Several years ago I was in a quaint, small-town bookstore. As I chatted with the sixties-something bookstore owner she noticed my three daughters. “Are those girls yours?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said proudly.
“Hmmm . . . ” she said, stroking her chin. “Come with me.” She beckoned me to an obscure corner of her store, and, glancing furtively at my girls, she leaned in close to my ear. “Let me give you some advice,” she said in a low voice. “Someday, when your girls get older they will want nothing to do with you. They will not even want to talk to you.”
“No,” I reassured her, “Not my gir–”
“Listen closely,” she interrupted, “and I will tell you what to do when that happens.”
Then she whispered to me her secret. It was truly brilliant. I tucked her advice away in my mind so that I would be able to use it someday “when my daughters want nothing to do with me” (which of course will never happen). I will share her secret with you.
But first I am going to tell you another story.
I was that child once.
I was that child that didn’t want to have anything to do with her parents. My rebellion hit when I was in my second year of college; the year I fell in love with Trouble.
My parents were frightened for me. My brothers were disappointed in me. My sisters prayed for me. Everyone did all they could to persuade me and admonish me and warn me that I was dating Bagley Family Enemy #1, but I wouldn’t listen. Why? Because when you are 19, very few things matter more than a 6’4″ green-eyed boy who also happens to be an excellent kisser.
Around the time all of this was happening I went to Wal-Mart with my dad. Just before we checked out he grabbed a stuffed bear from the shelf.
“Why are you buying that?” I asked him.
My dad shrugged mysteriously. “Just in the mood.”
In the mood to buy stuffed animals? I thought. Dad, you are weird. I eyed him suspiciously as he paid for his purchases and we left the store, the bear tucked under his arm.
“So . . . are you going to name him?” I asked as we walked to his truck, wondering what my mom was going to think that night when my dad cuddled up with his bear.
“Who?” he said.
“The bear,” I said. “What are you going to name him?”
“Oh, yes.” Thoughtful pause. “Him.”
“Yes. His name is Him.”
On that bewildering note my dad put the bear down in the backseat, drove me to my apartment and dropped me off.
A few weeks went by. Awesome weeks. Trouble and I went on long drives, we ate out a lot, we laughed a lot, we kissed . . . a lot. All the while I knew I was creating quite a panic on the home front. And as I desired to be with Trouble more and more, I visited home less and less. After all, why would I want to go home only to get reprimanded? Trouble made me happy. Trouble was all that mattered. Me + Trouble = True Love.
Then, early one morning, I opened the apartment door to leave for my campus job. There on the doorstep sat a vaguely familiar stuffed animal.
It was Him.
Under his paw there was an envelope with my name on it.
I brought the bear inside the apartment, sat down and opened the letter. “Dear Chelsea,” it read. “This is a letter to Him. Since Him cannot read, I was hoping you could read it out loud to Him.”
Okay . . . I thought. My dad truly is the King of Weirdness. But, I sighed, if he took the time to bring this bear to my apartment in the middle of the night I decided to at lease humor him. I read the note (out loud, as directed) to the bear. It wasn’t anything ground breaking. Just a letter about life and working through tough decisions.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew what he was trying to do. A few days later there was another letter on the doorstep addressed to Him, presumably for me to read out loud. Then letters started coming in the mail, too. It was happening so often that my roommates were getting thrills every time a “Him letter” showed up. And even though I stopped reading them out loud (too many ears in those apartments!) I secretly began to look forward to the letters because a.) my dad was a funny man who did unpredictable things, and b.) I wasn’t as happy with Trouble as I wished I was. Trouble was a good kisser . . . and that was about it.
My dad wrote to Him about everything: decision making, being wise, having an eternal perspective, and even techniques on how to get to sleep. He drew diagrams and pictures so Him (who had a small brain) could understand.
I did finally break up with Trouble. And then we got back together. Then we broke up again. Finally Trouble went on a mission, but it wasn’t until he came home two years later that I finally pounded the last nail in the coffin of our love. Believe me, Trouble is hard to shake off.
The letters to Him weren’t what saved me from getting into serious problems with this young man. But the letters to Him kept me connected with my dad in a unique and vital way. The fact that my dad took the time to make his messages creative told me that he loved me but did not want to offend me. And because his method was so strangely endearing I didn’t have the heart to get defensive about the advice I was getting. Each letter was a gentle reminder that I was loved and I was being prayed for, and most of all, that I was being trusted to make the right choice on my own.
Now, back to the bookstore owner who had me cornered in her store.
This is what she told me:
You will need a bag of mini marshmallows, some tooth picks and a little candle. Late at night (when people are most willing to share their deepest dreams and fears) invite one of your girls to the kitchen table. (You must only do this with one child at a time.) Light the candle. Turn off the lights. Stick the little marshmallows on the toothpicks. Roast your marshmallows. Because the candle is so small you will have to sit very close to each other. Because you are doing something edible she will not leave. And because you are doing something unpredictable she will know that you care. Then let her talk, and you listen.
I’ve already done this with two of my kids, with magical results. (I am starting this method early, as a preventative measure.)
It is our job as parents to remind, correct, discipline and warn. But it is worth remembering that kids may not always listen to words, but they always listen to love.
“If a man’s heart is rankling with discord and ill feeling toward you, you can’t win him to your way of thinking with all the logic in Christendom. Scolding parents and domineering bosses and husbands, and nagging wives ought to realize that people don’t want to change their minds. They can’t be forced or driven to agree with you or me. But they may possibly be led to if we are gentle and friendly, ever so gentle and ever so friendly.” –Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People