The trampoline, that upset them. We bought one of the big round ones for our eldest’s sixteenth birthday, and parents we knew (mothers more than fathers) were appalled that we’d bought such a dangerous thing and horrified that our children were allowed to jump on it when we were not outside with them. Some insisted on telling us that they were appalled and horrified, and on parading before us their own meticulous care for their children and their anticipation and avoidance of all the possible dangers with which this sad world is loaded. It’s very nice for Julian of Norwich to say, “And all manner of things shall be well,” but she didn’t have children.
Once our youngest son and another boy, both seven or eight, were bouncing from opposite sides of the trampoline and bumping into each other in the middle, laughing hysterically as they fell down. Neither was a physically adventurous child, and they collided very gently. They loved the game and would have played it for hours.
The other boy’s father and I were talking while we watched them, when the boy’s mother came over, drew her husband aside, and dressed him down in one of those hissed conversations that carry farther than intended. She was shocked at his carelessness in letting their son do something so dangerous. He came back and broke up the game. The boys sagged when told to get off the trampoline.
If our older son had played the same game at the same age with his friends, they would have been bruised and possibly bloody, and the bruises and the blood would have been part of the pleasure. I can hear him telling the story later, in an excited, slightly boastful voice, explaining how we were knocking each other down and then we ran into each other really hard and we both got bloody noses and, Mom, there was blood all over the place ! And he would have been a happier boy for it.
Sometimes I feel we are the only parents left who would enjoy hearing our son say that there was blood all over the place. Of course there are others. But in certain areas and in certain social circles, not many. And in certain family sizes, like those with one or two children, very few.
Not then being Catholic, I didn’t pay much attention when John Paul II was elected, nor to his first sermon as pope, but some years later, when I first came across his declaration “Be not afraid,” I thought it a pretty lame declaration with which to start one’s work. It seemed a platitude like “brush between meals” and “eat more fiber,” not a call to arms. Yeah, sure, whatever, I thought. Biblical slogans are a dime a dozen.
But I was still young then and had not seen how many ways the world has to make you afraid. Just have children, and a world of imagined and unimaginable horrors will present itself to you, and minor inconveniences or hurts will appear to be losses from which your child will never recover, and every decision and choice one that can lead as easily to misery as to success. Affluence does not make you feel more secure, but just multiplies the reasons you can find to be afraid and increases the triviality of the results you fear.
I had not seen how hopes quickly become fears, and how the deepest hopes become the worst fears, and how the fallen heart can manufacture reasons to be afraid. Not that the manufacturing of fear is hard. There are the bad drivers (bicycles being as intrinsically dangerous as trampolines). There’s the internet and the pornography it makes instantly available. There are bad companions, even the cherubic-looking children from conservative religious families. There are the subtle effects of even mainstream entertainment’s essential secularism, portraying as normal a world in which religion has no place and marriage is only one among several lifestyle options. There are, there are, there are . . . .
Being young, I had not seen how easily one can begin to live in constant and intense anxiety, even from blessings like education. It doesn’t matter what your principles are. You might believe, sincerely, when your child is eight or ten that the only education you want for him is one that will teach him what he needs to know about literature and art and history, which can be provided at any number of schools, including the cheap and unknown ones.
You imagine him taking his degree from some obscure college, getting a job, and reading Shakespeare for fun in the evening, surrounded by the children he had while his driven peers sacrificed everything for their careers. You can feel a little smug about the parents you know who spend thousands to get their children into the best schools and then put the decal with the school’s name on the back window of their car.
But when your child reaches sixteen or seventeen, you think of how hard the job market can be, and how soul-destroying are so many jobs, and how insecure and unstable they are, and how hard it will be to marry and start a family with that kind of job, and what advantages accrue from graduating from the better colleges, and how much better than others some of the better colleges are, and then how hard the best ones are to get into. You hear the horror stories of top students rejected, hear about the competition’s advantages, with wealthy parents buying their dullard all the tutoring and application-padding experiences he needs, hear about the notoriously hard and irrational grader your child has to take next semester.
Suddenly you fear that your child will only get into the obscure college and his life will be ruined, or at least that he will always have to struggle to make a living and never be able to do what he otherwise could. The trampoline is one thing, but college another. You may know that this feeling is foolish, but knowing that you are being foolish does not make you any less anxious. Suddenly you’re as neurotic and fearful and driving and hovering as the parents you used to look down upon.
We fail, as a friend pointed out, in teleology. One forgets what man is for and to what ends children are called. If you do not really believe that the child has an eternal destiny, and therefore believe that the achievements about which we are so concerned, like admission to a good college, are only this-worldly ones, the value of things like acquiring a certain boldness of spirit by jumping on a trampoline will never justify the risks. You will always err not on the side of caution but on the side of inaction.
It is not a way to raise children with eternal callings and destinies, the pursuit of which requires a degree of insouciance and courage, like the fishermen who dropped their nets, and their livelihood, to follow a wandering teacher. Especially as that destiny might include an early death, as Frederick Faber put it in that startling second verse of “Faith of Our Fathers”: “Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, / Were still in heart and conscience free; / And blest would be their children’s fate, / If they, like them, should die for thee.”
Our Lord says, “Be not afraid,” and thereby directs our work as parents to its proper ends. Your child can be a saint with a degree from the obscure college as well as the elite one, and perhaps more easily. For that life jumping on a trampoline may be very good training. The parent serves his child best who does not fear for the means because Christ has secured the end.
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “The Anxious Parent” appeared in the January 2003 issue of First Things.