Parents as pastors

Permission to speak!

In the boy’s eyes stood tears of frustration. ‘You RSVP’d, and you didn’t even consult me!’

It was true, although I’ve got to confess, I was a little surprised at his depth of feeling. We had accepted an invitation to a celebratory afternoon tea for our son, and now, on the day of the event, he was objecting to going. I had never thought that one afternoon tea would cause such angst.

A little later, I was reading a book about China’s cultural revolution, the story of an ‘educated youth’ who was sent to the country to learn life as a peasant in the early 1970s. 1  One part of this story introduced the concept of  ‘speech rights’ – in the village there were firmly binding, but completely unspoken, rules about who had speech rights. If you had them, people would fall silent and listen to what you had to say. If not, it was so difficult to get a word in, or to be heard if you managed, that most stopped trying. Those without speech rights were women, the poor, those from suspect political classes, the infirm, and children. Unsurprisingly, those with speech rights were those with power or wealth, those with solid political or military credentials (if one had fought against America in Korea, one had great speech rights), and men.

I think that Australian culture in 2018 operates with a similar concept. Of course, it’s not a formal thing, and I suspect that the idea would be disavowed if we once become aware of it.

Yet there are traces of this reality:

• In the tendency of adults to speak over children in large group settings. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been talking with one of my kids, and a grown up will come up and start a conversation as if I were alone.

• In the #LetHerSpeak movement – protesting against the law (in Tasmania) that prohibits identification of a sexual assault victim, even with that person’s consent. Even by that person! The existence and shape of this law points to speech rights.

• In the suspicion with which certain groups are heard – think Indigenous Australians, or people from Muslim or Middle Eastern backgrounds.

• In the vestiges of suspicion and doubt that still exist when children report abuse.

• In our willingness to RSVP for our children without consulting them.

This tendency contrasts with the model of Jesus in how he treated those people who had no speech rights in the culture of his day. The children who the disciples wanted to send away. The woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned. The Samaritan woman at the well. The prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet. The tax collectors. The women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection.

As with anything in the gospel that challenges my background culture, I need a place to start. I can’t take on the whole culture myself. The obvious starting place for me is at home, with my kids, as I try to navigate the shift in relationships that comes as my kids grow up. It’s quite natural, as children grow, for the balance of the relationship to change.

When they are very small, before they even have the speech to exercise any speech rights, we needed to make all the decisions for them. But as they grow, there is a constant re-negotiation of these speech rights.

I need to balance the importance of hearing their voices and giving them the opportunity for decision-making and responsibility, while also ensuring that I can use my greater experience and wisdom to keep them safe and to help train them in the way they should go. It is a tricky line to tread, and I tend to find that I am constantly falling to one side or the other – either expecting too great a level of responsibility from them or failing to give them room to grow.

My hope and prayer is that I will learn from our afternoon tea experience. That we will engage our children more, both in listening and speaking with them at a level of responsibility that is appropriate, and in helping them to understand the development of their own speech rights.

1. A Dictionary of Maqiao, Han Shaogong, trans. Julia Lovell.  

James Oakley



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