A warm memory of my childhood was hearing Dad saying grace before meals, breakfast and dinner through the week and also Sunday noon after church. This was never negotiable; grace was said in restaurants and on picnics, anytime and anywhere our family gathered to eat. As a child, this was never questioned; this was what everyone did, or so I believed. I remember sneaking a peek at my breakfast oatmeal growing cold as Dad recounted our blessings, and glimpsing the chicken and dumplings on the table on Sunday after church while Dad spoke reverently on our behalf. He generally used “King James English”, with sentences fraught with words such as thee and thou. That seemed natural to me, because I had never heard anyone speak otherwise while praying or saying grace.
Through those years I equated the act of saying grace to the act of eating, yet it always puzzled me, as I found nothing that brought the two acts together. The focus seemed to be on food. That is, people in my world displayed this act of being thankful when about to eat food, but not otherwise. However, children are among the best of soldiers; we do what we’re taught and assume that to be proper.
As I became older, Dad decided that I should learn to say grace at the table. Participating in the ritual was an obvious sign of my maturing and I, ever the soldier, readily accepted the role. What made it easy is that any oral activity done on a regular basis begins to adopt repetitive phrases. For example what person has never heard the phrase, “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies”, although the phrase has no meaning: food from the good Earth has no need of a blessing. Within just a few weeks I had my words down pat, mostly from what I had heard, either at home or elsewhere. We have good intentions in this life, but we generally tend to shorten repeated tasks, sometimes losing sight of whatever was the original goal. Over time, my vocabulary grew and I was soon able to select various combinations of sentences to include, seemingly from the heart.
Continuing in my maturing role as a sayer of grace, I began to notice that I was not alone in seeing the role as one of performance and not one of involvement. Persons who said grace well, with dignity and a bit of pomp, were asked to do this regularly. Aspiring to be popular, I soon became part of that small group. If you wanted someone who could talk to God, I was your man (or boy). And I believed it.
And that was the problem. Although of good intentions, I had been entrusted with a role not understood. I was both a success and a failure; I was performing the role well, but had no grasp of the purpose. Children seek acceptance and want to do whatever is right (and that is usually whatever the parent defines). I truly meant well, not realizing that I was being rewarded for performance in a role beyond my grasp. When you can recite the right words, no one is ever sure what you really think on a subject. This leaves the child to figure out complex issues alone, as others have already assumed the child understands. By child, I am including teenagers also.
Children want to please, and especially enjoy doing what adults do. My experience was an easy and predictable road to travel. In time, I grew up and made my own decisions. And I learned. When children speak adult sentences we assume the child understands the depth of what was said. We watch in awe of the child’s wisdom, reinforcing to the child to continue the memorized role. We do this as a disservice to children. I also learned to not instruct a child to mimic what I do or say. The child should be prompted to say or do only what the child understands, nothing more. Maturity takes time and cannot be rushed. Let children be children; instructing them to perform adult roles should follow the child’s interests, not the adult’s. Otherwise, we create monsters who can perform, yet not understand.