Most adults who spend their childhood with parents in powerful positions know that it comes with a combination of perks and unforeseen challenges, some which leave lasting scars. Growing up in a spotlight, no matter how big or small, shapes who we are as adults. And whether right or wrong, it’s the others in a person’s community that shape the experience that helps form the people we eventually become.
For me, the experience of growing up with a father who took on a variety of roles in our church body was a mixed one, often dependent on the position at the time and my personal proximity to whatever church he was serving. It was also what convinced me that the closest I ever wanted to get to putting my own children into that situation was by my work as a high school teacher, far removed from the actual inner workings of whatever congregation we chose to be a part of.
Let’s just say that I didn’t come out of childhood completely unscathed.
While my dad didn’t become a pastor until I was well into my 30s, throughout my adolescence he served in two different congregations as both school principal (for the churches’ parochial schools) and in directing the different Biblical educational opportunities for members. I was essentially a pastor’s kid before I actually became a pastor’s kid once I was an adult. The family business was the church, my mom playing organ many Sundays, my dad leading Bible class and assisting with services, and my sisters and I dutifully going to Sunday School and youth group and leading with our knowledge and behavioral example.
During those years I desperately wanted to just be a normal kid without the eyes and ears of members watching my every move. I wanted my peers to see me as a faithful Christian with hopes and dreams and yes, flaws. I didn’t want them to be afraid that I would judge them or tell on them for being teenagers. I wanted them to see me as one of them, not a “goody-two-shoes” that they had to behave around. I wanted to be allowed to swear–just once or twice–because I had done something stupid like drop a book on my toe. I didn’t want to be “bad”; I just wanted to be normal.
But I also wanted to protect my father from any reason to question his faithfulness to God or ability to do his job. I didn’t want people to see my screw-ups as his screw-ups. I was a good kid who didn’t want to disappoint my parents by making his job more difficult. I wanted people to judge my father by the job he was doing, not by what I was doing.
I finally came to the conclusion that it’s no wonder there is a stereotype of pastor’s kids, as there are stereotypes for many children with parents in authoritative positions. Children don’t get to choose their parents and they don’t get to choose their parent’s job. Rebellion is the one thing they can control.
There’s a kind of unrelenting pressure that comes from being a kid with a parent who is in a position of authority. It isn’t just that you are expected to act a certain way, it’s the other stress that naturally goes with a job in which you can’t make everyone happy. Children absorb the criticisms directed towards their parents. It doesn’t matter how well parents try to shield their offspring from the uglier parts of their jobs, kids are observant little sponges, well aware of changes in mood and temperament. When they notice hushed conversations their little detective ears perk up, desperate to understand what is causing Mom and Dad so much worry. They hear what others say about their parents, sometimes from the mouths of their own peers. They are not oblivious to the challenges of the job.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I even realized that three presidential children–Chelsea Clinton and Jenna and Barbara Bush–would have been my peers if we had gone to college together. But as I got older and started noticing them going through many of the same life changes as me, I considered what their lives must have been like. What would it have been like to see your parents’ marriage challenged in front of the nation? What would it have been like to see your father struggle through the decision to go to war and then attend classes with people who were vocally opposed to that decision? What would it have been like to go to college with all of the challenges of growing up and learning how to be an adult under the careful watch of both the Secret Service and every national news outlet?
It’s a miracle they turned out to be the intelligent and balanced women that they are today.
Now that I’m a parent, I’m constantly considering how my choices might affect my own children. Honestly, I don’t always like what I see. Over the years I’ve been embarrassed by my kids just being kids in church, convinced that people were watching how a Christian high school teacher’s children were behaving. Instead of just letting them roam free at basketball and football games, I’ve wanted to make sure they were “staying out of trouble.” And while our disciplinary issues at school have been minimal, I wondered what second grade teachers were saying about me when my son got in trouble for repeating a profanity on the playground.
And they aren’t even old enough to be with me at the same school, where the pressures to perform will be on all of us.
I have to consistently remember that my kids have to be allowed to be their own selves. I know this as they will eventually attend the same school I teach at. I know this as I pursue my own writing. I know this as someone who spent most of her adolescence struggling with finding my own identity separate from my dad’s position.
Our children don’t get to choose the childhood we’ve given them. Let’s at least give them the freedom to find their way through that childhood.
Sarah is a high school English teacher, yearbook adviser, wife to an amazingly supportive husband, and mom to two quickly growing kiddos. When she’s not working to balance life as a working mom, she uses this space to write about the wonderful complexities of life as a wife, mother, and teacher, as well as her family’s camping adventures whenever they can get out of town.
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