IMMEL, TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES, climb up on the trampoline, and follow my instructions.”
The boy whom the gym teacher had chosen to help with the demonstration quickly untied his shoes, scrambled onto the trampoline, and stepped into the middle of the black circle. But then
a classmate giggled and yelled, “Check out the holes in Kimmel’s socks! Hey, you want to borrow some of my new ones? Or maybe we should take up a collection after class!”
“Knock it off!” the coach commanded, but the damage had already been done. Everyone laughed. The boy was so embarrassed he could hardly concentrate on his performance.
Behind the Scenes
Tim Kimmel came from a family that could barely keep up with middle-class status. To that point, he had agreed that the family’s plan of saving money by stretching out the clothing budget was a fairly good one. But while on that trampoline, the only things he could think about were his toes sticking out of his socks and the knot in his stomach.
When class was finally over and the boys were heading back to their classroom, somebody called out Tim’s name. It was his physical education teacher.
The teacher softly pulled him over into a little alcove and said, “Tim, I wanted to tell you why I chose you for the demonstration today. It’s because you are the most agile student in my class.” Then he took off one of his own tennis shoes. The tip of his sock had a pronounced hole in it, and two of his toes were sticking out. “Us agile guys are tough on socks,” the coach said, then put his shoe back on and sent the boy to class—a boy who now had high spirits and only one question on his mind: What is “agile”?
Tim Kimmel, who now holds a doctoral degree from Western Seminary and is author of the book Grace-Based Parenting,* relates this story as one of the most impressive memories of his childhood. He tells how he later found “agile” in a dictionary and learned for the first time in his life that he could “move with speed, ease, elegance, and liveliness” and that he was “mentally alert and quick-witted.” This discovery not only made his day but entirely changed the way he thought about himself.
Lessons for Today
I couldn’t help admiring the sensitivity, compassion, and insight shining out of the short speech of Kimmel’s teacher (who, Kimmel assumes, probably took a moment to make a hole in his sock before calling him over). He put himself into his student’s shoes—and socks—and effectively wiped away the stigma placed upon that awkward boy. He successfully turned an embarrassing symbol into something honorable.
Through Kimmel’s book I was reminded of how often children are belittled for something over which they have no control. It’s not their bad behavior or immoral choices that make them the target of ridicule or criticism, but simply their personal make-up or living situation. And it’s not always children who make fun of another’s unique personality, but also adults—parents, relatives, teachers—those who should be thoughtfully affirming them. Yes, children may be noisy, picky, messy, slow, forgetful, or oversensitive. And these behaviors can be annoying, frustrating, and even embarrassing. But let’s ask ourselves, Is there an ethical problem with being clumsy or inquisitive?
Grace-Based Parenting showed me something I believe, yet never fully explored: If we want our children to develop a sound self-concept, a strong sense of worth and security, we not only need to encourage them in their strengths but also accept their other unique characteristics—their nonmoral qualities—even if to us these qualities appear very strange. But how can we do this? The answer to this question became clearer to me after reflecting on three childhood memories that still amaze me in their simplicity and in their great impact on my life.
Three Lessons From Life
My mother is a very tidy and orderly person. She cares about aesthetics and is always neatly dressed. I inherited her love for art, but to put it mildly, it was rather freestyle. I can remember only a few incidences in my childhood when I cared about how I looked. Playing in the sand couldn’t get too messy or dirty for me. I would wear my T-shirts or pajamas inside out without even noticing. When I would come home from school, my mom needed only to glance my way and she would say, “Oh, so you had P.E. today.” She knew that because I wore my skirt with the back pockets on the front.
How did she respond to all this? Did she sigh, “Oh, you little sloppy thing, you’ll never be a lady!” No. Not once. If she had done that, I’m sure her words would have hurt me. I know that because years later one of my teenage friends would jokingly say, “You’ll have to marry a housekeeper because you’ll never manage to take care of a household by yourself.” And those words stuck. Somehow in my heart I believed her, and it took some time for me to find out I actually can be a good homemaker—and even enjoy it.
Yes, my mother did make an effort to teach me the degree of tidiness I needed for a satisfying existence. And I am sure today she would do many things differently from the way I do them. But what made me the strong person I am was her graceful acceptance of my personality—so strange to hers.
Another memorable incident took place when my dad had finally convinced my mom to begin a regular exercise program. They planned to go jogging 20 minutes twice a week. My sister seemed old enough and our neighborhood safe enough to leave the two of us without supervision for this short period. At 5 years old, however, I did not agree to this idea. I had no reasonable argument. I didn’t understand why I opposed this idea so strongly. All I knew was that they must not go, and I was serious about it. In fact, I was hysterical about it.
My parents tried to explain the situation very clearly to me—where they were going, why they were doing this—but they did not get the slightest understanding from me. They could have thought this was just some childish stubbornness that would be better to ignore. But instead, they lifted me up onto their laps and softly asked me questions.
“Something will happen to you and you will never come home again” was all I could whimper.
At some point in those conversations, however, they uncovered the unknown fear living deep down in my heart. Some weeks before that, I had learned about the existence of death, and I had not coped well with this discovery. My parents didn’t laugh at me or belittle my fear. Instead, they chose not to leave the house that day, but to go with me through the darkness in my spirit until I found light again.
What would have happened to my soul during those 20 minutes twice a week if my parents had not had the openness to accept my “dumb feelings”? Fortunately, I’ll never know.
The last memory I have seems almost insignificant at first. My sister and I had always been fascinated by the magic that happened between Mom and her sewing machine. The singing sound, the silent but busy movements, and the surprising results made us long to acquire this mystical skill. No wonder when Mom decided to teach my sister how to use a needle and thread to create a skirt for her doll, I wanted to join in.
My mother provided me with a piece of fabric and a large needle so I could practice—and I practiced vigorously. But when my sister’s piece was completed, my cloth was stitched tightly into an unidentifiable tangle. I was very young then, but I was smart enough to realize I had totally messed up my first sewing attempt. Every time I think of it now, I can’t help laughing out loud. It must have looked hilarious!
But my mother didn’t laugh (at least not out loud). I remember her asking me what I had produced. “This is a ball for my stuffed dog,” I said. Wasn’t my answer a creative one?
But much more important, wasn’t my mother’s reaction a graceful one? She didn’t show me any sign of ridicule. I never heard her tell her friends about my amusing product. She took me seriously and protected my dignity, even when I had doubts of my own. And doubts can begin early in a young heart.
Will our children have stories like these to tell? Let’s ask God to show us the beauty of their personalities and the softness of their vulnerable souls. And let’s embrace them with His grace.
*Tim Kimmel, Grace-Based Parenting (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2004).
Judith Fockner wrote this while studying for a master’s degree in Religious Education at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.