Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Being a Good Host to Children

Our neighbor Oscar enjoys our fountain.

With schools closed during the pandemic, parents and children are spending a lot more time together, and so I thought this entry from my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy, might be helpful.

Children carry a promise with them, a hidden treasure that has to be led into the open through education (e=out; ducere=to lead) in a hospitable home. It takes much time and patience to make the little stranger feel at home, and it is realistic to say that parents have to learn to love their children. –Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen, 56-57.

Both experience and science suggest that there is a parental inclination to nurture and protect offspring. But love is also a matter of choice. Parental love and especially maternal love is likely to want to hold on to the child; but it is the parent’s will that recognizes and values the child as an independent soul, not an extension of the parental self.

I truly wonder at my parents’ extraordinary ability in the midst of life’s demands and stresses to make my sister, brother, and me feel “at home,” as well as “to lead us out” into our own unique self-expressions. True, stereotypically, my father was more distant and my mother held on more tightly. And, like all people who love each other deeply, we wounded one another in various ways. Yet I am grateful for the comparatively safe environment my parents provided even as they worried about paying bills, the state of the world, as well as what we were up to. I don’t mean just safe from abandonment, neglect, or abuse. I mean also safe for us to cultivate identities, embrace values, and pursue goals different from their own.

With similar awe, I have watched my sister raise three sons, largely on her own, and serve as proud matriarch of an extended family that now includes three daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren—all while pursuing two different professions.

In my view, parenting is the most important task an adult may do, yet it is the one for which most receive the least training. To understand parenting as a spiritual movement, as Henri does in Reaching Out, is a beginning. He places it in the context of the movement from hostility to hospitality, transforming enemy (hostis) to guest (hospes), in this case, stranger to friend. Parents act as hosts and children as guests.

A host has not only the right but the responsibility to set the boundaries of a guest in the host’s home. We are not to welcome another with an “ambiguous presence,” Henri says. We are to be clear about who we are and what are our limits. At the same time, to be good hosts, we are to welcome the guest and the promise or gift inherent in every guest, encouraging the fulfillment of the promise they hold deep within themselves, enabling the development of the gifts every guest brings into the home. As such a movement toward hospitality, then, parenting is as delicate and vital and as fraught with danger as welcoming any guest into one’s home.

Just as we learn through experience to become good hosts in relation to other guests, we learn through experience to become good parents, uncles, and aunts. By the time I came along, I believe my parents were more experienced, relaxed, and secure in their avocation than when rearing my older siblings. And grandparents may be the most experienced of all, especially when they grasp that now their own guests, their children, are hosts in their own homes.

+Help me to be a good host to all children, welcoming their promise, encouraging their gifts, reminding them they are beloved by God.

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  1. Oh Chris, I eagerly await your blog each week because I know that something will resonate with me. As a mother,grandmother,great-grandmother, you might expect that this column is right up my alley. First of all, the picture of your darling little neighbor, Oscar just makes me smile, knowing whatever he is doing, he is doing with such diligence....delightful picture.
    While I could go on and on about experiences in my life, I won't.....but what I do want to share is that years ago when our children were very small, my very best friend came from another state to visit us with her two kiddos. Her 5 year old son asked her if he could run his little hand-held truck up and down the arm os a chair.....her response was, "I don't know what the rules are in this house, you will have to ask. Just because it is ok at our house, does not mean it is ok at everyone's home" I have never forgotten those wise words to her young son. Setting up wise boundaries to learn respect is a huge part of parenting.

    Thank you for your words and I just want to say,"your mom done good"!


    1. Mary, you brought a smile to my face at least twice with this comment: once with the story of your friend and her son and again reading your kind words about my mom. Glad the photo also made you smile--it makes me smile every time I look at it and every time he stops along their walks to dip his fingers in the fountain.