Written by Matt and Joy Duffy

It is a universal situation, experienced by every child since time immemorial: in the heat of their argument, all their best persuasions and requests for explanations are shot down and shut down by this awful, terrible statement: “You’ll understand when you’re older!” I think this reply has been made by every parent, and every parent heard it themselves when they were a child, and now, with rueful experience, they repeat those same statements to their own children.

This delightful paradox of understanding is sewn into the nature of parenting by the fact that we all start as children with parents, and usually end as parents with our own children who not only display the same ignorance, but also mirror back to us our faults and tendencies.

When I was a child, I was convinced that my parents were making some mistakes. I should have those things I want. I should get to stay up later. Why were they forcing me to do this? And on it would go in my child-like mind. And surely I didn’t deserve the magnitude of the punishments that I received! (yes I did) As I got older I became more aware of more internal feelings I had, mostly sadness, wishing I had more connection to them both, and wishing I had answers to questions I should have been brave enough to ask.

I held fast to my opinion of their performance as parents through my adolescence and youth, and I thought their choices in parenting would forever direct my future. In my arrogance I thought I was able to look at the past, know everything about a circumstance and then judge it correctly to know what my parents should or should not have done. But a healthy perspective sometimes requires some amount of distance. It wasn’t until after I was out of the house and married that I began to even get to know my parents as real people, outside of the context of their parental relationship with me, and understand them better.

Years ago, I began to accompany my father on trips out of state to visit his parents as they were aging and needing to transition out of their own home into an assisted living situation. As a kid, and even more as a young man, I had felt like I never really got to know my dad. He did a fantastic job of being involved with us as kids and I knew a lot about him, but I felt like I had missed connecting with him on a deeper level. So, while I was glad to have a chance to visit with my grandparents in their declining years, it was the opportunity to spend time with my dad in a totally new context that really motivated me to accompany him on these trips. The things I learned about him and what he shared with me changed my view of him, and of myself in wonderful and healing ways.

The key was my realization that my parents were also raised by imperfect parents. I truly never thought about that as a child or even as a younger man. As my dad and I spent nights in conversation following some very difficult days interacting with his aging mom and step-dad, I was struck by the realization that my father had felt a significant lack of connection with his own father. He never felt like his father connected to him or taught him how to connect to others. My father never got all of the love and care he craved from his father, who also had a father who had not known how to build a connection with his son. Watching my mother in her interactions with her parents had a similar effect. We are all raised by imperfect parents, who had imperfect parents, and we are also imperfect parents to our own children, who will inevitably parent imperfectly.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has woken up in the middle of the night overwhelmed with the reality of parenting. Time is slipping away moment by moment, and you only get one chance to raise your kid. And each kid is so different. Am I making the most of my opportunities? Am I spending enough time? Have I taught them everything they need to know to survive? Have I been instrumental in leading them on the path of spiritual understanding so that they will grow in their faith? Mistakes have already happened, and more are coming. Opportunities have come and gone, and more are certain to slip away, and then they are gone . . .

While there are exceptions, I think parents make decisions out of a desire to do good for their children. Even with our brokenness and sinfulness, we want good for these creatures that have been placed in our families and in our hearts. My parents were inspired by love for my brothers and me, and they moved mountains and toiled at a thousand thankless jobs to give us what they thought would be a blessing to our lives and set us on a way that would lead to mature and faithful lives. I can understand this now, as the desire to lead and teach my own children has so captivated my own heart that I feel simultaneously overwhelmed and inspired. And now here I am saying the same things to my kids that my parents said to me, knowing that they think me unfair, and that they won’t understand no matter how much I explain. But one day they will.

I am a flawed man, not because of the choices my parents made, but because I am a born sinner, born to sinners, in the midst of a broken world that still aches from the sins from ages past, still nursing our grievances against others who have been aggrieved. On my own, I still make poor decisions sometimes, not because my parents did anything wrong, but because I sometimes make bad choices. And I am inadequate to give my own children everything that they will need, even though I wish to. They are broken too. And into this broken world God has poured (lavishly) his grace. It has taken me some time to begin to appreciate the value of this grace, and to take it in enough measure that I can pour it out to others. It is the grace that means I can appreciate what my parents gave me and be grateful. It is the grace that means I can look at my own children and have faith that despite my own mistakes or regrets, they are God’s children, and their lives are ultimately in God’s hands. For any frustration I may have felt for something my parents did or did not do, there are a hundred blessings that I failed to appreciate or thank them for. We as parents can have a hard time seeing past our own mistakes sometimes. We can never spend enough time, never give enough hugs, never teach them enough; there simply isn’t enough time. It is easy to be critical and down on ourselves instead of acknowledging that we can only do so much and that is ok. God is fully aware of what we are capable of doing, and He is fully capable of taking care of what we are not. It is this truth that now gives me so much peace not only with my parents but as a parent myself.

The older I get, the more grateful I am for my parents— even for the mistakes they may have made. In those places where I have felt their frailty and inadequacy, it has given me peace for the inadequacies and failures in my own parenting, knowing God’s grace is always at work. The truth is the older I get, the more I want their counsel for parenting and life. I’m growing in my respect and admiration for their love and care for me and how hard they worked and how much they sacrificed for me. This debt can really only be repaid in the currency of grace, honoring and enriching both their hearts and ours. And I look forward, with hope that my own children will see this investment, and our relationships will likewise be enriched by this lavish love that comes from the heart of God.

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