Wiffle Ball, Parenting, and Child’s Play


Our back yard is almost too small for Wiffle ball, nevertheless we pull off epic games with the neighbor kids. The fences are close, so home runs are frequent. The base paths are short, so small-ball runs are just as frequent. The trees are big and plentiful, making fielding a challenge. To make the games move fast, and to limit scoring, I devise a laundry list of impromptu rules each weekend. For example, pulling the ball hard and hitting the neighbor’s house down the left field line is frowned upon — an automatic out. Three strikes are an out. Catching a ball after it has zigzagged down through tree branches, is an out. But each team is allowed only one out per half inning. Base runners are out if they get soaked (hit by the ball off base). Games end when the first team reaches 10 runs. Also, there’s one all-time pitcher who doubles as the umpire and scorekeeper (me). Etc.

I’ve set the rules to fit the small yard, and in setting these rules, I’ve also been able to make a fast-paced game.

This is the daily work of fatherhood.

One of the most unrelenting demands I feel in parenting is the agility required to move from, on the one hand, a dad who sets rules, to being a dad who enjoys and encourages play and fun. To only warn and set rules and punish violations is not healthy fathering. To only play is worse. To me it seems like both must be done well, and done frequently, leading to a sort of sanctified schizophrenia, calling for a personality that quickly bounces from warning to play and back to warning and then resuming play.

But there’s something of this back-and-forth in the nature of wisdom, taking Proverbs as one example. In Proverbs 8:22–31, Wisdom is personified as Yahweh’s child, playing at his feet. And as we see a child playing at the feet of her father, our imaginations enter into “Wisdom’s playhouse,” the phrase of William Brown in his book, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible.

Brown explains:

The bookends of Proverbs, chapters 1–9 and 31:10–31, have aimed at naturalizing Wisdom and lodging her within a domestic world that also embraces the larger community, the city, and, indeed, the cosmos. Unlike her archenemy, who is also competing over the son’s allegiance, Wisdom is the archetypal kin and friend (7:4). She is the spousal paradigm for his maturity. Wisdom’s ethos, more broadly, is familialized for a community constituted by justice, righteousness, and equity (1:3; cf. 28:11, 7, 9). . . .

As Wisdom’s play constitutes her mode of interaction with Creator and creation, so the moral self’s engagement with the world is informed by Wisdom’s recreation. The one who fears Yahweh is the one who exercises virtue, remaining in the secured and stable world of Wisdom’s ethos. “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous remains” (12:7).

Wisdom’s play is not carefree, for lack of restraint ushers in the fool’s demise (14:6), and lack of self-control is like a “city breached, without walls” (25:28). But neither is her play, and thus her follower’s, simply an act of subordination to the created order. To be sure, Wisdom is not an autonomous agent, an independent deity in her own right, but neither is she Yahweh’s slave. She is God’s playing child, not some static or abstract order. . . .

She is God’s prime witness and partner. Her ways are recreative within a relationship of reciprocity. Unleashing chaos is fool’s play (10:23), but wise conduct is literally “child’s play” to the discerning, both a calling and an avocation, the wellspring of joy and the way of integrity. As the irrepressible moral agent, Wisdom confers fervent life to the one who exercises virtue. (312–313)

In summary:

Wisdom’s engagement with her followers is recognized as play from a particular perspective. As the father enables the son to step back and witness the self-destructive conduct of his peers, however enticing and egalitarian their invitation may appear, Wisdom’s activity in and with the inhabited world is perceived as play from a cosmically comprehensive perspective. . . . Although Wisdom is first introduced as a veritable prophet, hurling indictments against her detractors and the immature (1:20–33), sternness gives way to joy, Wisdom’s delight in engaging the willing student. (301)

Parenting is never anything less than prophetic warnings and discernment and rules and discipline. But these things exist — not unlike the special boundaries and rules around backyard Wiffle ball games — in order to carve out space and rules in order for the delight of play to flourish in the boundaries of obedience (taking its cue from Proverbs 8:22–31). This is the place of Wisdom’s word to parents. Use the warnings to protect a space as wide as possible, where the God-honoring “play” of wisdom is cherished and where it flourishes.

The Most Important Paragraph On Parenting (Outside the Bible)

What follows are 10 sentences from C. S. Lewis’s book The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 1949), pages 45–46. These sentences are not written to parents, nor are they concerned specifically with the the fine art of parenting. And of course they have far-reaching implications for all of life. But for me the most frequent situations when these lines bubble up from my subconscious is when I’m thinking about my kids and parenting them well. So that’s where the title comes from. But enough of me.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously.

C. S. Lewis on “Little Cyclones” (Young Boys)

As the father of two spirited boys, aged 10 and 4, I chuckled at these excerpts from the letters of C. S. Lewis, writing as a 55-year-old “crusted old bachelor.” (There’s some fine parenting advice mixed in here, too.)

December 21, 1953 [Letters, 3:389–390]:

We have had an American lady staying in the house with her two sons aged 9 1/2 and 8. I now know what we celibates are shielded from. I will never laugh at parents again. Not that the boys weren’t a delight: but a delight like surf-bathing which leaves one breathless and aching. The energy, the tempo, is what kills.

I have now perceived (what I always suspected from memories of our childhood) that the way to a child’s heart is quite simple: treat them with seriousness and ordinary civility — they ask no more. What they can’t stand (quite rightly) is the common adult assumption that everything they say should be twisted into a kind of jocularity.

December 23, 1953 [Letters, 3:394]:

We have not much news here; the chief event has been that last week we entertained a lady from New York for four days, with her boys, aged nine and seven respectively. Can you imagine two crusted old bachelors in such a situation? It however went swimmingly, though it was very exhausting; the energy of the American small boy is astonishing.

This pair thought nothing of a four-mile hike across broken country as an incident in a day of ceaseless activity, and when we took them up Magdalen tower, they said as soon as they got back to the ground, ‘Let’s do it again!’ Without being in the least priggish, they stuck us as being amazingly adult by our standards and one could talk to them as one would to ‘grown-ups’ — though the next moment they would be wrestling like puppies on the sitting room floor. The highlights of England for them are open coal fires, especially if they can get hold of the billows and blow it up…

December 26, 1953 [Letters, 3:396]:

My brother and I have just had the experience of an American lady to stay with us accompanied by her two sons, aged 9 1/2 and 8. Whew! Lovely creatures — couldn’t meet nicer children — but the pace! I realize have never respected young married people enough and never dreamed of the Sabbath calm which descends on the house when the little cyclones have gone to bed and all the grown-ups fling themselves into chairs and the silence of exhaustion.