Baker / Revel
The American family is unraveling like a cheap sweater. May I remind you of one historic fact: No nation has ever survived the disintegration of its home life. Once the home goes, it’s just a question of time before it all goes.
Dr. Howard Hendricks
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
It is a frightening moment when you stare at your child and silently reflect, You are my flesh and blood; your DNA reflects mine; we live at the same zip code; we have the same address, phone number, and last name; and yet for all practical purposes you and I have nothing in common.
A well-known marriage book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, suggests the radical differences between the sexes. There are times our own child seems to be from Neptune or Pluto. We don’t speak his language, and he surely doesn’t speak ours. Our differences range from our interest in music, radio stations, and weekend activities to clothing, facial hair, tattoos, earrings, body studs, and how to spend spare time. At times there is an apparent Grand Canyon of differences that separates us. Have you ever stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon? I have. I stood on the north rim, got in my rental van, and drove toward the south rim. Six hours later I got out of my vehicle and looked back.
Imagine standing on the south rim, attempting to parent a child on the north rim. Believe it or not, that is precisely how I felt ten years ago toward my firstborn. He and I share the same name, only I am the III and he is the IV. Obviously we have the same gender. And we have similar mannerisms. Yet from my perspective we had virtually nothing of substance in common. I’m a charger; he’s laid back. I was more task oriented; he was more people oriented. I loved exercise; he was your classic couch potato. I was spiritually demonstrative; he was spiritually reserved. There was probably a love for God way down deep, but on the surface I couldn’t even get his spiritual pulse. I can remember a road trip we took together. We sat eighteen inches apart, yet despite some of my finest efforts, I could elicit no more than a grunt or two and maybe a dozen words in three hundred and fifty miles. It was painful.
This is the same son who nine years later would ask me to be his best man. This is the same son with whom I walked the Masters and who wrote me the letter that opened this chapter, the same son who now calls me his best friend.
What changed? How did it happen? Quite simply, we found common ground. Better than that, we learned to celebrate common ground. But it didn’t come naturally. As we dig into this life-giving parental insight, we will open our Sports Illustrated and look at the life of Bo Jackson.
Bo Knows Parenting
Bo Jackson was the first world-class athlete to play two professional sports baseball and football. For the Kansas City Royals in 1989, he hit thirty-two homeruns, drove in one hundred and five runs, and was named MVP of the All-Star Game. He was the first Major League Baseball player to shag fly balls with his bare hand during a game and, after striking out, break the bat over his knee or even on occasion over his helmet like it was made out of balsa. Then ten days later, after the close of the baseball season, he joined the L.A. Raiders and rushed 950 yards in only eleven NFL games. The next season he was picked for the Pro-Bowl.
Even after his career-ending hip injury in 1991, he loved to crisscross the country, making public appearances for a big fat profit and filming unforgettable Nike ads. He loved driving his Harley Davidson, Viper, and Mercedes. He quickly became known as Mr. Bo-Knows-Baseball and Bo-Knows-Football and Bo-Knows-Soccer and Bo-Knows-Everything. Or so we thought.
In October 1995 the front cover of Sports Illustrated featured a handsome mug shot of Bo Jackson and asked an intriguing question: “Not long ago Bo Jackson was the most famous man in America. Then he disappeared. What became of Bo?”1
Even if you’re not a sports fan, you might identify with Bo’s definition of a father:
My own father, do you know what I thought a father was? A man who came to your house every month and a half and left a $20 on the table. My father has never seen me play professional baseball or football. I tried to have a relationship with him, gave him my number, said, “Dad, call me. I’ll fly you in.” Can you imagine? I’m Bo Jackson, one of the so-called premier athletes in the country, and I’m sitting in the locker room and envying every one of my teammates whose dad would come in and talk, have a beer with them after the game. I never experienced that.2
Can you hear what Bo is saying? All the screaming fans in the stadium couldn’t satisfy his need for acceptance; he wanted it from his dad. Even with all the camaraderie he had with his teammates in the locker room, his need for affection was unmet; his heart ached for his dad’s affection. But he and his dad couldn’t find common ground. And even the multimillion-dollar paychecks from Nike couldn’t satisfy Bo’s need for affirmation; deep down he longed for his father’s blessing. There was a wound in his soul, a void inside. But Bo was smart enough to make an effort to give his children what he never received from his father. “Whenever I had free time, I spent the whole day with my kids.” He insisted on being a hands-on dad. “My children will be loved,” he vehemently promised his wife Lynda.3
His efforts, however, didn’t seem to carry the ball across the goal line to score a touchdown with his kids. His look-alike son, Nick, innocently asked his mom in his dad’s absence, “Why is Daddy never home? Does he have another home with more kids?” Those words were like a beanball that smacked Bo upside the head, tearing his baseball helmet permanently off. When he picked himself off the dirt and dusted himself off, he immediately announced his retirement. Suddenly Bo woke up to realize a parenting principle some of us have yet to learn: Our kids aren’t impressed with our free time; they want our priority time. During priority time and extended time, we discover common ground.
That day Bo Jackson called his agent and his sponsors and told them he quit. No more heavy travel, no more extended trips, no more absentee dad. He wanted his kids to have what he never had a dad who cared, a father who was there, a father who listened, who laughed, who appropriately touched. In a sense, he retired young to give his kids a full-time dad.
I can almost hear someone saying, Well, sure, who wouldn’t want to retire young, with your garage full of hot cars and a fat bankroll, and spend all your time with your kids? But that doesn’t look like my zip code.
No, obviously not everyone can quit his or her job, but we can change our focus. Remember, Bo learned that his kids needed priority time, not just spare time. You can be sure your child can sniff out your motivations a mile away. Your child knows what makes your eyes light up. She knows what makes your head turn and your heart beat faster. Your children want to know they are part of the action, not where you turn when the action is over.
We all know that Bo knows baseball and Bo knows football, but it is also nice to know that Bo knows parenting. When it came right down to it, his kids never felt the adrenaline rush of the screaming stadiums. Come to think of it, neither did Bo. His fast cars were fun but unfulfilling. Even the sports posters that hung on thousands of other kids’ walls were not what his children wanted. All they wanted was a daddy whose name happened to be Bo Jackson, with whom they could spend some time, hang out, play. Fortunately for them, Bo is learning what it takes to find some common ground.
Common ground, quite simply, includes anything we share in common that is big enough to support a relationship. It includes common interest, common activity, common schedule, common language, and common heart.
In the world of business, common ground is the room to negotiate the deal. In international relations, common ground is the point at which two independent sovereign nations can maneuver toward a peaceful treaty. In a court of law, grounds is the term for legal standingÑthe right to bring an argument, to plead your cause. In computers, common ground is the language in which a computer thinks and communicates with other computers. And in the vast world of parenting, common ground is the place where both the child and the parent can communicate in a common language, and both can walk away understanding what was said, feeling connected in a healthy common relationship.
Needless to say, lacking common ground can be highly irritating, frustrating, and nerve-racking. Our tendency is to think, I shouldn’t have to hunt for common ground. This should be a given. My kid needs to get it through her thick skull. I’m the boss-parent; she is the subservient kid. End of story. For 10 to15 percent of all children, this may work. If that’s the case for you, consider yourself fortunate and skim through to the next chapter. For the other 85 to 90 percent, you will be glad to know there are some very helpful steps you can take to begin drawing your daughter or son back alongside.
Discovering common ground is essential to effective parenting. It enables us to communicate with, shape, motivate, impact, affect, and connect with our child. Without common ground, our words fall on deaf ears. Our advice goes unheeded. Our finest efforts are for naught. Sound familiar? Fortunately there is help.
It is easy to think the tongue is the most important parenting tool in the body. With it we give advice, correction, and counsel. With it we can encourage, admonish, exhort, warn, even scold. No doubt about it, the tongue is an important parenting tool. But if we’re considering the most important tool in the body, I want to make a case for the ears. Even in sheer numbers, the ears have the tongue beat two to one.
Listening is becoming a lost art. Even the Bible wisely advises, “Everyone [including parents] should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
If there were a Listeners Hall of Fame, I would nominate my own dad. Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I presented many challenges to him including domestic, lifestyle, political, moral, spiritual, and financial issues. He was a World War II veteran, having piloted a B-17 bomber all over Europe. I filed as a conscientious objector. He was into big band and swing music; I preferred Bob Dylan, Santana, and the Moody Blues. He was a Builder; I was a Boomer. He was establishment; I was antiestablishment. He was conservative Republican since his father had been a U.S. Representative and cosponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act. I was progressive Independent. He was pro-military; I was anti-Vietnam. He was middle class value system; I wasn’t. He was short hair; I was long hairÑreal long. He enjoyed shaving; I liked whiskers. For him punctuality was a core value, for me a source of irritation. He leaned toward controlling; I leaned toward free spirit. Add it all up and you have a Grand Canyon of distance between us.
He could have easily squished me like a grape. His wing tips could have stepped on me in anger and no one would have noticed. Instead, my dad took me to school, enrolling me in Listening 101. He became the world’s greatest question-asker. He drew me out and created a safe place for me to spill my guts and express my opinions and my feelings no matter how off-the-wall they were. He would come into my room, put on my stereo earphones, open the album jacket, listen to my music, read the lyrics, and then discuss the philosophy of my favorite musicians and songwriters. Looking back, I realize it was his ability to listen that earned him the right to speak into my life. He did more to shape my worldview and my philosophy of life through our late-night discussions of the Doors, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the band Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Dylan music than all the semesters I had in high school.
I can remember spending time in friends’ homes and overhearing their parents scream, “Turn down that noise!” or “Turn off that trash!” and thinking, Wow! I never hear that harsh, demeaning tone in my home. My dad’s awesome!
Listening says, I respect you and I value what you’re thinking. I respect your perspective. I want to give you the gift of a listening ear and I want to give you the gift of time. We don’t need to rush. I care about what you think. Your viewpoint is important to me. I accept you for who you are. You always have something of value to say. I like to hear your voice. You are one of my favorite people. You are worth whatever time it takes for us to understand each other. I am a better person when the thought patterns from your brain shape the thought patterns in my brain. I may not agree with you, but I respect the logical process your mind is taking. I communicate dignity to you. I don’t want to speak out of ignorance before I listen. I don’t want to prejudge. You may be right. While our tastes are different and our preferred styles may vary, I want to understand where you are coming from.
Each of these statements represents realities we want to emphatically communicate to our children. Punch all that into an adding machine and bottom line it equals acceptance. All that and more is communicated every time we stop to listen. What an important parenting tool the ear is!
Listening takes time. As Richard Swenson, author of the classic book Margin, told me as we sat in my office, “Personal listening requires unhurried leisure. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quality of time. When I’m too busy, schedule too crowded, I’m not free to listen. If I provide margins in my day, there is ample time to listen.”
Along with the ear, the eye is an important parenting tool, handy to use to communicate acceptance. In fact, the ear and the eye share much in common. Unlike the tongue, which tries to alter the surroundings, the eye and ear are simply agents of acceptance. They both take in information. The ear receives audible stimulus and the eye visual. In evaluating our child, particularly when, despite our best efforts, our child remains largely nonverbal, the eye can be a most helpful tool.
What is the gift you give your boy?
A glamorous game, a tinseled toy,
A whittling knife, a puzzle pack,
A train that runs on a curving track?
A Boy Scout book, a real live pet;
No, there’s plenty of time for such as that.
Give him a day for his very own
Just your boy and his dad, alone.
A walk in the woods, a game in the park,
A fishing trip from dawn to dark;
Give him the gift that only you can
The companionship of his “old man.”
Games are outgrown and toys decay
But he’ll never forget if you give him a day!
Every parent of a teenager might as well get used to the idea that we are shock absorbers. It might be in fine print, but it’s in our job description. I promise. There is nothing flattering about calling ourselves shock absorbers. It’s not pretty, but it is functional and honest.
Teenage tongues don’t intend to be cruel or mean-spirited; at times, however, it just comes naturally. The teenager’s hostile expressions don’t so much reflect his feelings about you as his feelings about himself. A large part of what junior and senior high students verbalize is spoken under the unofficial heading, “Tell me it isn’t so.” Many heated arguments between teenagers and parents are an indirect way for the kids to say, I really don’t believe these things, but I’ve been thinking about them, I hear them at school, and I don’t know where else to go with them. So would you give me your feedback?
The commonsense proverb “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1) must have been written with parents of teens in mind. “A gentle answer” is another term for shock absorber. When your adolescent comes at you with hormones raging and attitude on the edge, you have a choice. You can be smart or stupid. You have the right to power up, pull rank, show ’em who’s boss, give her a piece of your mind, get more angry than she does, raise your voice to a higher decibel, crush her like a grape. You can if you want to, but that would be stupid. On the other hand, you can be smart. You can listen, ask questions, draw her out, and let her express her feelings, even her anger or her ignorance. Give her the gifts of patience, kindness, reason, respect, honor, care, and sensibility. The choice is yours. You decide.
Give answers Ask questions
Talk louder Talk softer
Demand respect Give respect
Be angry Be gentle
Express insensitivity Show sensitivity
Be irrational Be rational
Be undignified Be dignified
Be proud Be humble
Show disrespect Be respectful
Exhibit a “case is closed” attitude Be open to reason
Part of the price tag of listening is that it takes time. This is both the benefit of listening and the bother. It forces us to slow down, process, think, communicate, and respond. But the result is common ground.
If listening is an essential skill for effective parenting, good questions are the tools of the trade. We should know this. When our child gets sick, we take him or her to the doctor and we listen to the doctor’s key questions: “How do you feel? Where does it hurt? How long has it bothered you?” From the moment the doctor or the nurse says, “Open your mouth. Say, ‘Ahh,’” till the time we pay the bill, they are asking questions good questions.
Why do we think it is any different for all the other growing-up challenges our child faces? There are constant general maintenance needs for which our child will require proper diagnosis, and there are special issues that will surface from time to time. We don’t have to have a degree in psychology to learn how to ask effective questions. All we need are sincere love and respect for our child and a willingness to come alongside in the pursuit of his or her best interests.
Good questions come alongside. They communicate respect, trust, and dignity. Good questions are an arm of friendship that offers encouragement and support. When you listen to a person ask well-crafted questions, it is a thing of beauty. It’s like watching Tiger Woods swing the club or Michael Jordan take it to the hoop. While some of us will never slam-dunk a basketball or clink a hole in one, we can each learn to ask good questions. I am confident we are all tired of after-school grunts and one-word answers at the dinner table. Part of the problem may be the bland questions we ask. We parents may be tired of the same old answers we get from our children each day, but what do we expect if we ask the same old questions?
Try some of the following questions for a change.
Ask only one of the following per mealtime and maybe only one per week.
Some of these questions may sound contrived. They are not. They all work, but they need to be used under the right conditions. They are like a box of hand-tied trout flies. They can all catch fish, but you need to select the right bait for just the right situation. You know your child better than I, better than anyone, for that matter. No one can toss in a line and reel in your child as well as you. But be smart. We spell that S-M-A-R-T.
There is another style of parenting. We spell it S-T-U-P-I-D.
Building on Common Ground
In the following chapters we will learn to build a healthy relationship on our common ground. We will learn to use this ground to communicate to our son or daughter our acceptance, affection, and affirmation. In a sense, everything else grows out of common ground. To look at it another way, without establishing solid common ground, we have no basis on which to build a relationship. For this reason, I am reluctant to leave this topic prematurely. We must first be sure we have a good footing right here.
Once we ask the appropriate question, like throwing the right fly in the trout stream, and we get our son or daughter to bite, we want relationally to reel him or her in. We want to draw our child alongside, listening attentively and intuitively to what he is saying and to what he is not saying. Sensitive listening has been described as rubbing our fingers across the cracks in another person’s soul. We are not trying to win favor, win an argument, or even win a friendship. At this point we are only trying to find common ground.
What can we find in common that is big enough to support a relationship? When I looked at my son and came to the painful, threatening, intimidating (dare I say humiliating?) realization that we shared virtually nothing in common, I panicked. I didn’t know where to turn. I prayed, “Lord, help! Where can I begin to build a relationship? I need common ground. Where can I find it?” You won’t believe the answer. As a rather structured, make-the-most-of-every-moment type of guy, guess where I initially found common ground with my firstborn? I thought for sure it would be in one of my areas of strength or interest tennis, running, fishing. Take your pick. Not even close. I found common ground, of all places, in front of the TV set, watching weekend sports.
This did not play at all to my strengths. He knew more batting averages than I did. He knew stats of individual players whose names I didn’t even recognize. But I didn’t mind asking, and he didn’t seem to mind answering. The most important thing was that we were talking and we were discovering common ground.
Sometimes I am a slow learner, but it didn’t take me long to realize my son’s favorite sport was golf. For me, watching a golf tournament was like watching paint dry or watching grass grow, but it held Fred in rapt attention. If I wanted to develop common ground, I would watch with him. I think he enjoyed teaching me, pointing out the fine points of the game. My ignorance seemed at times to entertain him. While it would violate a family value to actually wage money bets, we would guess the winner of tournaments. When on vacation and asked what he wanted to do, Fred would request an afternoon of golf. Eventually I determined that if this was going to become a viable family activity, I needed to become at least mediocre, so I took lessons. I realize that, because of all the golfing pastors jokes out there, what I am about to tell you may seem like a half-truth at best, but I can humbly say those lessons were not for me. They were for Fred. They were for common ground. Admittedly, they helped my golf game, but more than that, they helped my relationship with my son.
Last week I drove from Atlanta to Columbia, South Carolina, to play a late-afternoon round of golf with Fred before spending the next day with him walking the Masters. While riding eighteen holes, we talked about his life goals, his future career, his marriage, his finances, his recent surgery, his diet and physical fitness, his final semester of grad school, the sale of his mobile home, his savings account (what there is of it), the job application and interview process, negotiating a salary and benefits package, and a few too-personal-to-mention-in-a-book items. I would say that is an extensive relational superstructure built on the common ground of TV and golf.
The day of Fred’s wedding, I paid for all the guys in his wedding party to play a round of golf. Fifteen greens fees. Ouch! I took care of the tab, but Fred took care of pairing up the foursomes. After all, Fred plays with his two brothers and me regularly. With all his buddies converging from all over the country, surely he’d want to get next to some of them. I was eager to hear with whom I’d be playing. Probably Fred’s future father-in-law. Maybe my brother-in-law or an old friend, I thought. And Fred’s partners? Which of his buddies would he be playing with? When I asked him, I couldn’t believe it. As I write these words at this moment eighteen months later, I still tear up. He chose to play with his two brothers and me. “Who else would I play with?” was Fred’s response. “That’s not even a question.” That is more than common ground; that’s common roots. That’s loyalty. That’s depth of relationship. It was even worth fifteen greens fees.
Your Common Ground
Common ground can be found while rebuilding an automobile, doing yard work, cliff climbing, camping, hiking, cooking, scuba diving, traveling, shopping, reading together or discussing favorite books, working on computers, or doing household projects. Just about any healthy hobby will work music, art, dance, intellectual pursuits, athletic or recreational activities. And the more talk time, the better.
Those of us with several children know that each child occupies his or her own space, and therefore we are required to find common ground with each of them. With some it will come naturally and with some it will be like searching for sunken treasure. But the treasure is there. And it is most certainly worth the search.
One final reminder. As you scour the landscape for a piece of real estate you and your child can call common ground, don’t expect it to be necessarily in an area of your strength or your interest. It may very well end up in an area of your weakness, even an area of disinterest. So what? It’s not about you (or me). It’s about your child. You want to meet your child on her ground. You want to claim the ground with her. You want to move into it like Marco Polo, Magellan, or Christopher Columbus, charting new territory with your child. You might as well get used to it. Good parenting requires the spirit of adventure.
The best parenting doesn’t take place until we accept the fact that our children are far more than extensions of ourselves. Each one is his own unique, autonomous person. Our children have ground they will occupy that extends way beyond anywhere we have ever been. When we discover this, it should not be intimidating but rather motivating, compelling, invigorating. We can’t regard the search for common ground as an infringement on our convenience. Rather, it is an opportunity for our own further advancement and for meeting our child’s need for acceptance. We are accepting her for who she uniquely is not a projection of ourselves and enjoying the revelation of her distinct self. Once we discover and then celebrate our child’s uniqueness and her distinct interests, we gain tremendous influence to effectively meet her need for acceptance.
To return to the cover question of Sports Illustrated: “What Became of Bo?” Why did he hang up his cleats, forfeit a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, and say good-bye to a world-class career and world-class notoriety? To put it simply, he laid it all aside because he wanted to stand in his driveway around three o’clock every afternoon and watch his kids get off the school bus. Common ground with his kids was worth more than all the airtime and media coverage.
One heartwarming footnote to this story is that Bo Jackson has also reconnected with his dad. Following a hip rehabilitation session in Birmingham, Alabama, he drove to the small town of Raymond and looked up his father. “We sat down, had a talk, and I told him the things that had been eating me up.” Only two weeks before the Sports Illustrated article was written, Bo was working on some hunting arrows at his workbench in the basement and the phone rang. It was his dad. “Sitting in this chair, right here. First time he ever called. Took him thirty-two years to realize he had a son that loved him.”4 Now Bo knows parenting and Bo knows blessing. He is gaining fulfillment from both generational sides of life.
In the next chapter we will see how to build on the common ground once it is established. Before you turn the page, ask yourself these tough questions:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I’ve been thinking about some very important lessons learned on the playing field of athletics but also of the game of life. I was the only senior on the team in my fourth year of playing varsity basketball, and I thought I would easily be the top player. But my confidence was quickly deflated when my coach told me that she considered me the number five player on the team that year.
When I came home that day, Dad said, “Your coach should be ashamed of herself!” That made me laugh, but I also remember his following words of motivation and encouragement. Every day at practice I worked harder, ran faster, and gave extra effort in everything to show that I wanted to win more than my teammates and it worked! What could have been a quitting point turned out to be a new beginning.
That experience taught me that what other people think is not as important as the words of the Lord.
You have helped me learn this by always being on my side, cheering me on as my biggest fans. You were always there for all my games, making sacrifices to watch even those pitiful middle school early-morning Saturday games. You have always supported me and helped me have a positive yet balanced perspective on my abilities and potential as a ballplayer and even more as a person. Most important, you have both done your part to build character in my life by not trying to solve my problems for me; you gave me godly advice and encouraged me to make my own decisions and talk out my problems with those involved.
In all of my endeavors, you, Mom and Dad, have provided me with the confidence and daily assurance of your love by always being there to watch, cheer, encourage, applaud, and challenge me to become a better person. For all of these things and more, I thank you.
All my love,
Your one and only daughter
Andrea Hartley, age twenty-three