At 12:30 in the morning, I learned what a headache would sound like if it were translated into music. Just outside my sliding-glass balcony door, three repetitious notes blared in an endless loop, over the top of a deep, droning base, while an urban voice described unprintable scenarios with an occasional rhyme stapled onto the end of a phrase. This particular selection lasted for at least fifteen minutes, followed by another masterpiece of the same quality and length, and then another, and another.
On behalf of my road-weary wife, and me (the kids can sleep through anything), I called the hotel lobby and asked when we could count on the throbbing noise outside our door to cease. The very polite hotel representative informed me that “the loud music would stop by around two in the morning,” at which time it would be replaced by other party music until 4:00am. Then, “the party deck” would be shut down until the next day’s music began. I’m sorry sir, but this is Spring break.”
We had always wanted to take our family on a camping vacation near the legendary beaches of the Florida panhandle. And so, when our stay in my father-in-law’s time-share in Orlando expired on a Friday, we thought we might take a two hour detour and explore the Panama City, Florida area for a night and a day toward some future date when we might camp there. Come to find out, the hotel we selected had also been selected by MTV to film a Florida Spring Break episode. Talk about your cultural education! Who could have imagined that a family of school-aged kids should avoid Panama City Beach on Spring Break vacation? (Answer: almost everyone else but us).
At the time of our check-in, we noticed that, save for a five-by-five, cherry slow-gin-stained carpet by our bed, the rest of the room sported hard, hose-down-able surfaces. I don’t know how long I stood slack-jawed on our balcony with a “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” look on my face. Six stories down, around the pool, around the Jacuzzis, and on the dance floors, scores of college students were playing out various scenes from thirty years worth of National Lampoon movies. I slowly backed away from the balcony, and willed my gawking face back inside, lest my kids one day remember their dad as one of those parents who watched raunchy movies while constantly repeating, “That’s terrible!” “That’s terrible!”
The next day, I went out to the parking lot to gather up our beach accoutrements. On the way there, I saw a young man with something in his right hand that looked like an octopus, with a bucket replacing the cephalopod’s head, and six hoses in place of tentacles (i.e. a beer bong). In his left hand he juggled two twelve packs of Budweiser. Up ahead, I overheard a young adult man in a conversation with some very young co-eds offering them the opportunity to smoke some of his weed. As they passed, I took the opportunity to interrupt their walk. “Excuse me. I just spoke with your parents over the phone. They told me to tell you not to smoke pot while you’re here in Florida.” The girls laughed good-naturedly, while the boy assured me “It’s okay, I’m twenty-five.” At the pool, nineteen and twenty-year-old’s were gulping screwdriver’s at ten in the morning. I asked the security guard, who stood next to me, “I wonder what the emergency rooms are like in this area?” “Very, very busy!” was his response.
In this Sunday’s first reading (1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7, 10-13), the reader watched as Jesse’s son, David, was selected, anointed, and placed on Israel’s royal throne by the prophet, Saumuel. It occurs to me, that like Samuel in today’s first reading, a key role for a father is to bless his sons and daughters. In the unconditional love of a mature father, a child learns that he or she is royalty. With this sort of blessing, a child approaches the various developmental tasks of adolescence and young adulthood with a greater sense of confidence and resolve.
As a counselor, I regularly find myself in conversations with grown men and women who failed to secure their father’s blessing. In some cases, the blessing came with too many strings attached. In other cases, their fathers failed to receive an earlier blessing themselves. You can’t give what you haven’t received. A basic immaturity prevented them from passing a blessing along to their own children. In these families, an empty throne has been passed down from generation to generation.
The week before we left on our vacation, I discovered that my oldest children had down-loaded a page form a website entitled, “Signs of Bad Parenting.” As I examined this document, I noticed that six of them had been highlighted. A lengthy and difficult conversation revealed that my children wanted me to take “a hands off” approach to parenting. By their way of reckoning, I imposed too many strictures on their freedom. They were looking for a dad who was more peer-like. After fruitlessly describing my parenting philosophy, I agreed to try their approach as an experiment. When they asked if they could go out that Saturday night, I responded, “I don’t think it’s for me to respond to that question.” After three hours of living with another peer in the house, they both came to me and asked if we could return to the old way of doing business.
Through the prism of an MTV-style Spring-break vacation, I invited my two oldest kids (Lizzie was only six at the time) to revisit our conflict of a week earlier. All around us we viewed a landscape untouched by adult supervision. All around us, I pointed out various forms of landminds set out for college-aged people to step upon…many with potentially life-altering consequences. I wondered how many of the young men and women in the MTV Spring Break Hotel grew up with dads who were more peers than parents.
It seems to me that it takes two hands to deliver a father’s blessing. In the one hand, a paternal blessing provides his children delight and affection. This blessing is conferred each time a dad’s gaze says to his son or daughter, “You are the apple of my eye.” Such a blessing lays the groundwork for a deep sense of centeredness. Looked at through a developmental lens, it could be called, “attachment.” Looked at through a spiritual lens, it could be called, “pre-evangelization.” Fed on a consistent diet of unconditional love, it doesn’t take a Kierkegarian leap of faith to believe that the foundation of all reality is Love itself.
In the other hand, a father blesses his children with firm, rational, and predictable structure that includes consequences that make sense. This important ingredient helps them to uncover their inner-royalty by defining the field of choices (along with the rationale for those choices) from which they can select life-giving alternatives. One important way to provide a father’s blessing is to give them structure that they can occasionally rage against as they seek to clarify their own values.