Thursday, June 7, 2012

Puff the Magic Dragon and Other Things I Forgot to Teach My Child

Peter, Paul and Mary
A few weeks ago as I was putting my son to bed and singing him my regular repertoire of bedtime songs, I suggested that we throw some new ones into the mix, just to keep it interesting after seven years. (It is my fervent prayer that 8 year old boys do not need to be sung to sleep).
I casually said, “How about Puff the Magic Dragon?”  To which he replied, “I don’t know that one.” As I sang it to him, I began to wonder what else I had forgotten to teach him.
I have no memory of learning Puff the Magic Dragon. It was just part of my childhood. I am positive that my parents never sat me down to teach me the song, but I do remember singing it together as a family at home.
I am sure that we sang it around the fire at summer camp, and I remember leading children in singing it at that same camp when I was on staff there while in college. I even remember attending a Peter, Paul and Mary concert with my parents as a child, and have combined into one memory all of the times I ever heard them sing it during a PBS special.
There was something very unique about the era in which I was raised, by pre-baby-boom folk-music-listening parents in the late 70’s and 80’s (a phenomenon that turned me into a teenager with a passion for Paul Simon and the Indigo Girls).
There is a lesson in this bedtime story that can be applied to how we teach our children the songs, stories and traditions of our faith.
The era in which I was nurtured within the church was also unique, and though we didn’t know it then, it was the end of that particular time in history. It was a time when the church didn’t have as many competitors vying for our time and attention as families. It was a time when it seemed perfectly reasonable to spend Saturday AND Sunday morning at church. It was a time when children were expected to be able to sit through an entire worship service.
It’s not that my parents didn’t have a hand in teaching me the Christian faith and practices. But let’s be honest: the world made it pretty easy for them. All we had to do as a family was show up – and there weren’t many other places we needed to be.
I learned faith and the Bible just like I learned folk music. I was immersed in it. Not drowned by it, just surrounded by it. I couldn’t help but learn it.
Even as a pastor I sometimes forget that I am not raising my child in that world. There are so many things I know about church and the Bible that I have no memory of learning. I forget that while for me these things simply became second nature, for my child they are more like a second language.
It wasn’t that I had no interest in teaching my son Puff the Magic Dragon, or that I didn’t think it was important. I just failed to notice that no one had taught it to him yet. His grandparents could have passed it on to him as they did to me; it could have been on a children’s folk music CD that someone gave him as a gift; he could have sung it in preschool or kindergarten. He might have learned the song in any number of ways. But he didn’t. I had to intentionally teach it to him.
I often hear parents in my very traditional mainline congregation say that they like our church because it feels so much like the church in which they were raised. That’s what I love about it as well. The problem is, while it feels like we are raising our children in the same church, we are raising them in a different world.
We can look back on our own childhoods and think that we are doing the same positive things that our parents did, but often we fail to notice two things:
·         First, the things that they did intentionally - like actually get our little butts in the “pew” every week.

·         Second, the things that they didn’t have to give a second thought to, but which we as 21st century parents have to be much more intentional about – like teaching our children the stories and literature of the Bible, not just assuming they will learn them somewhere else.
I plan to spend more time taking inventory of what my son knows. Not quizzing him about the Bible or about church (or about folk music either), but just engaging him in conversations that will often start with “Have I ever told you…?”
It should make for some wonderful bedtime stories.
What are some of the things that you have intentionally taught your child or even some that you plan to teach them?


  1. "Immersed in the Bible" was also a phrase I just heard Tony Campolo use at the Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity Conference in DC. His presentation was a letter to his grandchildren and he lamented (maybe that's too strong of a word) that this "immersion" is no longer common. He recognized it was a strong part of who he is as a Christian. Interesting that you should bring that up too. As always, very wise words Rebecca!

    1. Thanks Liz! Good to know Tony and I are on the same page. ;)I am continually inspired by his willingness to speak hard truths in love.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection - so accurate and interesting. I could relate so well!

  3. My daughter just started Grad School and had the traditional first day "get to know each other" activities. She said she could tell which ones had been to church camp because they knew how to play the games and what to say. "They had a confidence in themselves and a sense of fun...others seemed lost and nervous." When I helped lead Youth Group, we would point out good things to share in those kinds of games...long after we had all gotten to know each other. There will always be new people to meet. Thanks for your post!