Writings by Cole Huffman

Forsaking Family Egotism

Children can be a person’s proudest possession. But in today’s climate, Joseph Epstein writes, it is far from clear who, between parents and children, possesses whom. In the same essay (“A Son at Tufts, A Daughter at Taffeta”), he employs the term “family egotism,” which he attributes to Tolstoy. Epstein says family egotism roughly approximates to not caring if the whole world goes to hell so long as all is well with our little Kevin.

An internment camp in China under Japanese occupation detained two thousand expatriates. They were forced to form a community. Only one group among them made that hard: Protestant missionaries with kids. The missionaries’ sense of moral obligation to put their families first consistently trumped every other consideration. Langdon Gilkey tells the story in his book Shantung Compound, and considers family egotism an expression of nothing less than idolatry:

“Injustice to other [people]… is the social consequence of an inward idolatry, the worship of one’s own self or group. The moral problems of selfishness, the intellectual problems of prejudice, and the social problems of dishonesty, inordinate privilege, and aggression are all together the result of the deeper religious problem of finding in some partial creature the ultimate security and meaning which only the Creator can give.”

When the church is told that parenting is our highest calling—that you’ll never have a more important job than being Mom or Dad—that’s family egotism. The infertile couple can’t experience God’s highest calling then? Single people don’t? You really want to say that?

Evangelicals are incurable idealists. By all means disciple your children. But if little Kevin gets to college and becomes Christless Kev for a season, despite your spiritual investments in him, it’s going to be extra anguishing if you did all that for some kind of extra credit with God and man. I’m thinking here of David Brooks’ critique of commodified childrearing: “Your child is the most important extra-credit arts project you will ever undertake.” That’s the kiddo-centric world: If my kid advances and achieves, good at sports and arts and school and isn’t socially awkward, then surely the Lord is blessing me. That sense of blessing then justifies more adoration of him or her.

Our family size (five children) means we have a few end-of-school-year award ceremonies to attend. Driving home from one, my wife said, “After that I feel like maybe we haven’t pushed (name of child) hard enough.” You listen to parents congratulating each other for their kids’ achievements. All parents need encouragement, but sometimes those moments feel like we’re doing touchdown dances on the 50-yard-line. I know some of yesteryear’s highly decorated high school seniors who bottomed out in college, or otherwise showed themselves maladjusted to life on their own, or in marriage. As Walker Percy said, you can get all A’s and still flunk life. But it’s the family egotists, who somewhere along the way turned their children into immortality symbols, who take their children’s reversals the hardest:

“An immortality symbol is not really about the thing [but] the glory the thing bestows on me…. Why do I feel so blessed that my son has the best batting average on his Park District team for a handful of spring games? ... Successful children are the ultimate glory…. Children level the playing field. Whether from blue money or new money or no money, each child represents real potential for glory in the here and now. They are the ultimate extension of ourselves.” (David Goetz, Death by Suburb)

I write this in repentance for my family egotism. I thought I was immune to it. I thought I knew better. But then I lived and died with every plot twist in our oldest child’s freshman college experience. It was exhausting. Finally, I realized: I’ve made an idol of his success. Idolatry goes beyond normal care and concerns to I need to be able to glory in you. I’m just now getting honest with myself about this.

Forsake was the watchword when Israel of old was flush with idols. We rightly tell our kids we’ll never forsake them. They need that unconditional security. But they also need to know we’ll forsake idolizing them.

From the moment we become parents we live the rest of our lives in relation to our children. A memorable scene in the movie Parenthood comes when the family patriarch realizes this. He’s asking one of his grown sons what he should do about the trouble another grown son is in. “I’m 64,” he says. “There is no end zone [in parenting]. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball, and do your touchdown dance.”

Even over the fullness of our lifespan the children remain partial creatures, to recall Gilkey’s point. They are part of us. They are part uspart Mom and part Dad. But they don’t ultimately define us. They are made for glory, those born to us, being made in the image and likeness of their Creator, but they cannot bear the weight of their procreators glorying in them. Glory in Christ, in whom is all the fullness of God, forever blessed. Amen.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:32 PM
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