Families are like cars—we climb into them at birth, and we count on them to carry us a long way down the road. But some run better than others, and you can’t always tell their condition by how they look.
Growing up in Southern California, my early family probably would’ve looked like a 1985 Yugo, with the windows patched with duct tape and the muffler held up by fishing line. You might marvel that it ever ran at all.
My natural father, an alcoholic, once came home drunk with a hammer in his hand, threatening to kill my mom. He died before my 14th birthday, found frozen in an abandoned building in Reno. My stepfather was a hard, angry man who deserted me and my four brothers and sisters when we needed him most. By high school, I was pretty much on my own. Our family looked broken, even totaled.
But when you look at the fruits of that family, we all seemed to turn out OK. Of course, we’re not perfect. None of us are. We all carry scars. But overall we feel pretty healthy, even with all the trauma. And for that, I can thank the engine that made our family run—my mom.
Laughter Is the Best Medicine
We never had much money growing up. My mom worked crazy hours to feed us five kids, and it didn’t always work. Some days we had no food. That’s when my mom would try to make our poverty seem like a game.
“Instead of milk, let’s pour Kool-Aid on your Cheerios!” she’d say. If I made a face, she’d counter by saying, “You like Kool-Aid, don’t you?”
“And you like Cheerios.”
“Well, they’re bound to be great together, then!” she’d tell me, smiling. And whether it was her unflappable logic or her unquenchable enthusiasm, I smiled too.
I didn’t like them, though. They tasted terrible. But it did put a little food in my six-year-old stomach, and she was trying her best.
But some days, not even the prospect of Kool-Aid or my mom’s unflappable personality could cheer me up. Then she resorted to more drastic measures.
Around age 7, I fell into a serious funk, probably when I realized I was too young to run with my teenage siblings, who had no time for little brother. I felt lonely. So one afternoon, Mom and my older brother, Dave, brought home a flat, colorful cardboard box that read “Twister” on the top (“the game that ties you up in knots”).
I don’t know where she got the cash for it. But she brought it home, along with a number of other mysterious bags, and immediately popped open the box and suggested that Dave and I play it. She volunteered to spin the dial. “Good luck!” she told me.
I’d barely learned to tie my shoes. Dave was probably 15, much bigger and more coordinated than I was. He could reach those sprawling, colored polka dots far more easily than I could. If Vegas had offered wagers on our Twister game, I would have been the longest of long shots.
But somehow, in an upset for the ages, I won! In recognition of my amazing victory, Mom told me I’d earned a prize. Beaming, she handed me a package of underwear.
“See? Look what you won!” she said. “Do you want to play again?”
“Yeah!” I said, thrilled with my squishy first-place gift. “Let’s do it again!”
And so Dave and I played Twister for what seemed like the whole afternoon. Strangely, I always won, and Mom—smiling and laughing all the while—seemed to have a prize for me after every victory. None of the prizes seemed particularly special in and of themselves: shirts, socks, things I needed anyway for school. But because I “won” them on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, they became truly special to me, almost like birthday presents. The socks meant as much to me as if they had been bikes and baseball mitts.
But what really made the afternoon so memorable even 50 years later, was how much fun we had. I think my mom loved to see me have such a good time after falling into such a miserable funk. And I loved to hear Mom laugh. The fun was worth a week of Cheerios-and-Kool-Aid breakfasts.
Even today, knowing how many experts would criticize so much of this—experts who’d say “good” parents don’t fritter away hard-earned money on frivolous board games or that they shouldn’t shield their children from the hard realities of Twister competitions—this still feels like an example of what my mom did well. She couldn’t take away all our pain, so she helped us laugh our way through it.
Caring Through Crisis
Mom was a ham. And her larger-than-life personality became the beating heart of our family. We had a great time the afternoon we played Twister, laughing so hard that our sides hurt. But she wanted to do more than laugh or give me “prizes” or even create a treasured memory. She wanted to make me feel safe. Appreciated. Loved.
The memories I have of my mother are very precious to me, all the more so because I don’t have a lot of them.
For several years—critical, formative years in my childhood between the ages of 5 and 8—she raised five kids on her own. She worked as a waitress and a restaurant manager, which meant lots of evening and weekend work. Most weekdays, she’d get home by midnight (if she was lucky), and when I left for school, she was still sleeping. By the time I walked home around 3 p.m., Mom was backing the car down the driveway, heading to the restaurant.
I remember many days when I’d run to the car just as she was leaving, sprinting to the driver’s side just to hug her. I’d hang on the door, as if I could somehow pull the car to a stop and keep her with me. She’d slowly drive just a foot or two with me hanging on the door, just for fun. We’d giggle over the shared joke. And then I’d beg her to bring me home a chocolate shake.
The next morning, I’d find a chocolate shake waiting for me in the refrigerator. I’d drink it for breakfast. Although it might’ve been worse for me than Cheerios and Kool-Aid, it fostered in me a love for chocolate shakes that I still have (healthy habit or not). Those shakes remind me of the special bond between me and my mom. Before she left her shift, I knew she’d be thinking of me. And as I slurped down that shake as she slept in the next room, I knew she loved me.
Amazing, isn’t it? My family looked broken, and in a lot of ways, it was. But despite that, and maybe because of it, we learned how to deal with our own brokenness and the splinters of brokenness around us. No one would ever mistake my mom for a picture-perfect mother. But she still managed to give her five kids the critical tools they needed to survive. She gave us the resilience to push through our problems and the ability to laugh in the midst of them. She couldn’t always feed us, but she gave us a different kind of security. We always knew we were loved and cared for.
In his book Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”1 With all due respect to Tolstoy, I doubt that’s true. While every family is indeed unique, the unhappy families that I’ve seen and even been a part of seem to “break” in only a handful of ways.
Dr. Tim Elmore, founder of the Growing Leaders ministry and a frequent guest on the Focus on the Family daily program, says our mistakes fall into one of two areas: abundance or abandonment. That seems right to me. As a child, I probably had more experience with the abandonment part of the equation—situations that to the outside world look especially broken. Addiction or abuse can tear apart families; one or both parents can let their anger make them inattentive.
But these days in my role at Focus, I’ve come to believe more of us suffer from the problem of abundance, and maybe especially Christian families. We hover too much. We lecture too often. We get so focused on our children’s happiness and success that we never let them fail. We hone in so intently on our children’s performance—and our own as parents—that we develop an unhealthy and wholly futile drive for perfection.
How strange that anyone should use the word perfection in conjunction with Christianity! Of all the world’s big religions, only Christianity tells us explicitly that we can’t achieve perfection. While Buddhists seek Nirvana and Jews seek to follow the Law, we Christians live under a blanket of grace. God knows how messed up we are, and yet God loves us even when we inevitably miss the mark.
Why, then, do we struggle to show that same grace to our spouses and children? The world calls us out for being judgmental, and way too often the world has a point. We in the Christian community continually speak the words “unconditional love” and “saved by grace,” but we rarely apply them, whether in the culture at large or in our own homes. And so we mess up our relationships in horrible ways.
A few guys in Christian ministry talk incessantly about grace and forgiveness, but secretly (or in some cases, not so secretly) believe they’ve gotten over the whole “sin” thing. They’ve arrived at total sanctification. They’ve become exactly the person God wants them to be. But you know what? Their families, or at least the families I’m aware of, are utterly broken. The struggles of their grown children have led them to rebellion. Now, these leaders might say their families suffered because of the very ministries they led—the distractions, the interruptions, the demands, the fame. But I’m not so sure. I believe that when once you think you’ve arrived, spiritually speaking, you lose your humility. You lose your ability to engage with people who, inescapably, are so much “weaker.”
And what happens when those weaker people are your very own children? You demand more from your kids than they can ever deliver, which leads to fights, resentment, rebellion and estrangement. It’s dangerous and utterly unhealthy to imagine you’ve arrived. We’re all broken, and imagining ourselves as faultless only reveals the worst kind of vanity. On this earth we cannot arrive at a place where we no longer sin. If we could do that, we wouldn’t need Jesus.
But even those of us who know we’re broken and who know deep in our bones our desperate need for God’s grace still feel tempted by the siren call of perfection. We don’t want to show ourselves as anything less than perfect. We hate to show weakness of any sort. And because we feel we get judged as parents by how well our kids perform or behave, we can demand perfection, or near perfection, from them too.
Few, if any, parents would say they expect perfect kids. But sometimes our actions expose our good intentions as lies.
A dysfunctional family takes root when a parent begins to seed unhealthy behavior. It happens when moms and dads try to shame or demean their sons or daughters to teach them a lesson. It happens when they use insults or biting sarcasm to drive their point home. Eventually, it reaches the point where a child can feel as though he or she can never be good enough. And then what happens? The kids check out. They know they can never reach the bar. So their behavior takes a nosedive, which ironically makes parents raise the bar even higher.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happens next. Kids want—no, they need—to feel love and acceptance. So they try to find that love and acceptance with friends. They know their friends will accept them, no matter what, even if they do drugs, have sex or drink heavily. They know their friends will love them regardless. And maybe their circle of friends even encourages such behavior. Suddenly, the things parents tried to shame their children into not doing become the very things they think they have to do in order to feel loved. They get love the only way they know how—the love they should’ve gotten at home all along.
In the Christian community, we never stop talking about grace. We base our faith and our whole lives on it. Those of us in the evangelical world hear constantly that we can’t work our way to Heaven. But what happens when it comes to our kids? Sometimes we forget. And when we do, our unconditional love becomes very conditional, very performance-driven. In our crusade to create perfect kids, we drive them away.
In 2014, Rolling Stone told the story of a young woman named Jackie, who was raised in a pious Christian home. Her parents expected near perfection, and for most of her childhood, Jackie gave it to them.
“There was a standard to meet,” Jackie told the magazine. “And I had met that standard my whole life. I was a straight-A student, the president of every club, I was in every sport. I remember my first day of college, my parents came with me to register for classes, and they sat down with my adviser and said, ‘So, what’s the best way to get her into law school?’ ”
But during her sophomore year at the University of Idaho, she called her mother to tell her she was gay. After a long pause, her mom finally responded. “I don’t know what we could have done for God to have given us a f-g as a child,” she said. The phone went dead. Soon, Jackie’s debit card died too. Through Jackie’s brother, her parents told her she’d need to return the car they had given her or they’d report it stolen.
According to Rolling Stone, Jackie’s story is not
unusual. The magazine suggests it’s a big reason that, even though homosexuals make up just 5 percent of the youth population, they account for 40 percent of the youth homeless population. When I talk with gay activists, they echo those statistics and suggest they might even be worse. One told me about 70 percent of the men he knows in the gay movement come from conservative Christian homes—and he’s one of them. He said he never felt love and acceptance in his own family, so he left to find it somewhere else.
I can’t verify that 70 percent statistic. I can’t say (and neither can Rolling Stone) just how many Christian parents ostracize their gay youth. But even if it hovers near the truth, shouldn’t Christians study this more? Could children who feel as if they can’t meet their parents’ expectations find those familial pressures so severe that it could impact even the core of their sexual orientation? Could that, along with many other contributing factors, lead a child into same-sex attraction? I’d like to know what researchers might say.
If we love our kids and want to be a positive influence in their lives, shouldn’t we do what we can to preserve our relationships with them, even when they turn their backs on our values? When they scrap the dreams we’ve had for them? Parents are the biggest influencers in their children’s lives, even as those children head into adulthood. What we believe matters to them. But when we convey to them, by abandoning or ostracizing them, that they don’t matter to us anymore, our influence stops. As soon as we cut off that love line to them, we cut off our ability to speak into their lives. How can we presume to tell them what we believe and why we believe it when we also give them the impression that if they don’t believe likewise, they’re on their own?
I think a lot of homes and families have broken or are breaking because the kids discover their parents’ “unconditional” love had conditions after all. Instead of creating a loving home, parents sometimes craft a dysfunctional environment where children receive regular performance reviews. If they perform well, they get promoted in the family hierarchy, showered with praise and perks. If they don’t, we let them know. We raise the bar. We scold. We shout. We punish, not so much in the hopes that the punishment will change the behavior, but because the child has been bad. He deserves it. The child gets a label pasted on him—the bad kid, the problem child, the good-for-nothing. And once you start labeling a kid, he often starts living the label.
On the outside, these kinds of families may seem OK—for a while. Like an exotic sports car parked in the driveway that hides a blown engine, these families can look pretty great. But inside, its members know something is wrong. Broken. We can create a stench in our families. Our families can overflow with unhealthy control, unhealthy anger.
Would you say you’re there most days? Then something’s not healthy. Something’s broken. And you have to find a way to remedy it right now. If you haven’t done the work of creating a loving, joyful, humorous home environment, no 18- or 19-year-old will want to come back after they leave.
I played Little League baseball as a boy. One afternoon, as I waited for my own game to start, I watched another game in process.
Sometime in the seventh inning, near the end of the game, the batting, trailing team had loaded the bases for the next batter—a small, skinny boy about my age. You could tell from his face he would rather have been anywhere but at the plate.
Now, you might think that one baseball game is no big deal, that it’s “just a game,” a dime a dozen. You don’t put the box scores on a college transcript or include them on your résumé. The seventh game of the World Series it is not. Still, anyone involved in youth sports knows that each game, each at bat, can feel hugely important to the kids who are playing. And sometimes the parents take it more seriously than the kids do.
This boy made that sad discovery.
The fired-up parents shouted and jeered in the stands. Just a few minutes earlier, a couple of them had gotten into a fight over a call—nasty words, fists, the whole bit. Tensions already ran pretty high. Kids in the dugout yelled, kids in the outfield heckled, while parents screamed. It all created a pressure-packed moment.
Too pressure packed, it turned out.
The batter felt so scared and stressed that he literally wet his pants, right there at home plate. I could see the wet spot spread across his gray britches. He couldn’t hide. He wet his pants, and the whole world—at least his world—saw.
I wonder—could some of those screaming parents have been his parents? Probably. Could the pressure he felt from his own family have helped create what happened that afternoon? And how did his mom and dad respond afterward?
During a radio broadcast in 2010, I told that story to Dr. Tim Kimmel, who cofounded the Family Matters ministry with his wife, Darcy. He knows what he would’ve done had he been the boy’s dad: “I would hope I would just walk right on out there to him, just pick him up in my arms, and say, ‘Don’t worry about this, son. I love you. We’re gonna get beyond this thing,’ ” he told me. “I think when it comes to raising my kids, the mantra we’ve always used is treat your kids the way God treats his kids. And what would God do to you if you had one of those embarrassing moments? Would he just say, ‘Get over it, for crying out loud. Cowboy up here!’? No. He wraps his arms around us. He cares about us.”
The batter struck out. What else? He had to walk back to the dugout, back to his team, his pants soaking wet. He looked utterly alone.
That could’ve been me. It could’ve been any of us. In fact, all of us probably have had moments like that, where we felt thoroughly shamed. Embarrassed. We felt like total failures. None of us like to feel vulnerable or weak. But we do feel that way sometimes because we are vulnerable and weak.
In times like those, the Lord can most effectively meet us. That vulnerability is exactly what He wants from us. He approves of raw honesty. God sees the worst in us, the real us, the sinful us. And He still loves us.
My mom did that so effectively with me and the rest of us Daly kids. Despite our chaotic world, despite its brokenness and failure, we never doubted her love for us. She scolded us sometimes. She corrected us. But none of us ever doubted her love for us.
And then she was taken away from us.
Put to the Test
Doctors diagnosed my mom with colon cancer when I was 9. I have only one memory of seeing her during that dark time.
I came home one day and saw her bedroom door open. It shocked me to see how different she looked, how her short auburn hair now framed her thin, gaunt face. But the same smile lit up her face! She flashed that same smile she had when she served me Kool-Aid and Cheerios, when she spun that Twister dial. That smile told me, without a word, You are my little boy. My light. My treasure.
Her smile patched the brokenness one more time, before she would break from this world for good. When she died, it felt like my world ended. In many ways, she was my world. She was my example, my energy. She was the only love I knew.
And yet I lived on. Her dying, and even her death, didn’t crush me. And I owe that to her as well. I loved my mom, but the skills she taught me enabled me to live without her.
Although we spent so little time together, in those moments, somehow, she gave me such a foundation of love and acceptance, resilience and self-assurance that I could weather even her death. It’s kind of weird to think about. It’s as though she found a way to release me as a nine-year-old, and I was ready to roll.
I wish I could turn to my mom today and tell her what she meant to me. What she taught me. How much I loved her—and still do. And someday, I trust I’ll be able to see her again. But for now, let me tell you what she taught me: A healthy family isn’t about following all the right rules, doling out the perfect punishment, or raising straight-A students to be doctors or lawyers or ministry leaders; it’s about giving your children the ability to deal with adversity. To roll with the punches. To laugh. To cry and not feel ashamed.
Families are not only like cars; they’re also like gardens. They can be messy, dirty places filled with weeds and bugs, too much water, too much sun. They require work and patience and often a willingness to get knee-deep in mud. It also helps to have a sense of humor as you tend to them.
But gardening is also an act of trust. An act of faith. Underneath the earth, a miracle grows—one that has less to do with you and more to do with God. You can’t make a seed sprout. You can’t force it to flower. Your job is to help the miracle along.
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Originally published in the June 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.