What do children need from their parents? They need to be provided for physically. They need attention and affection. They need to be taught what to do and corrected when they stray. Most of us realize that our children need these things, but we may not realize something else that they need. Our children need to be blessed by us.
There are many biblical accounts of a blessing being given, usually by someone in a position of authority, be that a parent, another relative, or a representative of God such as a priest. Noah blesses Shem and Japheth (Gen. 9-26-27), Melchizedek blesses Abraham (Gen. 14:18-20), Isaac blesses Jacob (Gen. 27), and Jacob blesses his sons (Gen. 49). God himself teaches his people how to bless: through Moses, God instructs the priests to offer the following blessing to the Israelites:
“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26, ESV).
The English word "blessing" comes from a Latin root that means "to speak well of." In his book Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity, Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser describes three components of giving a blessing. Here are the elements he mentions, with a few of my comments on each:
Our children are desperate to be seen—to be noticed—by us. Do we see them? Of course! But we always see them through the lens of our preconceptions. We see what they have been, not the special child of God they are always becoming. To bless our children is to continually open our eyes and see them anew.
It's so easy to criticize more than we praise! We may justify our negative comments as teaching the child what he or she needs to know, but, no matter how good our intent, it doesn't come across to the child as blessing. Speaking well includes both specific praise ("Great play!" or "I really liked how polite you were to Mrs. Holmes.") and more general affirmations ("It's so wonderful that you're part of this family." or "I'm proud of you.").
Give away some of our own life so that someone else can have more life. Rolheiser puts this starkly: "To bless someone fully is to, in some way, die for him or her." John the Baptist exemplifies the attitude of one who blesses when he says of Jesus, "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30). When it comes to our children, we give of our lives by spending our time, our energies, and our money on them. The person who blesses isn't egocentric but other-centric.
Children don't outgrow their need for blessing as they reach adolescence and then move on to adulthood. Though they may show fewer outward manifestations of that need, a childlike part of them deep within continues to yearn to be blessed. And the benefit of a blessing extends to those outside the family line. A wonderful literary account of blessing, offered by an elderly minister in Marilynn Robinson's novel Gilead, is given to someone who is already an adult and is not biologically related to the man providing the blessing. The man who blesses, John Ames, has resentment toward and mistrusts his rebel and ne'er-do-well namesake, John Ames "Jack" Broughton. However, as Jack prepares to leave town, Ames finds his feelings have changed. He reaches out to Jack, first by offering money, then by saying, "The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you."
Jack kneels, and Ames bestows the blessing from Numbers 6. That was all Ames had intended, but Jack keeps kneeling with his head bowed and eyes closed. I wonder if he wanted—if we all want—a blessing that is more personal in nature. Ames proceeds:
"Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father." Ames tells Jack it was an honor to bless him. He reflects, "And that was absolutely true. In fact, I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”
Think back over your own life—who blessed you? That blessing was a gift, and you can offer the same gift to your children or other younger individuals in your life. The blessings we receive as we are maturing (and aren't we always maturing?) nurture us as nothing else can.