[Postscript: My wife insists that I've painted a bad picture of our household by the way I've crafted my story below. It was never my intent to impress upon readers that our house is a bedlam or that our son runs the show. Our son is very well-behaved, but he's not perfect; he picks up his toys when we request it of him, and he goes to bed extremely well with nary a fight 99% of the time. The freedoms he enjoys is in large part due to the boundaries we place around him. And for the record, he's never broken a lamp...yet!]
Our home is not particularly messy. My wife keeps things clean, and I tend to keep things orderly. We have an upstairs, a downstairs, and a finished basement where we have an office/playroom and a living room where we hang out. We have two children, one of which who is a toddler, and he is very much on the go and exploring everything. Needless to say, there are toys and remnants of toys strewn throughout the house. And since toys are not sufficient enough to keep our little boy occupied forever, hair brushes, deodorant sticks, and other various everyday “stuff” is also around somewhere.
Tonight, I realized that I actually relish seeing a few things scattered throughout the house (most of the unkempt stuff is upstairs contained within three small bedrooms and a short hallway). Why? Because it is a sign of childhood freedom. My son has the freedom to play without fear of being chastised for every little deed. He has the freedom to go upstairs, downstairs, and he has the choice to play in whatever room he wishes. He’s a pretty safe guy, and understands his limitations (for the most part), and we’re sure to keep him alive.
As parents, we are very much aware of the distraction and burden of children; no matter how much we delight in them, enjoy them, and love them to death, they slow us down and cause us pain and irritation. Every now and then, returning them to the baby factory for a few hours would be the course of action were it actually an option.
As a parent, I’ve had to wake up to the cold, hard fact that children are not perfect. They make choices we don’t like. They make dangerous decisions, sometimes with dangerous consequences. They act deceitfully, perform deeds behind our backs, or trick us into believing they “accidentally” spilled the juice. In short, they create a world where we must accept their choices, good or bad, and live with them. We can choose to accept those choices, or we can try to stop every bad choice, prevent every bad fall, cover up all consequences, and consider them “too little to fail.” But that would not only deprive them of maturity and growth, it would be contrary to our responsibilities as parents and fellow human beings to respect their individuality. If they were made in God’s image, we must respect them as God’s image-bearers in the world, and delight in their unique ability to display God’s glory in ways that we cannot.
One of the reasons I don’t mind the toys strewn about the upstairs is that it reminds me of the vision of society I share with millions of other Americans. That vision is one where individuals run free, hindered only by their limitation to harm someone else. There are two competing visions of society——one in which individuals must be able to freely choose actions that benefit them without doing harm to another, and another in which some people are rightfully wiser than others and should arrange the rules in such a way that manage the rest of us. The former treats individuals with respect, believing their rights trump the rights of a “collective” or “common good.” The latter look at people collectively and treats them as part of a greater cause, dispensable if necessary to that cause. (For those of you who would try to reconcile these with a both/and response to my either/or proposition, remember that you cannot treat somebody as unique and an individual, then deny him his individual rights by claiming he is part of a greater cause and forcing him to give up his rights. You cannot reconcile contradictory themes.)
Those scattered toys remind me that living with the freedom to make choices is more important than engineering society in such a way that everything works out perfectly, fairly, equitably, and equally. I’m not God, I cannot guarantee those things; neither can any politician or president. I’d love for my son to put everything away exactly as he found it; I’d love it if he always went to bed without a fuss; I’d love it if he never threw the ball and broke the lamp. But I live in the real world, and in the real world the freedom to play is the freedom to make mistakes.