A friend with two small children invited me over yesterday to tea with a couple of her friends to talk about parenting and faith. It's not as if I'm an expert on these things. And it's not as if one can become an expert, because parenting is about dealing with human beings (who can be influenced but have free will) and faith is about God (who is way too big to reduce to formulas), and life has an awful lot going on that isn't in our control. But talking makes me think. And this is what I was thinking about last night:
When I was fourteen I went on a week-long hiking trip with a camp. One morning the seven of us stood on a mountain top, and the counselor explained that we were going bushwhacking that day. He pointed out the spot on the horizon where we would meet up, had us sketch a rough map based on what we could see, handed us each a compass, and sent us out, alone, at 15-minute intervals. It was up to us to figure out how to get to our meeting-up site by 3pm. There were no trails.
It was quite an adventure. Somewhere I may still have the black fly-covered journal page I wrote on when I stopped to eat lunch, too close to a swamp. I accidentally met a black snake about the size of the Loch Ness monster, and confided my thoughts to many curious chipmunks. I confidently followed a stream, then had to backtrack when I unexpectedly found myself on a ridge with no way down. And though I knew there were others somewhere not too far off, I was truly on my own. It was exciting and scary, confidence-making and insecurity-inspiring all at once.
Parenting can be rather like that. You head out with an idea of where you want to end up, but with no detailed map, no well-marked trail. You figure out the details as you come across them. The essentials are good observational skills, common sense, resourcefulness, the ability to stay calm when you find yourself in a bad situation, and a willingness to either re-route or muddle through when the landscape becomes difficult.
Where I think people get lost -- and I could be wrong but I've seen it happen a lot -- is in failing to define clearly enough where they want to end up. Saying you want a happy kid is like saying you want to head east. It's too vague. If you say you want your child to be thoughtful of others, have good coping skills, know the difference between joy and pleasure, be strong enough to withstand a goodly amount of peer pressure, and have a rich spiritual life, your odds of having him arrive at 3pm at the large pine tree next to the stream in the cleft between those two hills five miles to the southeast are much better.
Especially if your own life serves as a compass.