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Affirming Your Family
January 31, 1982

First United Methodist Church of Modesto


We are in the midst of a sermon series on marriage and family. We looked at marriage last week, using as the basis of this sermon series, a statement of our church’s doctrines and beliefs from the 1980 Discipline of the United Methodist Church, particularly the statement, “We believe the family to be the basic human community, through which persons are nurtured and sustained in mutual love, responsibility, respect, and fidelity.” With Christ as the head of the home, those are the essential ingredients and characteristics of a Christian home. 

Today, we look at the family—parents and children, or a parent and children. Out of the ingredients which I just read, I'd like to lift up two of them in particular, which I think are crucial in family relationships—namely responsibility and respect. Our society criticizes irresponsible youth today, but rarely allows youth to be responsible. It's very difficult for a person to grow up in our society today to be a responsible person. Our popular psychology encourages us to blame everything—our problems, our situation on dear old mother, or the way we were toilet trained, or blame the school, blame the police, blame the country, blame our environment, blame our culture, blame anyone except ourselves. The number one lesson taught in our school system is conformity, not excellence or individual creativity, but conformity and regimentation. And then we don't understand how suddenly they cannot handle modular free scheduling at Beyer High School. They are regimented and coddled all through elementary school, and then suddenly overnight, they're supposed to turn into responsible persons to take responsibility for their education. Society likes to accuse them of being irresponsible, but rarely allows them to learn how to be responsible. 

In a Christian understanding of life, each person stands before God and is accountable for his or her life, accountable for his or her behavior, and his or her actions, blaming no one else. No one else can share the burden of standing before God. In a Christian family, each person, each child, each youth, each adult assumes responsibility for his or her life, and assumes responsibility for the family and for the success of that family—shared responsibility. 

How does a person learn responsibility? When Tim, our middle son, was about five years old, we lived in Minneapolis. He and a playmate who lived across the street were caught playing with matches. Tim's mother, Eleanor was very concerned about this. She thought, “How am I going to teach him responsibility?” She took him down to the basement, took a sheet of newspaper and tore the paper in the shape of a person with head, arms, and torso. She said to Tim, “Now pretend that this is a little boy who is playing with matches.” She lit a match and the match burns down to where his hand catches fire. He gets so excited that his arm is on fire, he tries to flap the fire out and the other arm catches on fire. Petty soon his body, his arms and his legs are all burned up. Well, Tim was wholly intrigued by this exercise. With wide eyes and open mouth, he stared and said, “Now let's burn a girl!”

How do you learn responsibility? First, we learn responsibility by being allowed to assume responsibility, by being allowed to assume responsibility for failure or for success. A child learns to be responsible by being allowed to be responsible. One family had a dawdler in their home. His mother awakened him one and a half hours before the school bus would come—one and a half hours. He was always late for breakfast. She nagged, she coddled, she harangued, she said, “Hurry up, hurry up. Get down here and eat breakfast before the bus comes.” She was a nervous wreck by the time the school bus came. 

A counselor told her, “Why don't you let him assume responsibility for his breakfast?” The next morning, she awakened him an hour and a half before breakfast. She didn't say one word the whole time. He came to the breakfast table just five minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. She had the table all cleared, everything put away and said nothing. The next morning, he repeated the same schedule, got there five minutes before the bus with nothing to eat and everything put away. The third morning he came to the table earlier, but the family was eating. He sat down and said, “Well, I don't want to eat anyway.” He expected to be harassed and harangued but they said not a word. He went without breakfast. The biggest trouble with mothers is that can't keep their mouths shut. Have you ever noticed? But, that mother kept her mouth shut. 

The fourth day he came to the breakfast table in plenty of time, sat down and ate a big meal with the family. And mother did not say, “Well, did you learn your lesson?” She kept her mouth shut and the boy learned responsibility for his own breakfast. She let the situation do the teaching rather than her speaking. And he learned a great lesson in life that when you don't get to the table on time, you get hungry. That's responsibility. A child learns responsibility by being allowed to assume responsibility, by being allowed to succeed or to fail. 

Secondly, we learn responsibility in the family by being allowed to assume responsibility for the family, and to do our part in the family, to participate, and to contribute to the family, not out of duty (you ought to do this), not out of guilt (you should do this), not out of fear of punishment (If you don't do this, you will get this), but because you are needed. Our family needs you. Our family cannot succeed without you. You have a contribution to make to this family and when you don't fulfill your contribution, the whole family suffers. 

It was easier to be responsible back on the farm. On the farm where I grew up before machines, back before Noah built the ark, it was very clear to us that we all had to work. It was clear to us children that we had to help gather the eggs, feed the chickens, get the cows, milk the cows, feed the cows, weed the garden and hoe the garden. There was so much to do. I don't remember being harangued all the time to do it because it was obvious if we all didn't do it, it wouldn't get done. I also don't remember being told to clean up my room because there were three of us in the room and there wasn't room to get it dirty. 

It's more difficult these days for a child to be a contributing member of the family, but it's possible to do chores, be part of family discussions, be part of family councils, be in on the big decisions of what kind of car to buy, what kind of house to buy, When we moved to Modesto and bought a house, we listened to the children. Many houses we did not buy because one of the sons thought there was something wrong with it. But now we're all responsible for that house, responsible for our living because we all participated in the decision, we're all part of the family. 

Learning responsibility must begin at a very early age and not suddenly expect to learn it in high school. From age two a child can learn responsibility. We usually find it difficult to allow children to assume responsibility because we think it's not being a loving mother or father. We want to protect them. Or, it's easier to do it myself. Responsibility is learned by experience. 

Thirdly, respect is an essential ingredient in the family. “Honor your father and your mother” was the reading today. And “children obey your parents”. A common criticism of our children and our youth is that they don't respect their mothers, their fathers, the church, the school, the community. But how does one learn respect? How do we learn how to respect? First of all, I believe we learn how to respect by being reared by parents who respect themselves as I said last week. A mother and a father who respect themselves can teach respect to the children when children are not the center of the home, when parents have rights also and where each has a right to one's own life. When parents  respect themselves, children are respected and can learn how to respect. 

Secondly, we learn how to respect by being respected. We learn how to honor father and mother because we were honored by father and mother. We learn how to respect because they respected us. A Christian home is where each child is respected as an individual person of needs and potential, an individual person of integrity and worth, of infinite worth in the eyes of God. 

A family had very high expectations for their nine-year-old son. They laid out a broad activity program, and he was expected to excel. Anything less than an A was a calamity. He was expected to be a leader in the Scouts. He was expected to shine in all the athletic programs, learn his piano lesson to perfection, memorize Bible passages without error, to be groomed tidily, to have impeccable manners, to be courteous and respectful. Everyone said of the little boy, “Oh, he is extraordinary. He's such a nice boy.” But, he had one fault that the parents could not correct. He bit his fingernails to the skin. He had horrible nightmares. He had a nervous habit of shaking his shoulders. His parents would never understand that they did not respect their boy. He was not a boy in his own right. He was an extension of their dreams, an extension of their expectations. He was an “it” and not treated as an individual person of sacred worth. They dominated him and overwhelmed him. 

And I'm afraid someday he will break being raised like that. He will either be a rebel and overthrow the government or his parents. Or, he will break inside himself, retreat and withdraw from the world. To respect means to let kids be kids. They don't have to graduate in gowns from nursery schools, go to proms when they're in the fourth grade and wear makeup when they're in the third grade. Let kids be kids. There are some churches that are glad to accept children as long as they behave like adults, as long as they act like adults. Well, all real American kids love to gobble up cookies. They are kids. Let kids be kids. Treat them with respect and dignity. 

But, probably many of us err on the other side. Rather than demanding too much of kids, we demand too little. We also disrespect children by demanding too little of them. This lack of respect is very subtle. We look on the child as being too little or too weak, and so we do for him or for her what they're perfectly capable of doing. We are overprotecting and dominating. To do something for someone else of which they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves, is to show disrespect. Whether it's a handicapped person, a blind person, a deaf person, a crippled person or a child, to do something for someone else of which they're perfectly capable of doing is disrespect. An 18-month-old girl, just a year and a half, was trying to climb up in a chair. She slipped, bumped her chin and it started bleeding. Mother remained calm even when she saw the blood and said cheerfully, "Try again. You can do it." The girl did and eventually climbed the chair with a great deal of satisfaction, pleasure and joy. Her mother respected her and allowed her the freedom and responsibility to climb that particular chair at that particular time. The child learned self-respect and responsibility. 

A Christian family teaches responsibility and respect.

© 1982 Douglas I. Norris