Written on their hearts

One of the deep joys of my life at this particular stage is watching our children as parents. They both are amazingly good at the complex task of nurturing our grandchildren. Being grandparents gives us some advantages that we didn’t have when our children were young. I’m getting enough sleep these days. I can play with our grandchildren and watch them grow without the same sense of exhaustion that I experienced when our children were their ages. I can even stay awake when a child is napping, something that was a real strain when we were parents of preschoolers. No worries, I also am perfectly capable of taking a nap when the occasion presents itself.

Children are fascinating to me. I am filled with awe and wonder whenever I am around them. Ever since I had the opportunity to participate in the Chicago Theological Seminary laboratory preschool before we had our own children, I have been fascinated by how conscience develops in young children. At first, virtually all restrictions and limits on behavior are imposed by parents and other adults. Our young grandson is not capable of running down the stairs with a toy in each hand without falling, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Fortunately for him, and for the rest of us, he has adults in his life who intervene and don’t allow him to plunge headfirst down the stairs. We also don’t allow him to climb to the top of the stairway railing. We keep him from running into the street. We pay attention to the food he eats and makes sure that it is safe.

He is a climber, and he would certainly have gotten himself injured were it not for the watchful eyes of his parents, grandparents, cousins, aunt and uncle. One of the roles for us as adults is to be ready to intervene before things get dangerous.

As he grows, however, he faces the task of self-regulation. By the time he heads off to college, he will need to be capable of imposing limits on his own behavior.

He already has learned that there are some things he can do to make his life better. He knows that if he wants something, saying “please” helps him get it. He is learning that it doesn’t always work, but it seems to always be a good idea. He knows how to ascend and descend the stairs safely, but sometimes he still needs to be reminded. We were visiting over Skype yesterday and I heard his mother say a phrase that she said a lot of times during their recent visit: “I don’t want to have to tell you again . . .”

As a grandfather, I can listen to our daughter and know that whether or not she wants to have to tell him again, she will. Again and again and again. Children learn through repetition, but sometimes it takes a LOT of repetition to get the message through.

It is all part of the process of developing the skills of inner regulation. Each of us, in order to make our way through this life have to develop our own set of disciplines and regulations. We have to learn to place boundaries on our own behavior. Our society is based on trusting individuals to do the right thing in many situations. We learn to follow rules even when enforcement is not obvious. We develop the ability to self-regulate.

We all benefit from reminders, regardless of our age and experience. The sight of the police car alongside the street reminds me to check my speed. The sign at the entrance to the grocery store reminds me to check to make sure I’m wearing my face mask properly. I even have a watch that reminds me if I’ve been sitting too long without sufficient physical activity.

The prophet Jeremiah began his work by admitting that he felt he was too young for the job. Still, at God’s insistence, he found the poetry to communicate a deep vision to the people. The Biblical book that bears his name paints a vision of a world where people live at peace with justice for all. In part of that vision he imagines the day when people don’t need to have laws and rules written on stone tablets or spoken by rulers. In his vision everyone has an understanding of the ways of freedom within them, “written on their hearts.” People won’t need to be told about God, they will have a relationship with God. People won’t need to have justice enforced, they will self-regulate and avoid injustice on their own. It is a beautiful vision.

In a way Jeremiah describes the process of becoming mature in faith. We grow up. We learn things that we didn’t know when we were children. We become more aware of others with thoughts, feelings and intentions that are different from our own.

It doesn’t happen all at once. As a parent, you usually don’t notice when it is happening for your child. You simply get to the point that you realize, “I no longer have to tell him (or her) not to jump on the bed.” I can sit down to table with our adult children and I don’t need to remind them to wash their hands first, and I can remember the days when we had to remind both of them to wash their hands at every meal, but I don’t remember exactly when the transition took place. One day I just realized that they don’t need reminders any more. I don’t have to remind them to brush their teeth or put on their jackets, even though they’ve been known to forget hats and gloves and jackets on occasion.

Our grandchildren will learn that their behaviors affect other people. They will learn that free people speak the truth, honor their elders, respect sabbath rest, let go of envy, refrain from stealing, remain faithful, and follow all of the other commandments. They will have the rules of our people “written on their hearts,” internalized in their brains, and have made them a part of their lives through all of their beings.

In the meantime, however, our daughter will have to remind her son of how to behave again and again and again.