Fascinating to me that my son, almost 20 months old, has just gone through the first stage of development (according to Erik Erikson), Trust vs. Mistrust. What’s so fascinating — and poignant — is how a child at this (st)age has learned that the mother’s face is not always present, and so in a defensive posture, an ego is formed that separates the child from his environment so that the negation is manageable. The poignant part is how William is constantly repeating the names he’s come up with for his various caretakers other than Mommy: Poppy, Sissy, Amma, Appa and so on, as if to say to himself and those around him, “Look, I have other people in the world, who I can count on one hand, who I can trust. Isn’t that great? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” He says it almost in desperation, but also in celebration. It’s that tension we’re all familiar with, called being human.
It’s all a response to the loss of the Face, according to Jim Loder in his book “The Logic of Transformation.” Jim was my friend, professor, and mentor at Princeton Seminary, and my erstwhile spiritual guide. We met regularly over the course of 5-6 years and had many, many deep discussions about such matters, and I am forever indebted to him for making the whole business of parenting so much more interesting.
I remember the best piece of advice I ever got from Jim, which he said to a small group of us who were taking a doctoral seminar of his back in the early 90s on Jean Piaget. Never tell a child you love him or her after they’ve done something good, he told us. You can tell them you’re proud of them, "Job well done!", etc, but never tell them at that point that you love them, lest they begin to believe that they are loved for what they do rather than for who they are. Instead, tell them you love them at the most innocuous moments, like when they’ve just walked in from the back yard to grab a snack, or when they’re ready to go to bed, or they’re in the back seat on the way home from your picking them up at school. If you do this, they’ll learn, slowly but surely, that they are loved for who they are. And in the end, isn’t that essentially what it’s all about?
And so little William, having graduated from this first stage ready to be transformed yet again, slowly and painfully, into the image of Christ (the telos of all Christians), repeats over and over again the names of his ohana, of his people, his family, his tribe, somewhat in desperation but also in celebration of his growing sense of a growing reality. God bless him, and may little Will, as he moves through the years, be able to repeat those names in a growing sense of celebration, again and again, forever.