From time to time, parents or grandparents tell me that they retired early so they could spend time with their children and grandchildren. But after a while, I often hear the same people tell me that their children and grandchildren are involved in so many things that they do not have time for them. One person recently told me that they traveled to visit their teenage grandchildren. They had a nice time, but their grandchildren spent most of their time in their rooms with friends and phones. They waved happily to their grandparents as they came into the house or as they left, but didn’t spend much time with them.
In the late 1970s, Harry Chapin penned the classic song Cat’s in the Cradle. It tells the story of a father who cannot find time to spend with his son. When the father retires, he finally has time to spend with his son, but the son cannot find time for his father. The conclusion of the song is that the boy has grown up to be exactly like his father: they both missed the opportunity to make their relationships a priority. I learned from that song and when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, my daughters would often come to my desk to ask if we could go out and play. My dissertation could wait (that is why the program took me ten years), but my children could not. They were growing up too fast and the rule was that I could always stop my work and play with them for 15 or 20 minutes.
Our four daughters have all grown up and left their parents’ house. Three of them are married and one is in graduate school. We live one hour, two hours, or six hours away from them, but we are no longer in the same house. When all of the children and their spouses and kids come to our house, our number increases to 13. As we decide who will sleep where, I remember that we had just two bedrooms and a kitchen in my childhood home. Our family had two parents, four children, a grandmother, two great-grandmothers, and visiting aunts and cousins. Most of the children slept together in the guest room, the parents had their room with the youngest children, and the grandmothers and great-grandmothers preferred to sleep in the kitchen, since it was the warmest room in the fall and winter. We also had a summer kitchen, which sometimes become another bedroom for additional guests. My parents made it a priority to welcome people into our home, even though we did not have a large house. My wife and I have tried to do the same, welcoming family members, friends, and colleagues to stay in our home.
When I traveled with my second daughter to London, I had to accompany her on the London Eye because she was too young to go on by herself. When she came back home, she told her sisters that I turned white as a ghost. My children had no idea until that day that I was afraid of heights—I went on roller coasters and scary rides with my kids because they wanted me to ride with them.
I also made it a priority to visit my children in college at least once a month. I made trips to Washington, D.C., Madison, NJ, and Philadelphia. I had breakfast once a week with my youngest because she was taking undergraduate classes at the same school where I taught seminary classes. Some of my colleagues commented that their children would not want to be seen at their school with their fathers or mothers, and they were envious of the relationship I had with my children.
Prioritizing my family was not something that came to me naturally; it was something I inherited from my father and learned to do as my children grew. When I started first grade, my father told me that whenever I needed him in school or I needed to have time with him, he would be there. He lived out that promise because his children were his priority. We may not have had many things and we were among the poorer people in our village, but we had our parents all the time.