Have your kids ever embarrassed you? Maybe your daughter has learned the word "fat" and is testing it out on every portly man who waddles by. Your son sternly warns your neighbor that smoking is bad for her and she needs to stop. Your kids loudly ask why that immigrant family doesn't speak right.
Or, more seriously, your daughter instinctively mistrusts every man with a different color skin than her Daddy. Your son gawks at the mentally ill homeless man talking to everyone and no one on the street. They're frightened by children with special needs on the playground.
Parenting From Embarrassment
I get embarrassed in these situations. Why? Because they reflect poorly on my parenting. They expose the many ways that I have not adequately prepared my children for the world.
This is why I reflexively hush my kids or tell them it's not polite to stare. I am essentially telling them to hide their confusion. But how does this help my kids understand the world they live in? Is teaching them to sneak glances and hide their thoughts really progress? It's never a good idea to parent from embarrassment. When we hush our kids, we choose our self-image over their personal growth.
We cannot afford to make that mistake. These situations are incredibly important for our kids. They don't need to learn how to avoid awkwardness (which is not a biblical category). They need to learn how to love. Their character will be shaped by our response to these moments. Our embarrassment is God's mercy to us. God is giving us opportunities to lead our children to think and love well.
Children and Being Different
From an early age, our children are wrestling with difference. What does it mean to be different? Is it good or bad or neutral? Are differences constructive or divisive? How deep do differences go? Can I be in relationship with someone who is different from me? Do I have to?
These are complicated questions. Take physical difference, for example. Race is neutral -- one skin color is not more valuable than another. Same with height, eye color, hair color, body type, etc. But what about differences due to sickness -- obesity, physical deformity, mental retardation? What about when sickness is due to one's poor choices? These differences are not good, and for different reasons, but they are not ultimately divisive. They do not take away a person's worth. Children need to be taught this. God's image is permanently stamped on every human being. That means that every human being is worthy of our children's respect, love, and care. Further, Christ has broken down every wall between us. Grace has reiterated our equality.
This exercise could be repeated with economic differences, cultural differences, family differences, lifestyle and personality differences, and spiritual differences. Our world is a tangled web of created diversity and broken diversity. It takes wisdom to untangle it. Parenting involves helping our children learn the degree to which differences are important, and how those differences affect the commandment to honor God and love others.
Two Great Books to Help You
We've found this to be really hard. Our family lives in a dense, eccentric, global city. Difference comes up a lot. Two books that have been really helpful are The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman (2011) and People by Peter Spier (1980).
The Great Big Book of Families covers a wide array of differences between families: family makeup (natural, single-parent, grandparent custody, same-sex couples, adoptive/foster families); family size (small/big/multi-generational); housing (housed, apartment, homeless); schooling (institution/home); working parents (both, one, unemployed); holidays and vacations; food and clothing; celebrations and hobbies; feelings (expressive/private; happy/angry); etc. Wow! Notice how good, bad, and neutral differences are included, all mixed up (just like you and me).
People has the same idea, but focuses on global culture. Pages are devoted to physical differences (size, shape, skin/hair color, facial features); beauty (hair, clothing); entertainment (games, hobbies); taste (art, architecture, housing, pets); celebrations; food; religion; work; wealth (rich, poor, "and very many who are desperately poor"); language; power; and importance. Again, wow!
This book also has some great lines. My favorite: "We have invented a strange system of ranks, grades, and classes... Yet we all live on the same planet, breathe the same air, and warm ourselves in the same sun. And in the end we all must die." Parents, that'll preach!
Both books are impressively illustrated for exploring, with lots of details to look through and talk about. There are so many great conversations embedded in these books. They will work at different levels for different ages. (Be aware: People does include illustrations of people groups who wear little clothing. It's very tame. Our kids just laughed.)
What I like about both these books is how matter-of-fact they are. They present difference frankly and respectfully. Both authors resist the urge to parent for you. They do not parse which differences are good, bad, or neutral. That is the responsibility of the parent as kids ask questions. There is not a moral at the end of the story, wrapped up in a pretty bow. The differences explored are too complicated for that.
Even so, you finish the book reminded of the abiding similarity underneath all our differences. That is a core conviction of biblical theology that our children must know in practice. All people are created equal. All people have fallen into sin. All people need grace through faith in Christ. All people -- from every tribe, people, nation, and tongue.
Are Your Kids Ready?
Every parent knows that one day we will be asked to send our children into the world. It is our task, insofar as we are able, to send them out prepared to follow God's call to glorify Him through loving others. We have eighteen years, give or take, to prepare them for that day. And, if we're honest, we know adulthood is not sudden. Each morning, they wake up a little more adult, and a little less kid. (Tissues, anyone?)
Mercifully, we get little glimpses of how they'll do. Sometimes it's encouraging. Sometimes it's embarrassing. But we press on. By God's grace, through prayer and effort, our children can be world-ready. Confident in grace, grounded in truth, secure in Christ, clear-eyed and ready to flourish for the glory of God and the love of others.