’s education classroom was a blast from the past. The retired police officer had to tell a couple of gory stories to get the attention of apathetic students who want to get through this so they can get out on the road, just like when I was fifteen. On the wall were various road signs that give direction. John Ortberg writes about “Relational Rules for the Road” that seem applicable to this parenting conversation. People send signals all the time to STOP talking, STOP advising, and STOP pushing. People close to me tell me that I’ve always had a habit of saying, “COME ON” as I try to bring them around to doing what I ask. I’m convinced it is God’s judgment that my daughter does precisely the same thing, “COME ON DAD, I need to be driving!” It isn’t the suggestion, it is the sheer repetition and her ferocity that chip away. Now being on the receiving end, that is like annoying. So I need to STOP running those non-verbal stop signs, usually looking away or leaning back. Another road sign we are wise to pay careful attention to is WARNING: CONSTRUCTION ZONE AHEAD. In reality, every relationship is a construction zone. In families, there is an “emotional economy” and, no doubt, some of our family are “low maintenance” and others are “high maintenance”. Of course, we all say “I am low-maintenance”. Maybe you or maybe you are not, but I know I am. Please don’t ask Caroline for her opinion. The truth is you can’t just leave a relationship alone and expect it flourish. It takes time, listening, encouragement, patience, and attention. Perhaps, most important is to faithfully pray to the Father in Heaven for those you love.
What is the takeaway? As I have been sitting in my office working on this, two parents have dropped in to discuss some personal struggles. The first lamented how she feels she is working so hard to guide, encourage, and get her children out on their own. Yet, she feels like the target of their frustrations. The second was a grieving mother, who through tears, recalled how she was holding her son’s hand as he was dying in the hospital. This old memory is so graphic for her at times, she just loses it. This brings to mind that so much of loving and relating as a parent is summed up in SHOULDER WORK. There are times we feel beaten down by failures, families, sins, and struggles. Our shoulders have a way of signaling where we are at. Squared shoulders suggest a confident, robust spirit. Hunched-up shoulders send a message of resignation, ready-to-surrender. Being a child and a parent are heavy responsibilities. We are to honor our mother and father as long as we live. To help us follow-through on our family duties, we need to turn to others to share the load with us; hold us up in prayer, share our burdens, and cheer us on. My best friend has no kids but what an amazing sounding board, he listens and I know I have been heard. Through years of teaching confirmation, when we come to the command to honor your mother and father, I enjoy quoting Ephesians 5:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children”. My instruction is go home and challenge your father with that. Today I will try to keep Paul’s admonition in mind as I take Caroline beyond our neighborhood to do some audacious driving for the first time. Lord, have mercy on father and daughter!