He’s a squirmy one, he is. If I don’t watch him, he’ll wriggle off the bed. But he doesn’t want to. He’s enjoying the tickle fight too much. I can’t blame him. Those giggles make this father’s heart want to leap out of my chest. I wonder how long this laugh will last.
Reflect on the tickle fight with me. See the layers of reality at work.
Triune Joy in Our Little Home
On the surface: an adult male and a one-year-old of the species, smiles, laughter, darting fingers, kicking legs, squeals, deep breaths, rapid kisses on the neck, raspberries on the belly, and did I mention the laughter?
Beneath the surface: emotional bonding, fatherly affection, wide-eyed childhood delight. A contribution to the child’s sense of safety and security in the world. Perhaps he’ll be “well-adjusted” (or at least better adjusted). This will, no doubt, help him on his standardized tests.
Beneath and in and through it all, Trinitarian fullness is being extended. The Joy that made the mountains is concentrated in my home. Fatherly delight is at the heart of reality. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” It plays on a looping tape in the back of my mind. Thus sayeth the Lord to his Son. Thus sayeth the Lord to all of his sons that are in the Son.
Tickle Fights Are High Theology
This is the pitch of fatherhood. This is the melody line of motherhood. This ought to be the dominant note in the familial symphony. Delight, Pleasure, Joy. This tickle fight is high theology. This scene is a picture, a parable of a glory that existed before the world did. It’s a display and an invitation. Father and son are being beckoned into the divine life and joy.
Only I will remember it distinctly. The scene will pass through my son’s mind and out of his memory. And yet, in a sense, it’s the most spiritual thing I can do for him. My delight and pleasure in him can leave a mark on him that will outlive the sun.
“Father,” I pray, taking a breath in the war of laughter to go directly to God, “make it so.”
How to Be His Smile
This is our fundamental calling as parents — to be the smile of God to our children. We are charged by God to bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. God himself has commanded us to communicate to our children what he is like. And God is fundamentally a Happy Father, a Well-Pleased Parent. And just as the Father communicates his delight in his Son through his words and deeds and demeanor and presence, so also should we. Four suggestions for starters:
1) Be thrilled about what they are thrilled about. Join them in their joy, however simple and childlike. Whether it’s drawing a stick figure or building a castle out of blocks, be lavish with your “well-dones” and “good jobs.” Find the good and the glory in everything they do. When they pull out the pots and pans, and turn them into drums, there is imagination and creativity to rejoice in.
2) Recognize that an atmosphere of joy and delight is the only environment in which discipline is safe and good. Sin poisons the gladness of a godly home and breaks the fellowship of the family. Wise discipline quickly sets things right — clear explanations, swift discipline (whether spanking or otherwise), sincere repentance, prayerful repentance, and then restoration of the sweet gladness of fellowship.
3) Remember that the main way they experience joy is through laughter and play. Fun is joy in kid form. There are more complex joys that come with increasing maturity. But the only way that they will grow into them is if they are well-acquainted with the simple pleasures of play. So be a good missionary and contextualize. Translate joy into their language. This doesn’t mean that you should stay shallow or trivial. It does mean that family devotions ought to be marked by gladness and delight, by bright eyes, loud singing, and manifest affection. And if a tickle fight should happen to break out every now and then, count yourself blessed and see it as success.
4) Make the most of temporary separations and reunions. Communicate your pleasure in them as you leave and your excitement when you return. Leave with laughter and come home happy. Let the exuberance in your voice and the warmth of your smile and the brightness of your eyes reveal to them the God who joyously sings over his people, the father who runs to his son when he sees him on the horizon.
And so again, to all moms and dads, embrace the joy of your calling. Your Father is smiling on you. So be the smile of God to your children.