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Marriage and Family — Then and Now

BLOG #19, SERIES 7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY—THEN AND NOW
May 11, 2016

During the last few weeks as I have been leafing through thousands of old magazines, gradually, just as is true with photographic negatives developing in a tray, an image has been evolving of the American family during the first half of the twentieth century. A number of things contribute to it: magazine cover art, story illustrations, advertising illustrations, story plots, cartoons, quotations, articles, essays, etc.

The century began with an almost stereotypical template of the roles of men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Initially, there was a very clear line of demarcation between male roles and female roles. Boys were expected to be strong, somewhat reluctant to exhibit emotion, masculine, competitive, work-driven, and dominant. Girls were expected to be soft, loving, emotional, dependant, homemakers-in-training, spiritual, care-givers, and appreciators of fine arts.

As I read or scanned through stories, again and again I was jolted by teenage and young adult women who were motivated to flower and achieve . . . up until a certain point: when the male has made good in the job world, has enough money to invest in a home, and proposes, the female is expected to surrender the rest of her life to him. “Love, honor, and obey” were wedding vows. In most cases, the male would assume almost total control over the purse. The jolt, for me, came in reading love stories in which the male would often threaten to spank, or actually spank, the female. Once married, women were regularly ridiculed, demeaned, and (in jokes and cartoons) depicted as being inferior to the male in judgment and decision-making.

Then came 1914-1918; during World War I, women filled many of the roles heretofore filled by males (now serving in the Armed Forces). After the war, women were more than a little reluctant to be pushed back into their boxes. World War II (1939-1945) accelerated the change in roles. I could see it changing in the fiction carried in popular magazines.

The major shifts came later, no small thanks to birth-control. Thanks to it, women had a say in whether or not they were to remain in thrall by almost perpetual pregnancies. All this was followed by Women’s Lib, the gay movement, deconstructionism, secularization, cohabitation out of wedlock, substance abuse, and a resulting major shift in male self-worth.

Which brings me to Frank Bruni’s April 10, 2016 New York Times column: “Building a Better Father.” Here are some of his observations:

“As a child I was schooled constantly in how different mothers and fathers were. TV shows spelled it out. . . . A mother’s love was supposedly automatic, unconditional. A father’s love was earned. Mothers nurtured, tending to tears. Fathers judged, prompting them.

“And while mothers felt pressured to lavish time and affection on their children, fathers could come and go. As long as they did their part as providers, the rest was negotiable.”

Then Bruni references a new book, Ron Fournier’s Love That Boy. In it, Fournier admits that it took his wife’s command (tougher than a request) that he spend more time with his twelve-year-old son who was battling autism and Aspergers. . . . Fournier’s narrative, however, ends up addressing fatherhood, then and now.

“He examines his paternal feelings and failings with a nakedness that was rare in fathers of a previous generation. He wrestles soulfully with what kind of father he is and means to be. He weeps. He trembles.

“And he mirrors many of today’s dads, who are so changed from yesterday’s. In Fournier I saw my two brothers, who don’t adore their children any more than our father adored us but who do it with a gentler, tenderer touch, unafraid to broach discussions and display emotions that most men once shrank from. . . .”

“According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, men spend almost three times the number of hours a week with their children than they did half a century ago. And they feel conflicted about not devoting more. While 23 percent of mothers said they shortchanged their kids on time, 46 percent of fathers did.”

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I know that one of my own biggest regrets, in terms of my involvement with our two children during their growing-up years, was that I let my wife carry a disproportional percentage of the load—especially time-wise. In a homily I recently gave to parents of third-grade students in six area elementary schools in our Colorado mountain community, here are some thoughts I shared with them.

Friends, up to now, everything we’ve said and done today has had to do with your kids; but now, I’d like to share some thoughts and concerns with you:

As I look back through the years to the time our children were young like yours, I can’t help but realize I failed to take full advantage of those crucial years. I had other priorities that seemed more important at the time. In the process, I let my wife bear a disproportionate share of the load at home.

But there came the day when I was shocked by the discovery that our children were already bridging to mentors other than us. If the speed of child growth could be accelerated and shown on a screen, we’d realize that our children were changing all the time—there are no plateaus in a child’s life. So I can tell you, from personal experience, that the sobering day will come all too soon to you too, and you will look at your spouse and say,’We’re all but through; whatever they are now, our children are likely to be as adults. Our window of opportunity to make a significant difference in the trajectory of their lives is closing.

So I urge each of you, in the time you have left, to make your children your #1 priority. Institute a daily story hour and spend that precious time moulding their characters while you still have time to do so. May God bless each of you and the children entrusted to you.

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THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

BLOG #46, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

November 12, 2014

She would not have been unusual during my growing-up-years—but she is now. She was reading the Scripture text at church: clearly, each word perfectly enunciated, with deep feeling. And her eyes—they lit up the entire church. I literally could not take my eyes off of her.

After church, I spoke with her. I learned quite a bit about her upbringing, but learned little I had not already surmised. I complimented her on the sense of wonder radiating from her eyes—but really it was the parents who deserved the fuller credit for them. For it was they who have so far protected her from losing that God-given sense of wonder all babies are born with, but oh so few retain more than months.

So why, if her eyes are wonder-filled, do I label her “The Girl with Dancing Eyes”? This is why: When she was in church, her eyes were wonder-filled reverent eyes; but, one-on-one, outside of church—I was not a stranger to her (her family reads from my books)—, though the wonder remained in her eyes, there was a joyousness, tied to an entrancing addition of impishness, that was absolutely irresistible: the only word that adequately capsulizes the totality is “Dancing.”

But why is she not the norm among children her age? Reason being that many forces are at work that contribute to stripping that sense of wonder from the eyes of babies and children. Parents do it the very first time they permit the baby to be in the room when the television set is on. Studies have shown that babies are anything but unaware, picking up 60-70 percent of what is said and depicted on the screen. Parents all too often fail to realize how little it takes to quench that spark of vibrant life that brings the glow into the eyes. Parents—and how few parents are not guilty of this!—apparently don’t realize what they are doing when they say, “For goodness sake, stop bothering me with your questions—go watch TV!”

And precious little that appears on the television screen elevates the soul of those who watch it. And even if a program is values-worth-living-by-affirming, all too few of the million-plus commercials each of our children is exposed to during their growing-up years, are likely to increase the candle-power of those pure eyes they were born with.

But parents cannot take that sense of wonder for granted. It must be continually reinforced in the family story hour. For children do not internalize abstractions, but rather they internalize whatever values (uplifting or debasing) they hear or see in stories. Since few of the stories they experience on the media are compatible with the sense of wonder they were born with, wise parents realize that it doesn’t take more than seconds or minutes to blight—or even destroy completely—that glow. But if they are introduced to the right kind of stories (the ones they’ll ask for again and again), they will internalize those values. This is the reason Christ never spoke without stories: He created us to internalize them; to grow into them.

One danger, however, must be pointed out: It is all too easy for concerned parents to over-react. To be so over-protective and restrictive that their children either rebel or grow up to be narrow-minded, naive, and incapable of dealing with the complexities of adult life.

It is an awesome responsibility to raise a child.

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THE GIFT OF AWARENESS

BLOG #3, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE GIFT OF AWARENESS
January 16, 2013

Only the curious
Have, if they live, a tale
Worth telling at all!
—Alastair Reid

Again and again and again, in recent years, in searching for a place or address, it has happened: The person being asked for information looks at me with a blank three-watt look, and mumbles, “I don’t know where it is” or “Dunno” or “Huh?” It matters not if the place in question is only two or three blocks away!

Which brings me to today’s subject: “The Gift of Awareness.” One of the greatest gifts a parent, teacher, or mentor can bestow on a child or teenager.

Paradoxically, at no time in human history has this much knowledge been accessible, at one’s fingertips; yet at no time in human history has such knowledge been devalued more. Just look around you at the millions who are myopically majoring in minors and minoring in majors, steadily constricting their worlds into knowledge that means virtually nothing: pop culture (celebrities, media, and sports). More likely to be immersed in a meaningless virtual reality world than the real. Boys especially, locked into a Peter Pan existence on their computer keyboards. Both sexes bailing out of growth trajectories in favor of obsessive text-messaging and substance abuse (be it drugs, alcohol, pornography, pop culture, or virtual reality). Result: You walk up to them, ask a question; they look at you with zombyish eyes—there’s nobody home.

So where did we as a society get off the track? Early. The first time we snuff out the God-given sense of wonder each child is born with by responding to questions with, “Oh, stop bothering me! Go watch TV” or “Go play a video game!” “Stop being such a pest!”

Each time this scenario takes place, the child’s light of awareness dims, the inner-wattage is reduced. In time, the result is another walking zombie.

Contrast that tragic result with the flip-side: a child or teen whose questions are enthusiastically fielded. Such lucky people grow up to be an Einstein, a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, an Edison, or Tesla. Or in the humanities, an Emily Dickinson or a Leonardo; a Tolstoy or a Schweitzer; a Dante or a Bronte; a Georgia O’Keefe or a Winslow Homer.

Blessed beyond belief is the child or teen who is mentored by a parent or teacher who is excited about life and growth and becoming. Could it be that the current wave of homeschooling is but the result of teachers and administrators who are devoid of such excitement, who blight their students’ lives by boring them?

What we need is a new concept of achievement: might it not be true that taking the time to ignite the mind of just one child or teen—such as Annie Sullivan so famously did with deaf, dumb, and blind Helen Keller—would by itself be worth having lived?

Beloved, what do you say to our making ourselves a committee of one determined to bestow the gift of awareness to children and teens in our homes, our classrooms, or proximity?

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THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN

“My heart leaps up when I behold
       A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old.
     Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man.”
                 —Wordsworth

The child is also, of course, father, mother, of the woman.

When we consider the fact that half of what we learn in life takes place before we ever step foot into a formal classroom, it makes little sense to continue blaming our schools for our plunging test scores.   For several generations now (not coincidentally, beginning with the introduction of television in American homes after World War II), literacy test-scores have been in free-fall; so much so that our nation has dropped out of the company of the leading nations of the world and now finds itself in embarrassing third-world company literacy-wise.

Somewhere during the last three generations, the intellectual, moral, and spiritual education of our children has taken a back-seat to creature comforts and ever larger homes.  Paradoxical, isn’t it, that at the very time our homes are getting ever larger (larger than is true of any other nation on earth), the parenting/educating within those homes has proportionally decreased.  At an ever earlier age, we shove our children out of the house into child-care facilities and kindergartens. All this to avoid the God-given responsibility to be there for our child.

For each day, each moment, our pre-school child is becoming.  Never again in his/her lifetime will growth occur at such blinding speed.  Indeed, so much of a sponge is the child’s brain that linguists maintain a child could master 50 languages by the age of six!

Up until World War II, no higher priority was there for American parents than being there for one’s children.  As a result, each generation’s children earned ever higher degrees (and ever-higher paychecks) than did the one before.

That is no longer true.

Jackie Kennedy famously noted that the older she got the more convinced she became that no amount of fame, position, or income could possibly compensate for having failed as a parent.

In my own life, I owe whatever success has come my way to having been blessed by parents who considered me, my brother Romayne, and my sister Marjorie to be their #1 priority in life.  Because we were missionary kids, I was home schooled for 14 of the first 16 years of my life.  During those early years I was ferried once a week to the nearest American library where I checked out as many books as I could stagger home with.  As a result, guided by my remarkable mother (an elocutionist who had memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings), I devoured library after library—and have never quit.  My brother became an internationally known concert pianist, earning two doctorates in music, in Austria.  And my sister became an award-winning artist with the brush.

There is an epidemic of home schooling taking place in our nation right now.  It is hard for me to admit this—being the product of two masters degrees and a doctorate, and having dedicated 34 out of 36 years to formal Christian education in my pre-publishing career—admit that today I have grave doubts about the effectiveness of our current formal education template: ever larger classes, ever less time to devote to individual students, ever more complex bureaucratic paper-work to deal with, unable to so much as touch or hug a child without being accused of molestation, graduate students being forced to take classes from graduate assistants so that their ostensible faculty may continue to churn out scholarship no one reads. . . .  This litany could go on.

But I must return to the beginning: the home.  For it is the home alone—the mother and father working hand-in-hand, led by God—that holds the answer to the sad case of Little Boy Blue.  And each time such a twosome determine to sacrifice whatever it takes to be there, be home whenever the child is home during the growing-up years (for at least one parent—be it mother or father—to be there to answer all the tens of thousands of “whys?” that each small child fires machine-gun style each day); to take the time to themselves be the pulpit, to control the avenues to their children’s hearts, minds, and souls; to establish a daily story hour during which values worth living by may be internalized; to make possible the serenity which alone can enable each child to dream…. 

            Ah!  To dream:

“We grow great by dreams.  All big men and women are dreamers.  They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter’s evening.  Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which always comes to those who hope that their dreams will come true.”

                                                            —Woodrow Wilson

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See you next Wednesday.