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Christmas vacation! Boys and girls at boarding school are counting the days until their homecoming. Young men and young ladies who have outgrown childish things don't mark off each day on their calendar, but they consult the railway schedules. The younger siblings who are waiting at home are storing up surprises. The father says cheerfully, 'We'll soon have all of our brood at home again.' And what about the mother? Nobody, not even the youngest schoolgirl, is as happy as she is. She imagines setting out for church on Christmas morning with, hopefully, her whole scattered flock at her side. She's already picturing how each one of them has grown and changed, yet how much they've stayed the same. She knows that Lucy will return even prettier and more loving than ever. William will be even more of a tease, Owen will be kinder, and 'how excited they'll all be to see little Emma!'
At the same time, there's a trace of anxiety in her face as she plans and looks forward to the holidays. Naturally, the bulk of the household tasks fall to her. It's not easy to arrange a household for a sudden increase of members who will be staying for an extended visit. Servants will have to be hired, and they may be difficult to manage. Entertainment and things to do have to be planned,
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and then there's--and here, the mother stops short and avoids putting into clear thought the 'and then there's--' that accompanies the vacation weeks after Christmas Day has come and gone.
'Well, let's have a merry Christmas, at any rate,' she says to herself. 'We just won't worry about the rest.'
What is it that's worrying her? Pretty Lucy's face clouds into sullen expressions. Kind Owen is quickly offended, and his outbursts make everyone else uncomfortable. William, in spite of his joking, has spells of gloomy moodiness. Thomas can be argumentative, and insists that he's always right. Alison--is she always being completely honest and upfront? There are plenty of reasons for the strain of anxiety that mingles with the mother's joy. It's not easy to keep eight or nine young people on their best behavior for weeks at a time without their usual schedule of things to keep them busy, especially when you consider that they not only lack the self-control and maturity of adulthood, but may have inherited their parents' failings as well as other unattractive faults that can't be traced to any definite origin. It's excellent advice for mothers to have 'Quiet Days' of rest for her body and mind, and for whatever spiritual refreshment she can find, to prepare herself for the exhausting stress (however delightful it may be) of Christmas vacation.
Those in charge of the household will have a lot of work to do during the children's vacation. They'll need to try and assess the new thoughts that are influencing their children as much as they can, and then to modify the opinions their children are forming, even the tiniest bit. They'll need to keep a clear distinction between duties and relaxation, even during the holidays, and they need to resume the work of training their children's characters, which they had to relinquish while the children were away at school. But the issue of vacations isn't
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as difficult as it appears, as many easy-going mothers have found.
There's a way to go about it, a secret key that mothers know of--if they don't, it's unfortunate for the happiness of their households. Is it keeping the children busy? Lots of interests? Keeping children busy is always helpful--we all know that 'idle hands are the devil's workshop.' But the 'lots of interests' are only successful if used along with the secret key. Without that, the more stimulating amusements will tend to disturb the home atmosphere and make one child sulky, another child domineering, another one selfish--in a word, bring out the worst in each child according to his particular weakness.
Every mother knows the secret, but some may have forgotten the magic it can do. As deceptively simplistic as it sounds, nothing is as hard to convince children of as their parents' love for them. They don't talk about it, but if they did, this is what most children would say:
'Yes, I know Mom loves me in a way, but not like she loves X.'
'What do you mean, 'in a way'?'
'You know what I mean--she's our mother, of course, so naturally she's concerned about my welfare and things.'
'But how does she love X?'
'Oh, I can't really explain it. She just seems to genuinely like her, she likes to look at her, shows more affection for her and--I don't mean that she isn't a good mother. She tries hard to be fair and treats all of us exactly the same, but, after all, who can help liking X best? I'm so unlikable, nobody cares for me.'
If you put most children (including X!) of good, loving parents in the Palace of Truth, children
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of all ages from six to about twenty, then this is just the kind of thing you're likely to hear. Boys generally think that their mother loves the sibling more, and girls think their father loves the other more, but that's only by comparison. They'll say the other parent is just the nicer one of the two. But don't expect children to recognize and accept how much love is lavished on them--they just never do.
And why not? The child we just heard has told us: he admitted that the parents are quite fair, there's no fault to be found in them, but 'I'm so unlikable, nobody cares for me.' And that's the secret of 'naughtiness.' There's nothing more pathetic than the dual kind of life that children are vaguely conscious of. On the one hand, they sense possibilities of full and promising personhood, the budding of the goodness that's within them, and their strong sense of justice wants full credit and recognition for it. Mom and Dad ought to know about the potential they have to be wonderful and impressive and noble. They want some recognition and appreciation--and if they can't get it from Mom and Dad in the living room, they'll try to get it in the kitchen or in the yard. Is their assessment of their potential just castles in the air, like Alnaschar's visions of all the money he'd get from his eggs [in Arabian Nights]? If the child is like Alnascher, then it's the parents, not the child, who kick the basket of eggs over.
Children may seem too obsessed about their 'rights,' and too free with their accusations of, 'It's not fair!' or, 'That's not right!' But it's only because they justify their claims on account of their wonderful potential for the greatness they sense within. Unfortunately, everyone else treats them according to their actual self. Even they themselves don't think much of what they are right now. They see their current selves as unlikable. If you truly analyze any of these scornful, or vain, or arrogant children, you'll discover that they have one thing in common--every one of them sees himself as unlikable.
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Now, if you can see how unlikable you are, then it seems impossible that anyone can love you. Sure, people are kind to you and everything, but that's only because they're decent, or tenderhearted, or doing what they know they should. It has nothing to do with you personally. What you really need is someone who will see you for who you are and be kind to you and love you for your own sake, not for anything else. That's the way we reason when we're young. It's the same old story--the good that I want to do, I don't do. But the evil that I don't want to do is what I do. Except that we feel things more intensely when we're young, and we tend to change sides, siding with ourselves, and then against ourselves. No wonder adults think that youths are 'difficult!' Even the youths themselves think they're difficult.
'I don't believe that for a second!' you might be thinking if you look on the surface and remember the fun and games and lightheartedness, the laughing and nonsense and bright looks of many young people you know. Of course they're happy--because they're young. But if teenagers could write books about those years themselves, we'd have lots of books about the sadness of youth. Happiness and melancholy aren't all that far apart.
When does this anxious trouble of youth begin? The gleeful baby is totally exempt from it. So are happy-go-lucky preschoolers. They'll gather around you and steal your heart and take your love for granted, and accept whatever you offer them without questioning it. But some children don't even begin school before this doubt with its two different sides is upon him. I know a little four-year-old boy, healthy and intelligent, full of joy and fun and good sense, who sometimes has sad moments because one person or another doesn't love him, and other happy,
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grateful moments because some little token or attention assures him of the person's love. His mother has the delicate tact that all mothers seem to have. She understands that her son needs continual reassurance to maintain his own self-worth. She calls him her 'favorite boy,' handles him affectionately, and in that way makes him feel like he's on equal footing with his two bright sisters who, without saying anything to him, seem sweeter and more loveable than he is. A while ago I noticed a very enlightening fact in a child who died at a young age. His parents maintained an atmosphere of love and gladness with their children, but, oddly enough, this happy, bright little boy was completely incapable of recognizing that his parents loved him. It seemed only natural that they should love his sister, but how could they love him?
The youngest children delight in love, but what about the older preschoolers? All too soon they're expected to yield to the younger ones and show affection because now they're the 'big brother' or 'big sister.' The detached independence of some of these children is rather sad, and worth reflecting on. The playroom is like a microcosm of the world's disease--a craving for love that drives children and even adults to think and do bad things.
I knew a girl whose parents totally devoted themselves to her training. They surrounded her with care and a sufficient amount of affection. But they didn't say flattering things about her openly because they had an old-fashioned notion against encouraging a child's sense of importance and vanity. They were so successful in repressing
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the girl's self-esteem that she never connected their care with love until she had matured into a woman, but it was too late. Her parents had died and were no longer around for her to return their love. Perhaps she was an unloving child by nature? Maybe it's true, in one sense, that all young children are unloving. But, in another sense, they're like cups overflowing with love, just looking for an outlet. This girl used to watch her mother around the room, and shadow her on the street, walking behind her adoringly. This intense kind of worship of parents is more common than we might think. A five-year-old little boy was asked what he thought the most beautiful thing in the world was. 'Velvet,' he replied, with dreamy eyes--apparently remembering his mother in a velvet dress. To a child, his parents are the greatest, wisest, most powerful, and best people in their limited experience of the world. They're like royalty--his king and queen. Is it any wonder why he worships them, even at the same time he's being rebellious?
But isn't it more common these days for children to be physically affectionate and familiar with their parents so that there's no doubt of their love? Perhaps, but only in homes where parents have lost that indefinable attitude--is it dignity? or authority?--that entitles them to the love and worship of their children. Affection that's lavished too indiscriminately doesn't satisfy their inner craving for love. What exactly is it that these little children crave, who seem so happy with a doll, or baseball, or tennis racquet? They want to be validated. They suffer from a sad sense of worthlessness--some children almost from their infancy. They feel so unworthy of love that no token, nothing less than directly saying it with words and eye contact and touch, will convince them that they're loved.
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But if someone they trust and honor, and who really knows them and sees their faults, yet will love them and view their flaws as alien things to be gotten rid of, and will accept them unconditionally and in confiding confidence in spite of these flaws, then their young lives will expand and blossom like flowers opening beneath the sun. When parents understand this secret, there are no surly boys or sullen girls.
To a young heart, actions do not speak louder than words. He needs to feel your love in your touch, see it in your eyes, hear it in your tone of voice. If he doesn't, then you'll never convince him of your love, even if you work day and night for his best interests or pleasure. Maybe this is the special message that Christmas has for parents. One of the many reasons that Jesus came was to restore people by making them realize that they, even the most miserable and ashamed of them, could live surrounded by infinite, personal love that wants their love in response. Who, more than parents, can help to advance this wonderful redemption? A child who knows that his mother and father love him with unlimited patience in his faults, and will love him enough to bring him out of those faults, will be quicker to recognize, accept and understand the concept of Divine Love.
But why should parents be the ones to show this kind of love? Maybe it's because they're better than most of us. At any rate, that seems to be their task. And we all know that fulfilling such a calling is possible, because we all know good mothers and fathers who demonstrate that.
'Parents, love your children,' is probably unnecessary advice to anyone reading this chapter. At any
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rate, it's presumptuous advice for me to give. But I'll say this to any reserved, inhibited parents who rule their households like 'righteous Abraham:' Continue to rule, but let your children feel and see and be assured of your love for them.
I'm not suggesting endearments and displays of physical affection in public--that can embarrass youths. But, mothers, you should take your older daughter in your arms just once during the holidays, and have a personal chat, just the two of you. It will be like a hearty meal to a hungry man to her. Remember that young men and girls would sell their souls for love--sometimes they do it, too, and that's why so many of them ruin their lives and make us sigh over them. Someone needs to break down the barrier between supply and demand in homes where there are hungry hearts on both sides.