Well, now I’m a parent with a child of my own. And you know what? I don’t feel that much differently. I’m amazed at what my little girl is doing, but I’m not the slightest bit fooled into thinking she’s somehow special compared to other kids. Does it impress me that she can track my voice from across the room and isn’t fooled when she looks at a reflection of me in the mirror? Sure. But she can’t walk and she can’t feed or clean herself. These facts could be used to argue that the neighbor’s cat is smarter than my baby.
Of course, my little girl is only five months old. It’s normal for a five-month old to be unable to do these things. If she were five years old and couldn’t walk or feed herself, well, we’d be worried. But developmentally, my daughter is exactly where she’s supposed to be. She’s normal. Or, put another way, average. Yes, she impresses me every day, but it’s not because she’s different than other children. It’s because I’m amazed to watch the process of human development occur before my very eyes. (Okay, I will allow myself to claim my daughter’s uniqueness in one aspect: she is unbearably cute. Way cuter than other kids, including yours.)
In our culture, every child is so special. “You can do anything you want!” we tell our kids. “You are so special and unique and if you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you imagine!” This is great to hear – I heard this message in many forms myself. But it’s also not true.
I’ve been recently reading the book of Ecclesiastes. Lovely stuff. “The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this is also vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten…” (Eccl. 2:14-16b, NRSV). As if that wasn’t cheerful enough for you, the writer goes on: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity” (Eccl. 2:18-19).
Vanity. This isn’t the best translation of the Hebrew word hebel, although that’s how King James had it translated. Sixteenth century English probably understood the concept of vanity a little closer to the Hebrew. This word in the Hebrew is literally translated as “vapor.” As in, “This also is vapor.” Meaning, insubstantial and impossible to grasp, or absurd. The NIV translates it as “meaningless.” But I like recapturing the word “vanity” using our current definition: according to Webster’s, “excessive pride.”
It is vain of us to think that what we do has cosmic significance. It is excessively prideful for us to get caught up in our toil and our wisdom so as to think that we are special. As the teacher in Ecclesiastes says, the same fate befalls the wise and the foolish: we all die. And when we die, everything we may have accomplished gets handed over to someone else, who will eventually squander it. And long after we’re dead, no one will remember us.
There’s a sobering thought. Part of what has wrinkled my brain as a parent is the thought that my child has become my new legacy. That when I die, I will be leaving behind this other person. She will carry on my memory and even after I’ve gone, people will see me in her. But even if that’s really true, my beautiful daughter will also die one day. And whatever she accomplishes, just like whatever I accomplish, will disappear. Neither I nor my child are going to change the world.
And you know what? That’s fine. That’s perfectly okay. The words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: “I know that there is nothing better than for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this so that all should stand in awe before him” (Eccl. 3:12-14). I don’t know about you, but hearing that I’m not going to be able to change the world – or raise a child who will change the world – really takes the pressure off. Who cares what percentile of whatever bullshit classification my daughter falls into? I love her. She’s the light of my world and I wish I could spend every moment with her. I’m happy with her, and she’s happy at home with me and her mother, and that is what is truly special. This is the gift God has given human beings: that in our finitude we are free to enjoy one another. We don’t have to get hung up on our achievements or wealth or accomplishments, because what good is that? That’s vanity; empty, vaporous, meaningless vanity. What is real is that I enjoy being a parent to this wonderful person who has touched my life.
That, of course, is the rub. My daughter is special to me. Sorry, but my kid means more to me than your kid. That’s ultimately what we mean when we get into pissing matches with other parents about how great our kids are. And I think that’s a fine way to feel. Biologically, it makes for good evolutionary process; if my child weren’t that important to me, I wouldn’t care for her and the species would die out. But what is missing is the recognition that it works the other way: my child’s specialness is mostly limited to me and her mother (and her grandparents, those amazing creatures who have passed over the specialness they once felt for their children now that they have a grandchild).
So does this mean I’m not going to praise my child? May it not be so! I mean, for the love, I praise her when she takes a crap. But I’m going to try not to get caught up in the vanity of thinking that my child is somehow better or smarter or more gifted or more special than other kids. In the scheme of things, we’re all pretty insignificant. We stand in awe before God, who in the strange mystery of his love, finds us special enough to care about us and want good things for us. But let’s not get too big for our breeches. Or feed our kids so much undeserved praise that they get too big for their jumpers.
I love my beautiful little girl so much. She is unquestionably special to me. But I can really let out a sigh of relief that I don’t need to feel pressured into raising a kid who is the smartest, sharpest, most… well, anything. All I have to do is love her, teach her about God’s amazing love, show her how to give that love to others, and enjoy her. In two-hundred years, if no one remembers me or my little girl, so what? In the days I have left I will stand in awe of the gift God has given me in this beautiful child and enjoy the work of being her father.