COMMENTARY: Children: A divine inheritance

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Samuel K. Atchison is an ordained minister and has worked as a policy analyst and social worker to the homeless. He currently is a prison chaplain in Trenton, N.J.)

(RNS)-"Children are a heritage from the Lord,"the Bible tells us,"a reward from Him."This instruction, expressed in Psalm 127, reminds us that our kids are to be seen as a divine bequest-a sign of God's favor.

Yet missing from the way most people treat their children these days is a vision of them as God's cherished inheritance. Why? There is little agreement between the home and the culture about what is best for the child.

We hear this complaint a lot these days-particularly from religious and social conservatives who believe a war is raging between the values expressed at home and the values enshrined in the larger culture.

But that kind of thinking is far too easy, because it suggests that"society"is to blame for the problems our kids face. It puts none of the burden on you and me.

The conflicts I see between family and culture are a function of our own inner conflicts, as families and individuals. We may try to teach what we know to be right at home, but we see expressed in our culture what we truly are.

All of us are aware of the problems inherent in teen-age sexuality, substance abuse and crime. Yet how many parents have the courage to make the connection between their children's sometimes alarming behavior-which is often a cry for help-and the instability of their own lives, including financial stress, emotional upheaval and marital discord?

The fact is, parental behavior has a greater impact on the lives of our children than anything else. The children of dysfunctional parents are likely to become the parents of dysfunctional children.

Looking for a less personal example? Consider smoking. Laws are being enacted that prohibit the sale of tobacco products to minors. Yet tobacco companies employ thousands of people-family people just like you and me-whose livelihoods depend upon the profits generated from these products.

And many of our cultural institutions, including museums and performing arts companies, receive large grants made possible through Big Tobacco's philanthropic largess. We may condemn tobacco, but we also benefit from it.

As the African proverb says, it takes an entire village to raise a child. But if our children are increasingly put in jeopardy by those within the village, then what is the benefit of the village to the child?

The truth is, we're all tainted. At the heart of this dichotomy between words and actions is what St. Paul described as a war within. "The thing that I want to do,"Paul says in his letter to the Romans,"is not the thing that I choose to do. ... The thing that I don't want to do is exactly the thing that I do." Obviously, if someone as formidable as St. Paul had problems with his character, the rest of us are in pretty bad shape as well.

But the Old Testament story of Hannah and the way she raised her son Samuel is an example from which we all can learn.

To be childless within biblical culture implied that God had withheld His favor. And the childless Hannah, like most of us, desperately wanted God's favor. So she promised that if God blessed her with a son, she and her husband would dedicate the boy to his service forever.

Like Hannah, all parents need to see their children as blessings from God. But many adults fail to recognize themselves as blessings from God. To the extent that parents can acknowledge that they, too, are recipients of God's blessing, their appreciation of their own children will increase as well.

Like Hannah and her husband, parents need to be in agreement on how to raise their children. And the culture needs to honor the parents' goals and assist them in their achievement.

Admittedly, this is the hard part. But our cultural institutions-our schools, for example-need to understand that when we entrust them with the responsibility of educating our little blessings, what we're really doing is entering into a partnership. And as parents, we are the senior partners.

The benefits of this approach are as apparent today as they were in the biblical story of Samuel.

As the child matured, he was recognized throughout his community as a prophet of God. His character was not questioned. He was focused and had direction. He was a man of strength and compassion, valued by his family and his community.

Our society's most troubled young people-and their equally troubled families-could learn much from Samuel's example.