Reaching The Empty Child
December 6, 2009
Parenting would be a lot easier if kids weren’t so good at hiding things from us. But they are masters at it, and since it’s our job to help protect them from bad decisions until they are old enough to know better, we need to be on the lookout for warning flags. Unfortunately, this job begins as soon as they realize that other people (us, for example) exist independently and have agendas that differ from theirs. That’s when many of the dear little angels start lying to get what they want. This parental vigilance lasts until we give up or they’re on their own.
When young, these hidden things are usually pretty minor. It is hard for them to hide breaking something or stealing someone’s crayons. But as they get older, they get better at it, opportunities and means expand, and often the consequences of their actions ratchet up. In today’s society, with mandatory sentencing and zero tolerance policies, the stakes can get high very fast. I know friends who had no idea that their kids had become involved in drugs or theft, and what started out as a thrill suddenly turned into a police record. Sometimes they hide things a lot more dangerous than we can imagine. What can conscientious parents do to minimize the chances of something happening to their kids?
My worst nightmare came on December 10, 2003, when my wife and younger son were murdered, only to learn three days later that my surviving son Bart was under suspicion for having arranged the shootings. I have spent the last five years looking back, wondering why this had happened and if there was something I could have done or seen to prevent it. Here is what I learned; perhaps there is something there for all parents.
Bart has now told me that from an early age he felt different. He was extremely smart, and realized that others had emotions and feelings that did not exist for him, but which he could recognize and copy. Everyone else had an inner “self” that was their core essence, but when he looked inside, he found nothing there. He was empty. It terrified him, and he hated it, feeling that he was somehow damaged and not worthy of our love. Afraid to tell us, he hid his shame behind a mask that he created by observing how others reacted to life. He truly believed that if anyone ever discovered the truth they would be as repulsed as he was with himself. Our acts of love caused him inner pain because he believed that our love was directed at someone (his persona) that didn’t exist, and that we could never love the real Bart. Keeping everyone fooled was an act of survival for him. Eventually the pressure morphed into a desire to be rid of the people who had the best chance to see through his mask.
Parents today are watching for signs of drug use, gang involvement, or thrill crimes. But speaking all over the country I am amazed at the number of parents, youth leaders, and young people who tell me that this sense of emptiness and lack of identity is widespread within our youth. My story has helped many kids realize that they were not alone, and that there is help. And while I don’t expect them to reach Bart’s conclusion, the damage to family relationships is deep and wide. What can we do to face this threat? How can we break through to the child hiding behind that mask?
Looking back, I don’t think we ignored any flags. We were active in his life, deeply involved in his schooling, and were watching for signs of trouble. But there was one thing that I didn’t do that I now suggest to every parent: Early in life (and often) tell them that there is nothing that they can do that will make you stop loving them.
Though it seems obvious, don’t assume that your child understands that your love is unconditional. They cannot see life through mature eyes yet because they haven’t lived long enough, and youthful perceptions of reality are often way off. Look them in the eye and tell them that no matter what happens you will always love them, and although there may be serious consequences to their actions, and they may break your heart, one of those consequences is not going to be that you stop loving them. You will be there for them no matter what happens, and you want them to come to you with everything.
Two years ago I began telling my story publicly, and my first audience was a church. After I concluded, the pastor offered prayer for anyone needing it. Among those who found a counselor was a high school boy who told them that he was just like Bart. He also was empty inside, lived his life watching others react to things, and was ashamed and afraid. Listening to me describe Bart’s problem broke open his cage and gave him the courage to ask for help. The counselor called his father who weepingly told his son that he loved him and that they would fight this together and win.
As a result, a son learned the truth that his parents loved him no matter what, the parents discovered that their son had been hiding something that needed addressing, and the family became stronger by working together. Fear, shame, and self-loathing were exposed and defeated.
Even if your child has no such identity crisis, speaking openly of your unconditional love will strengthen your relationship. It might even expose other problems. It is scary growing up, and kids are very good at hiding things from parents. They need to know that they aren’t facing that challenge alone. Wouldn’t you rather have them come to you with problems before they become even more serious? The problem with masks is that sometimes they are very effective; as parents we have to convince our kids to leave them behind.
Copyright 2009 Kent Whitaker and Bigger Picture Ministries
Looking Past The Surface
December 6, 2009
Looking Past The Surface
Seeing How God Paints upon the Canvas of Tragedy
Consider three men:
Cruel, mercenary, and self centered, the slave trader didn’t have much use for mercy. His life was one decade after another of debauchery and disregard for others.
With a level of zealotry that even disturbed his friends, this religious radical was a deadly combination of intellect and dogged perseverance, with political connections and elite school ties that made him nearly untouchable. His life was a history of persecution and self-righteous cruelty.
Arrogant and lustful, this national leader hid dark secrets from his adoring public. But when his conspiracy to cover up murder and adultery was exposed, he had no place to hide.
These stories sound pretty sordid, don’t they? If we were to focus only on the surface details we would probably conclude that these three lives were too negative and raw for family Christian radio or television. Maybe Jerry Springer material, but hardly the sort of thing to share with moms taking kids to school. Who wants to focus on negative role models like these?
But as they say, sometimes you can’t judge a book by its cover. If we were to look beyond the surface story-lines we would see God doing some of His most powerful work.
The slave-trader had an encounter with Christ that turned his life upside down, which he immortalized in the hymn Amazing Grace. The religious fanatic had an encounter with Christ that spun his life 180 degrees, making him a friend of those he had persecuted, evangelizing the gentile world, and writing much of the New Testament. The murderous despot publicly asked for forgiveness and went on to become Israel’s greatest king, with a direct lineage to the Messiah. As these stories show, it’s dangerous to assume that horrible headlines tell us everything. Sometimes the awful framework of a story is placed there to support God’s miracles that are waiting, just around the corner.
Such is my story. On the surface, the nationally reported tragedy of my older son arranging the murders of his mother and younger brother, and his subsequent sentencing to death in a Texas court room sound like something that the Christian media should avoid. It is just too negative a story, even though I survived the attempt. But if the murders are all you see then you are missing the real story: the amazing work that God continues to do through the ripples of that nightmare.
On the night of the shootings, days before I learned that my son would become a suspect for having arranged the murders, I wrestled with my faith. I couldn’t see how God could take Romans 8:28 and work this tragedy for good, even though the Bible promised it; from a human perspective I wondered if God was a liar. But I knew that faith is an act of will power: trusting when it doesn’t make sense; and I knew I needed God with me now more than ever before. Once I chose to trust Him, even when it made no human sense, He began a series of events that would lead to my son’s redemption. He not only made Romans 8:28 work for good in the broad sense (my story of forgiveness and God’s faithfulness have been featured on Oprah, 48 Hours Mystery, and 20/20), but He also made it apply directly to me. God gave me the greatest desire of my heart, which was that my family would be together in Heaven. In retrospect, I believe that my son was so in so deep that he probably would never even have had a chance of going there if God had not allowed the shootings to happen. The murders were the emotional sledge hammer that He used to crack open my son’s hard heart, and my display of forgiveness and faith was what He used to bring my son back to life.
This exposure by secular television has given me a national platform which would never have come if the crime and surface details had not been so horrid. The media was attracted to the story’s sensationalism and my forgiveness, without understanding why. But this has allowed me to speak the Christian message of God’s faithfulness to millions of people from coast to coast. Lost souls harboring hate and bitterness in their heart have heard how God healed my desires for revenge towards the nameless, faceless gunman on the night of the shootings, long before my son fell under suspicion. They have heard of my trust in God’s word even when the Bible appeared to human eyes to have been a lie, and how God took that trust and worked miracles in my son. They have seen the healing I have experienced as a result of my forgiveness, and it gives them hope for their lives. He is using this story of horror and loss, of deception and hate, to encourage Christians and to reach those searching for meaning…just as He chose to do with John Newton, the Apostle Paul, and King David.
How could He use your story to encourage and reach others?
Copywrite Bigger Picture Ministries 2009