There is a story floating around, fairly common within homiletic circles, that merits retelling:
There was a father of a family who was confronted one day by his wife who challenged him to spend more time with his 14 year-old son. “He needs you,” she said, “and you are neglecting him!” “He doesn’t need me!” the man protested. “He’s at an age where he should be cutting the family strings somewhat more.”
His wife, however, insisted and the man, more out of guilt than conviction, went into the living room where his son was watching television and asked him to accompany him on a trip to the market to buy groceries. The son, more out of boredom than interest, agreed and so the two set out. In the car on the way to the store, the father tried to get a conversation going:
“How’s school?” “Okay,” came the reply.
“How’s basketball?” “It’s okay.”
“What were you watching on T.V?” “Nothing!”
After that exchange, things went silent. At the grocery mart, still in silence, they loaded the items they wanted into the shopping cart and waited in line while a very slow, inept, and disinterested cashier dealt with the customers ahead of them. Finally, when their turn came, the father, quite out of sorts because of the unnecessary wait, deliberately tricked the cashier. He placed a fifty dollar bill on the counter and then, thanks to the inattention of the cashier, was able to substitute a twenty dollar bill for it before the cashier picked it up. The price for their groceries was nineteen dollars and the cashier gave the father thirty dollars change – on a twenty dollar bill. But, instead of walking out of the store thirty dollars richer, the father instead calmly (though obviously making his point) pointed out to the cashier his mistake and returned to him the $30 that he had, in his inattention, incorrectly given.
As they walked out the door, several other customers who had experienced a similar irritation with the cashier said to the father: “You should have kept the $30. It would have taught the slob a lesson!”
When they were in the car, his son said: “Dad, that was neat!” Then, without any prodding from his father, the son began to talk and to share with him a lot of things about his life, including how school was going, how basketball was going, and what he had been watching on television. The father, for his part, said little and, in fact, heard little for he was thinking: “If my son had not been with me, I would have kept the thirty dollars! Moreover, my wife is wrong, my son doesn’t need me … I need him!”
We need our children, and for more reasons than this story, good though it is, makes obvious. Our children raise us, not vice versa. It is they who put a rope around us and take us where we would rather not go, namely, into an adulthood and into a selflessness that, without them, we would never attain. We become adult by having and raising children. This, perhaps more than anything else, moves us beyond being children ourselves. Why is this so?
Some of the reasons are more obvious than others: When we are raising children it is more natural for us to stop thinking of ourselves as children, when we are forced to respond to others’s needs we tend to be less focused on our own. Raising children forces us to live a certain virtue. It is conscriptive adulthood; we mature, almost against our will. But there is a deeper dynamic operative too: Children have the power to fire within us the deepest and most powerful surges of love that we can ever experience in this life. More so than does romantic love or the love that we have when we get involved in causes, love for our children is a love that can take us beyond ourselves, break our narcissism, and let us genuinely imitate (weak though it may be) the life-giving love of God.
There is something in children, some combination of helplessness, dependence, innocence, trust, vulnerability, simplicity, playfulness, and simple physical beauty that opens the heart to selflessness in a way that our other loves do not. That’s why celibacy can be dangerous: Perhaps there is nothing in this world as powerful to break selfishness as is the simple act of looking at our own children. In our love for our children we are given a privileged avenue to feel as God feels – to burst in unselfishness, in fire, in joy, in delight, and in the desire to let another’s life be more real and important than my own.