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Family Room

Author Elizabeth Stone once wrote, "Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." She should know. Between 1768 and 1793, she bore 16 children. Stone understood that, although we must gradually release our offspring into the world during adolescence, we never completely let go. A piece of us tags along. Our hearts ride shotgun.

Of course, Elizabeth Stone's kids never dragged her heart into an R-rated movie or sleazy online chat room. You and I face distinctly modern challenges as we attempt to pass our values on to our children and keep them out of trouble. One of the ways my parents succeeded was by making our home a fun, inviting place for me and my friends to hang out.

When I was in high school, our unfinished basement was the place to be. We had ping pong, a dart board and a pool table. Imagine a red, slate-top mahogany billiard table with Queen Anne carved pedestals and leather pockets decorated with gold tassels. Pretty cool, huh? Well, my pool table was nothing like that. Its slightly warped plywood surface sent any ball landing within two inches of the edge rolling to rest against the cushion. We used boards to prop up the sides and minimize the tilt. The felt looked like an elephant's kneecap. All six pockets were just shallow plastic cups stapled to the frame. Still, my friends and I had a blast.

But to this day, the component of our low-budget game room that I remember most fondly is the used pinball machine Dad picked up from a Jersey Shore arcade. Its dirty rubber bumpers. The tinny bells. That old-fashioned scoreboard with numbers that would scroll into miniature windows. There was nothing digital about it. No music or synthesized effects. Yet it made our cellar even more of a hot spot.

I must confess, when no one else was around I would open the door on the front of the pinball machine, slide the pane of glass off the top and proceed to manipulate the game. I'd flick targets down by hand and string rubber bands across gutters that threatened to take my ball out of play. There was also a spinner that, if you gave it a good whirl, sent your score through the roof. The next day my buddies would see my total from the night before and sing "Pinball Wizard" as they genuflected before me.

Naturally, it didn't take long for that to get old. The conquest felt empty because what makes the game of pinball dynamic and satisfying is conquering the uncertainty of it. Weird bounces. Bad breaks. Ricochets that take you by surprise and force you to think on your feet. In other words, all the things we try desperately to avoid when raising children. Given the choice, we'd rather parent with the glass off.

It is impossible, however, to control all of the variables in our kids' lives. We'd love to know where they are, who they're with, which CDs they're listening to and how much junk food they're eating at any given moment. And why not? It'd be a whole lot easier to keep them safe and guarantee an impressive score in the parenting game. It would also help us, as Elizabeth Stone mused, to protect our own emotions. Indeed, our influence would be colossal if we maintained absolute control, but the victory would be as empty as a rigged round of pinball.

A lot of well-meaning parents want to control their kids' choices, yet lack the means to do so. Interestingly enough, the one parent who had the ability didn't have the desire—God. Out of love for us, our heavenly Father gives us the freedom to blow it. Daily. To suffer the consequences. To repent. To find redemption. To choose well because we want to, not because we have to. That's something I'll try to remember as I work to make my home a desirable hangout … and watch my heart go walking around outside my body.

Published August 2010