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Volume 15, Issue 4: Childer


Douglas Wilson

We cannot recall most of what shaped us. We are made and formed by our memories, particularly the ones we cannot remember.

The most formative years of a child's life are the first four or five. But most of us have just a handful of conscious memories dating from that time and before. And if we were to evaluate the most important events of our early years based on what we could consciously recall, we would no doubt come up with a very skewed evaluation indeed. From my early years, I can remember losing my hat in San Francisco Bay, an army truck going by our house in Japan, watching the same house shake in an earthquake, and a few other odds and ends. I could not arrange these memories in any kind of chronology, or explain how any of them affect me today. All the things that affected me the most are things I cannot recall at all, even though I was there at the time, being duly affected.
Now I have the privilege of watching this happen to another generation. We saw it first with our own kids, and we are now watching it happen with our grandchildren. My oldest grandchild is now five years old, and if I were to die today, it is possible that he might have a memory of me. And yet I have known him for years now.
At the same time, these are the years when much of the concrete is being poured and shaped. What are parents to do with this? The first thing is to realize that "memories" cannot really be engineered. Photos and home videos can seem to be helpful, but they can also hinder. By the end of this process you are not sure if you remember the event, or just remember the picture.
This does not mean parents should throw up their hands in despair. Parents should pay a great deal of attention to family memories, but they have to realize that the content of the memories is beyond their capacity to control. I have noted this principle elsewhere. Parents can scrimp and save thousands of dollars to spend on a vacation with the kids that no one really remembers. "We went to Arizona? Nuh uh." But then twenty years later, a father is pleased and chagrined to discover that the whole family remembers the time they stopped in a small town in Nebraska for ice cream cones, and dad slipped and fell in the river.
But even if the contents of the memories were controlled, it would probably be very little help anyway. Parents should be far more concerned with how their children remember than with what they remember. Trying to regulate what your children remember is like trying to have them recall the exact route they took on their first real bicycle ride. They almost certainly don't remember that, but they still know how to ride a bicycle. How it is still done is far more important than what was done the first time. Focusing on the content of a particular memory tends toward nostalgia and sentimentalism. Focusing on how we are to remember lines us up with the Scriptures.
So how should children be taught to remember? There are two key elements of this. First, they should learn that memory is given to us so that we can be thankful for all the benefits that God has given to us. "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits" (Ps. 103:2). We remember in order to give thanks, blessing the name of the Lord. Now this heart of thanksgiving is the essential thing, and not an itemized content list. Does it matter to God that one child recalls the Thanksgiving dinner that he ate the week before in order to thank God again for the rolls, the sweet potatoes, the turkey and the gravy while his younger brother thanks God for the turkey, the stuffing, the rolls, and the jam? Different people will remember different things, but the point for all Christian people is to remember them with gratitude. Teaching children to remember, therefore, should be done so that they recall in order to give thanks. The focus of the parent should be on whether the children are giving thanks, and not so much what they are giving thanks for.
We also remember the past in order to prepare for the future. "Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:11-12). This is why children should learn the spiritual lessons found in the story of Noah's flood, the destruction of Sodom, the sorrow that came to the entire family when their favorite uncle deserted their aunt, and the epic spanking that the oldest son got just last week. We remember history in order to equip ourselves to remember the laws of God when we need to. Our natural tendency is to think that we are winning battles when we are not even in them yet. We think we are overcoming temptation because the temptation isn't tempting. But telling the stories of God's judgments and deliverances in the past is the biblical way to prepare ourselves to remember as we ought to. "I will therefore put you in remembrance, though ye once knew this, how that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not" (Jude 5).
A child who learns to tie his shoes when he is four might not remember that day at all. But he still knows how to do it.

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