“But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over" [Jeremiah 18:4].
When my daughter was seven years old my wife and I bought a corner unit for her bedroom. It was an unassembled piece of furniture purchased from the Jamesway Store in Sterling. Once assembled, the corner unit was conveniently placed between two windows in the southeast corner of her bedroom. The unit was white and stood about five feet tall. The right side of the unit included a closet and below the closet were two small drawers. The left side of the unit consisted of five bookshelves. In the center of the unit was a built-in cork board/chalk board. The corkboard/chalkboard was about four feet in length and ten inches wide. The corkboard and chalkboard were to be used by my daughter to post significant school information, homework assignments and to keep track of her after school activities.
My wife and I agreed the corner unit served its purpose well. I believed the unit would remain in the house for a number of years until its function became obsolete. My wife and daughter would then confer and most likely include the item in that particular year’s annual garage sale. However that specific scenario would never actually unfold. This inexpensive and relatively unimportant piece of children's furniture eventually participated in a series of events that would change the way I perceive my child and children in general.
One evening, shortly after I returned home from work, my wife asked me to come into my daughter's room to observe something. As I entered the room she pointed to the chalkboard on the corner unit. I glanced over at the chalkboard and recognized my young daughter's handiwork. I looked back at my wife and asked, "so what's up?" She pointed back to the chalkboard and said, "look again more closely."
This time I did look more closely and noticed a stick figure drawing of a woman with a bright smile, wearing angel's wings and surrounded by hearts. Underneath the stick figure was the word "love" spelled out in huge letters. I assumed this drawing to be of my wife. Beneath this drawing was another stick figure drawing. This drawing depicted a man with large horns on his head and long claws for hands. His face was contorted but I could gather from the drawing that the man was very angry. The mouth was crooked and had several gruesome fangs protruding outward. Underneath the stick figure was the word "dad" spelled out in huge letters.
My first reaction was that of anger and then of frustration. I stared at my wife and said, "what’s this all about?" She immediately replied back, “your relationship with your daughter requires more effort on your part. You had better do something soon to improve it." I snapped back quickly, "I don't have the time for this. I work long hours and when I come home from the office I don't expect to have to deal with this sort of thing." Now this was the truth. I did work long hours including Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. I believed I worked hard to support my family, and sure I often brought the problems encountered on the job home with me. Yes, I often shouted at my daughter when she didn't respond to my direction or relentless queries in a manner I preferred. Yes, I was unreasonable at times, most times. But I didn't think that it was my problem. I believed it was her problem. How come she did not understand that I worked long hours and was often uptight and frustrated? I was making the best effort for my family and they should all honor this effort and should toil to satisfy my needs. My wife said to me, "your daughter fears you but does not respect you." She also disclosed to me, "if you don't start a positive dialogue with her soon, you will probably lose her attention completely." This was just too much for me to handle. It was just not fair.
I went to sleep thinking about those stick figure drawings. How come my wife was an angel and I was depicted as a monster? How was I to rid myself of those horns, fangs and claws? Before I fell into a deep sleep my last conscious thoughts were of my own childhood years. Would I have ever told my father that he was a monster? I don't think so.
On my drive to work the next morning I gave some thought to what my spouse had said to me the previous evening. I realized my daughter was obviously angry with me. She was intimidated by me and could not verbalize her personal feelings in my presence. Her only recourse was to express her feelings in the chalkboard sketches. She knew that sooner or later I would have to come in contact with her stick figure sketches and in this way she could communicate her thoughts to me.
I began to realize that my daughter was doing all the communicating in our relationship. My dear spouse was right. I had to find a way to establish some positive dialogue between the two of us. How was I to commence with this discourse? My daughter was seven years old and I found it very difficult to "come down", so to speak, to her level. I didn't want to accept the monster image that stared at me from her bedroom. I had to think of something to turn this communication thing around.
Over the next few weeks I set aside a period of time during the evenings for what I described as a father/daughter talk. She and I would get together after dinner and attempt to discuss various pertinent issues regarding her home and school activities. We discussed what my expectations were of her. I told her what after school clubs I wanted her to join and what school grades I expected her to maintain. These discussions occasionally cultivated some productive conversations. On other occasions they would deteriorate into yelling and screaming matches. From time to time I would look into her bedroom to see if my stick figure was cleaning up his monster image. Sometimes the horns and claws disappeared and the face held some resemblance to a happy, calm and relaxed person. But whenever she felt that I had been unreasonable or unforgiving, a monster would reappear on the ever-present chalkboard. Almost every evening, after work, I would secretly creep into her bedroom, having a powerful urge to go seek out my current stick figure image. Was I to become like the Victorian character Dorian Gray? Was I doomed to stare at a stick figure drawing of myself that catalogued my every evil deed while watching myself slowly turning into a hideous monster?
I asked my wife, "how do you always warrant the stick figure angel, with wings and hearts?" She smiled and replied, “I take the time to listen to what she is saying and I let her make some important decisions whenever it’s possible." I thought about this for some time. I didn't really ever listen to my daughter. I was usually doing all the lecturing. I surely never let her make any important decisions. I always knew what was best for everybody. How was I going to earn those wings and hearts? Why did I even have to earn them? My daughter needed to earn my respect. I didn't need to earn her’s. Who was the father in this relationship anyway? That kind of thinking would never turn my stick figure monster into a stick figure angel. I would have to seriously consider changing my child rearing philosophy.
I began to implement a strategy that would allow my daughter to choose from a number of options. I started to ask her what she wanted to do each weekend. During the winter weekends, she was provided a list of children's movie critiques and could choose the movie she most wanted to see. She also had the choice to select the place where we would eat lunch. During the spring, she was provided a pictorial brochure of regional state parks and could select the park we were to visit based on the available playgrounds, walking trails, concession stands, etc. According to her experiences we would revisit the parks that she enjoyed the most. During the summer months we instituted a "pools of the world tour." The tour would allow us to explore a different pool every weekend. We would roam around the counties of Northern Virginia searching for that perfect pool, lake, quarry or river. Sometimes we even ventured north across the Potomac River into Maryland to locate a state or county park with a pool or lake that we had read or heard about.
Giving her more choices provided me with the opportunity to get to know her better. She recognized that I was truly making an effort to listen and to understand her feelings. This opened up a running dialogue between us and enabled us to have many intimate and casual conversations in a relaxed atmosphere. Slowly but surely my daughter's improved image about me was reflected in that chalkboard stick figure.
As she grew to fear me less and respect me more, the chalkboard identified a dad with a pleasant smile, regular teeth instead of fangs, normal hands and feet and no more horrid horns. Eventually hearts would encircle the stick figure and finally the words "I love dad" were found inscribed in large letters underneath the drawing. It was a great relief for me to see a normal looking mom and dad sketched out on that chalkboard. It took a long time for this to actually happen, but when it did I found I had come away with a more comprehensive understanding of young children.
My daughter no longer needs to draw stick figure images of me in order to communicate her thoughts. She has learned to articulate her feelings and is comfortable discussing casual or intimate topics. I am glad that we can share both positive and negative criticisms about each other during routine conversation. I am sincere when I say I feel comfortable in her company.
Looking back at these events as they occurred in chronological sequence, I am cognizant of how fortunate and blessed I was. Had I not finally listened to my wife's warnings, because I didn't in the beginning, what kind of relationship would I be experiencing with my daughter today? An individual can get so caught up in his own world, his job, his marriage, ambition, disappointment, friends and personal pleasures that children somehow can end up taking a back page on the list of priorities.
The window of opportunity for a parent and a child to establish two way communication is a small and fleeting one. Once the window is closed the parent can never capture and experience the moment again. Any attempt at initiating an honest or instructive dialogue in the future will be either unconsciously or consciously thwarted by the now grown adolescent. The sharing of information between parent and adolescent will be severely diminished or, sadly enough, non-existent.
We as parents need to understand this concept at the very beginning of our children's early development, not at the very end. Sometimes parents have no idea they are neglecting their children or child. Parents pass on this neglectful behavior to each generation and the behavior unconsciously continues. A parent has to consciously put an end to the cycle of unhealthy behavior caused and maintained by previous generations of family.
Dorian Gray was unable to reverse his unhealthy behavior. Upon becoming aware of this fact, he destroyed his self-portrait as well as tragically ending his own life. I believe God gave me a second chance to reassess my priorities in life, implement a plan and successfully change the result for the better. For that opportunity I am truly grateful.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” [Colossians 3:15-16].