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We are servants

One of the cool things about having a 4 and 6-year-old is that they still ask us to define things for them on a regular basis.

They don’t run to the google monster to figure out all things.

Yes, they pick up interesting nuggets of information from tv, friends and the dreaded bus, but mostly they trust that if mom or dad said it, it’s true.

Side note: I like to blame all bad behavior on the bus, because I feel it’s an excellent scapegoat. My kid drew all over his desk at school… he must have learned it on the bus. My kid said a bad word… those darn older kids on the bus. My kid wasn’t listening in class… you feel me now – the bus. If you have children and they don’t ride the bus, I highly recommend finding another convenient fall guy, if only in jest so you can deflect any judgmental looks thrown your way when your child is say, less than perfect. It’s good to add levity to your parental coping toolbox.

My husband and I along with grandparents and other trusted adults still get to serve as the all-knowing portals of information. We are judge and jury about truth and lies, right and wrong and defining the unknown. It’s a startlingly powerful segment of the mom and dad job-description.

Now, I am not fool enough to think this is a position we will hold in their eyes for the entire duration of our service to them, but while we do, I consider it an honor. An honor I do not take lightly or for granted. I realize very soon, Jason and I will both know absolutely nothing. I am sure it will be a marvel to our someday 14 and 16-year-old sons how their dad and I figured out anything at all.

We will be reduced to bureaucratic figure heads needed primarily to stamp approval for missions outside the family realm. Oh, and to feed, clothe and house them, too of course.
Can I go to the movies with friends? GRANTED
Can I have $20 for gas? GRANTED
Can I get my girlfriend’s name tattooed on my arm?
NOT GRANTED: Please see additional red tape, section 23B/notgonnahappen, and do you have a permit for that?

I envision if the total sum of our knowledge (from their point of view) was plotted on a graph, with the x-axis representing years and the y-axis plotting how irrelevant our input is, then our journey would look somewhat like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. We’ll be viewing things from atop the Arch around 2026 when our irrelevancy peaks before plateauing for a couple of years.

Then as life starts to serve its first slices of humble pie to the boys, we might begin the descent from our own stupidity of gigantic proportions.

But alas, today, this metaphor lives only in our hypothetical garage. The garage that houses the minivan soon to depart for St. Louis.

Waiting in the Dairy Queen drive thru one night, a curious conversation erupted from the third row.

Eagerly awaiting his hot dog and shake, Jamison shouts from the back, Hey, you guys are our servants. A little giddy about the prospect of ice cream, a little wired from the late dinner hour, we weren’t sure what to make of his offhanded comment.

And as I so often do, I leapt in to sanitize and happy up what he said. Any rudeness or grumpiness from my kids and I feel compelled to jump in, grab the offending word balloon and rework it. I twist and contort balloon light sabers into harmless balloon puppies.

Me: Oh, you mean daddy and I are serving you?

Jamison repeated: No, you guys are our servants. 

Jason: No, mommy & daddy are not your servants.

Now, I would love to interject here how we gave a wonderfully articulate answer about serving vs. servants, but the word itself is packed tight with meaning and history. I was struggling whether to define the word for him in a positive or a negative way. If our initial reaction was to be offended, wasn’t it a negative word?

But how do you define servant to a child?

Truth be told, to have your child call you a name the dictionary itself defines as devoted and helpful supporter, person who performs duties for others, or person guided by something – is actually a compliment. Certainly one could substitute parent for servant here, given the above definitions. What is family without devotion to our people and guidance from above?

But a 4-year-old does not grasp the compliment nor the insult built into this statement. Surely he was harkening a game of pretend, trying to be funny or just saying something for good old-fashioned shock value. And although in this instance he wasn’t seeking an explanation, teachable moments are worth hunting down.

It doesn’t feel holy or righteous to be called servant when you’ve mopped up the spilled milk, swept up the muddy boot remains and just finished cleaning out the washing machine from the hidden diaper that exploded thousands of water beads all over creation.

But the sacred can hide in the submissive.

Many things we strive to do better in life involve serving someone else better – our boss, our employees, our spouse, our parents, our friends, our kids… our God.

It’s Rick Warren’s, purpose driven life manifesto. Our purpose is not only about us as singular individuals, pinning down all the why are we here questions, but about God’s plan for us and how we can serve others with that plan in mind.

Too early to breach topics of slavery or indentured servitude, and at a loss for the right words in the moment, I answered Jamison with a drawn-out diatribe about how serving others is good and helpful. But for the sake of humility, let’s not run around actually calling people servants. Let’s be kind and helpful when we can.

By now Jack was chomping at the bit to throw in his two cents: I know who servants are. All servants are women because they are the ones serving us in restaurants.  

Second side note: I know, I know, we are totally winning at this parenting thing.

Jason’s eyes got big and he gave me the clear, albeit nonverbal assist – why don’t you take this one honey.

Me: No, not all servants are women. Anyone can serve others in restaurants or anywhere else.

Jason reminded the boys how we always help and respect women and those in need. For good measure we threw in a few more well-meaning platitudes about gender equality and kindness. To which most of this, I’m certain we were saying now for our own good because – ice cream, and we were almost home.

We had hit that moment in a parental lecture when you realize you haven’t quite hit the nail on the head yet, the kids have stopped really hearing you and now we were just airing out words to appease our own need to set the record straight.

Oh, the clarity we provide.

Although Jamison gave little thought to his comment, it unintentionally connected some dots for me that I hadn’t drawn together before. Some things are worth processing slow as to not miss the nuances, or at least that’s how I process most effectively.

I try hard to apologize to the boys if I over-react or get something wrong. And, I feel no shame in circling back the wagons when I have a more well thought out answer to something that happened days ago.

Another cool thing about 4 and 6-year-olds is this. Although they look to us for answers, so often their questions nudge us to give more thought to something we hadn’t thought about in a while – or maybe ever. I find joy in the process of developing and honing answers that are all the things they expect from us – honest, correct and complete.

It’s as if they figuratively grab our hand, pull us forward and say, mom, dad look, really look. 

Why were we offended by being called servants? It’s because serving our people is one of the least glamorous, most tiresome, selfless things we do for our kids. It’s critical, but exhausting.

Additionally, effective parents not only serve their children, but lead them while they serve.

We are servant-leaders.

Robert K. Greenleaf defines a servant-leader as follows:

“The servant-leader is servant first… Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant – first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit?”

And if Jamison was still holding my hand, he would be saying impatiently again, mom look, really look. Who does this definition of servant leadership remind you of?

Who should we emulate to become better parents, better people, better servant leaders?

For me, it’s Christ. He is the ultimate, infinite servant leader.

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