Them bones

I had a great conversation the other day with someone dear to us about the impact our communities have on who our kids become. He was arguing that the community itself plays a much greater role than the parents: something I am not sure I believe. In light of this, he was describing their struggle as a family in choosing the right place to raise their child.

My parents bought the house we grew up in largely because its location put us inside what was, at the time, “the great school district.” But the more I talk to people, the greater skepticism I hear about public schools anywhere, and those once uniform communities where those “great” schools most often were have evolved and now deal with what used to be considered only “urban” issues like gangs and weapons and drugs.

As I thought about this, and considered the increasing shift of poverty from the urban to the suburban, I wondered: where are those places that are “safe” or “good” enough? And I genuinely don’t say that to be condescending or judgmental. What I am seeing among my generation is many parents who are drawing tighter and tighter perimeters around their children. Homeschooling is a flourishing example of this (I know that people homeschool for a variety of reasons, and I respect and support my friends who make this choice). Likewise I have seen people leave churches that are not providing programming (or peers) that are suitable. And it all makes me wonder: how much can (and should) we as parents rightly control?

Two blog posts I read in the last year remind me of the different sides to this: both from Christians, one was written with a kind of “hell yeah, my job is to shelter my kids–that’s called being a parent”, while the other dealt with the more subtle enemies present in homogeneous Christian subcultures, asking the question: “is the unseen enemy not the more dangerous?” And then of course there was Al Mohler recently declaring the need for an exit strategy, period, from public schools altogether.

There are so many levels to the conversations I hear among my peers about raising children today: what choices can be made to insure desired outcomes for education, character development, ambition, spirituality and faith? While I do not advocate a “one right way” to parent and choose where to live or how to educate your kids, I feel such a heavy blanket of anxiety covering so many of my peers when it comes to making these choices. And many of these questions remain unanswered for our family as well.

There is the friend who is sending her daughter to public school and crying every day because she feels such a great a mount of guilt for not homeschooling like many of her peers are doing. Or the friends who decided to only have one child because of how great the expense will be to educate her in a rigorous, private setting. Or the friend who lives where I grew up who fears sending her son to the public schools there because she is afraid of what he will learn. And the list goes on…

So while my generation desires all of this diversity and cares deeply about justice issues, the truth remains that when it comes to our children, we want every privilege we can possibly grasp for them, and any choice against that is unbearable. Just last night I read a blog that was new to me where the author writes about the ways his privilege has come at great cost to others. He uses the image of a mountain of bones to describe the ways others have been oppressed for the sake of his elevation. He writes: “Nevertheless, I’m trying to climb down this mountain to live at the lower heights. In all things I must place my spiritual kinship above ethnic ties and racial ties and even family ties. I don’t do this out of guilt, but because I honestly believe that I can experience more of the Kingdom this way, and experience more of Jesus this way.”

I think this perspective is exceptionally rare: not in the expression of that set of ideals but in the flesh of choosing the costs of living them out.

One of my kids’ favorite movies is Land Before Time. In the movie, the mommy long-neck dinosaur gives her life to protect her baby from a T-Rex. With this example, I have told Mercy and Aaron that mommies always protect their babies. It has proven useful when I set a limit or require something that is unpopular: “What do mommies have to do?” I ask. “Protect their babies!” they answer in unison, and are usually willing to comply.

And that is what I am left with in this discussion: some threats to our kids are clear. I write often enough here of those kind. Others are much less so. Self-absorption, depression, self-mutilation, rampant sexual activity, materialism: these are the blights of the privileged. And if my friend is right, then our job of discerning the greater threats will make all the difference.

I think too of that verse about losing your soul in the process of gaining everything else the world has to offer, and I think about that great school or the community that will best influence our kids and wonder sincerely how we make that call: when is it a gain and when a loss? Surrounded by competing values, which will we elevate? I think most of us think that as long as our church youth group does some nice missions work; as long as we do an international trip together as a family; as long as we are “enlightened” about issues of race and justice in our country then we are renouncing that prized spot atop all of those bones. But take away a privilege for our kids? We’ll step and scramble our way right back up all of those skulls.


  1. I am a mentor teacher for preschool and kindergarten teachers in the public schools in North Minneapolis, where we live and also serve a local church. It is so easy for me to work in the schools, support teachers, and encourage the parents, but then I consider where I want my girls to go to school. I really want to send them to one of these schools – a diverse neighborhood school – but I know the struggles that these schools are experiencing – low test scores, poor behavior, racism. Although I have a few years before I need to make a final decision – I often worry about how she may be influenced – what threats she may experience and what values may be elevated. Perhaps she may not adequately challenged. However, at this point, I pray that she will love learning with the neighborhood children in our community and continue to be the sweet little girl – and light – I know her to be. I recently read an article about how many parents speak out against racism in the school system, but when it comes to their own children – they want them to get the spots for accelerated programs, gifted schools, or opportunities to be in the top of the class, they push for their own children forgetting the values that they profess in public. I guess we take one day at a time and listen and watch our children as they begin to venture out into the world – and at the same time continue to be advocates for all children.

  2. hence my struggle. it’s way harder to detach when you’re actually benefitting from the privilege. in actuality, i think most people feel that way. most people, rich or poor are reaching for more stuff, privilege, protection, whatever. so even when the privilege isn’t within your grasp, you still want it and wouldn’t let go of it if you had it. it’s the american dream, right? like you said, it’s a very rare perspective that actually pursues being rid of the privilege. i don’t want to just “be enlightened,” etc., but in all honesty, i’m not sure of the steps to take to make it a reality. we get stuck in the gray foggy-ness of good hearted reasons to keep things the way they are. it seems to me, the problem is fear on all counts. fear of not giving your kid the best experience, fear of other’s disapproval if you don’t homeschool, do things a certain way, etc., fear of what would happen if you lived somewhere else, fear of losing control, and fear of your kid NOT having privilege. why is it so impossible to relax? no kidding the rich man left and didn’t follow Jesus. it’s so hard to let that stuff go. it’s not just money. it’s life as you know it.

  3. Sarah and Patty,

    I so appreciate both of you sharing your own struggle/journey with this. I am with you in the “not having it all figured out” category for sure, and I think it does us all well to name the issues and be honest about them. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  4. Erika,
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this issue! I’m a young woman who is a first year intern with Servant Partners (a group that does holistic church planting work with urban poor communities, for any blog readers unfamiliar with them), and as God has been slowly transforming the ways I seek to live out justice, I’ve wondered a lot about what that means for any children I might have someday.
    I remember being impacted by a missionary couple in Manila who are raising their newborn in an urban slum, and who responded to this question by saying “well, in the Bible God gives more warnings about wealth than about poverty, so raising our son in the midst of poverty is probably less dangerous for him in terms of the eternal health of his soul than if we raised him in the middle of privilege.” Definitely gave me some food for thought!

  5. As far as the “not having it all figured out” piece….we won’t ever have it figured out. My oldest is in 6th grade now, and I still revisit the issues of where he should be going to school. (we changed schools just this year, actually.) These aren’t decisions that are made and then you’re done. A lot of things in parenting are like that….

    It’s a process; we’re all growing all the time, and what is best one year may not be another year. What’s best for my 6th grader may not be what my 3rd grader needs, or my 1st grader.

    It comes down to surrendering. God knows my children’s hearts better than I do, knows what happens in the classrooms, knows what they need, and has a beautiful plan for them. Of course i am constantly seeking Him for wisdom, but when it crosses that line into trying to take control….I have to remember these babes are really His.

  6. For me, the hardest question isn’t so much, “do I give my daughter privilege over poverty,” it’s, “how do I equip her to make the most difference in this broken world.”

    Okay, no, that’s the second hardest question. The first one is “how do I protect her from everything,” but since I already know that the answer to that question is “do your damned best when you have the chance and pray hard when you do not,” and since I know even more that protecting her can hurt her if we aren’t careful, I prefer to think about how she can be equipped to make a difference.

    And just a clarification: I think your “someone” wasn’t arguing that the community plays a much larger role than the parents–just that the community plays a much larger role than we’d like to think it does. Especially when our children are adolescents. And that “someone” loves you guys.

  7. Why no dads in the discussion? I guess I’m the gal pal here :^)

    For the sake of ministry we raised our daughter in inner city schools in LA and she just finished at Stanford.

    We spent a lot of time making sure she had a small core of good faculty and a small core of college bound students around her.

    We moved to Colorado partly because our younger adopted son really struggled in those same So Cal schools and we couldn’t afford on a teacher and missionary’s salary to live in a better school district. He’s still struggling here in solid schools but has a better chance to do well academically than he did.

    We spend a lot of time making sure he goes to class and has the confidence to get by in an academic environment.

    Jan and I haven’t experienced any easy answers. You play the cards you get dealt as faithfully as you can.

    I especially appreciated Julie’s take.

  8. Jeremysomeone 🙂 ,

    Thanks for the clarification about the community role vs. parental influence–I hadn’t understood that correctly when we talked.

    If we all just live together on our Oregon farm (so Amy and I can have our horses), then I think we should be fine 🙂

  9. Tom,

    I always appreciate hearing about your family’s experience since it does seem to debunk most people’s assumptions. It also illustrates what I firmly believe that what can work for one child may not necessarily work for another, and parents should act on behalf of their kids to remove obstacles and help them to succeed. I don’t know your son, but having known your daughter a bit, I can certainly attest to the intelligent, gifted, and generous woman she grew to be.

  10. Sorry Jeremy. If you look at our posting times you got in about a minute before I did (I’d guess it was probably seconds :^). Seems we were composing at the same time. I didn’t get a chance to read your comments before I posted. No disrespect intended. I really enjoy reading your comments along with the rest of your inspiring extended family.

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