Tim Muehlhoff, a communications professor at Biola University, explains how he helps students make peace with their past by teaching them to honor their parents with a gift of a carefully written and heartfelt tribute.
Tim Muehlhoff, a communications professor at Biola University, explains how he helps students make peace with their past by teaching them to honor their parents with a gift of a carefully written and heartfelt tribute.
Tim: It’s key students who can get up and say, “I’m just not close to my dad. We just never connected. This was really hard for me. I struggled.”
Just this past semester, we had one student who could just barely do it. I said to him twice—I said, “You know you don’t’ have to finish reading this. You really don’t.”
He said, “No, I need to.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I literally commended him. I said, “This was powerful.” He said, “Yes. I just needed to get it out.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, April 12th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Tim Muehlhoff joins us today to talk about honoring Mom and Dad looks like in a college classroom.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today; thanks for joining us. I don’t know if our listeners realize this; but back before you wrote the book, The Best Gift You Can Ever Give Your Parents, where you talked about honoring your parents and giving them a tribute, a written tribute, you used to teach this material every summer or every other summer, wasn’t it?
Dennis: It was every summer.
Bob: You’d meet with college students and talk about this principle of obeying the fifth commandment.
Dennis: Actually, those students really taught me that this is one of the most important—hate to say, one of the Ten Commandments is more important than another (because you can’t really say that), but it really is one of the most important truths we need to be passing on to the next generation that we need to honor our parents.
As you know, we’ve talked about this with our speaker team that speaks at our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. One of the speakers who speaks at our conferences is Tim Muehlhoff. He joins us on FamilyLife Today. There is a reason I’ve asked Tim to come in and share a few stories. It is because of something he does at Biola University as a professor with the students there.
Tim, I want to welcome you to the broadcast. Welcome back.
Tim: Thank you. Great to be here.
Dennis: Tim is a dad of three, a husband of one. His wife, Noreen, they live in southern California. He has written a book called Marriage Forecasting. He’s really a communication expert but also teaches a class on—well, what is it a family communication class?
Tim: It is called Family Communication.
Dennis: Family Communication at Biola. There is a section of that class where you begin to talk to students about this subject or this theme of honoring your parents.
Tim: The class is broken up into two parts. One is making peace with the past. The second part of the class is preparing for the future.
In the first part, making peace with the past is coming to terms with key relationships in your life; and, obviously, the most important relationship being that with their parents. I often say to them, “You want to have a solid foundation in your future marriage and family. In order to do that, you want to learn and practice great habits of becoming obedient to God.”
One of the most important ways to show this obedience is through His commandments. A key commandment being in Exodus: that we should honor our parents and that God commands this. So, I often ask them to combine academic excellence with practical outcomes.
Dennis: Yes. When you start talking to students about their past and about their relationship with their parents, what generally begins to occur there in the students’ lives? I mean, you probably have—what? Twenty-five, thirty students in your class?
Tim: Thirty-five students.
Dennis: Okay. How do they respond?
Tim: It is usually broken into a seventy-thirty split. I would say seventy percent of them tend to have fairly good relationships with their parents. Thirty percent, though, tend to struggle and have awkward relationships with their parents.
So, immediately, the thirty percent are fairly uneasy with where they see where this assignment is going to go. The seventy percent tend to feel a little bit convicted that they’ve not done enough to really honor their parents or acknowledge what their parents have done in their lives to show appreciation.
Bob: The thirty percent who feel the uneasiness you are talking about is it, “I just don’t want to go visit what is painful in my life?” Is that what is causing them to pull back, do you think?
Tim: Yes. “I’ve left home. I’m now becoming slowly an adult, and I’d really rather not look backward.”
Bob: I’d rather wall-off—
Bob: —the pain that might be there and detach myself from it. They might come to you and say, “Dr. Muehlhoff, it says somewhere in the Bible forgetting what lies behind, I press on. So, why do I even need to deal with this? I mean, I just want turn my back and press on.”
Tim: In other words, they are just like us. We don’t want to deal with painful relationships. My college students are very much a representative of American culture. We move on very quickly. So, when I say to them, “We’re actually going to go backwards. We’re going to address, perhaps, the most important relationships of your lives and that’s your parents. We are going to do it in a very systematic, very thoughtful way,” I’m putting a big speed bump in their path of moving on.
Bob: Well, you hear stories from some of them about not just painful pasts but horrific pasts that you’d say, “Boy, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to go revisit that.”
Tim: Some of them are resentful. They’re resentful saying, “Okay, why isn’t my parent doing this? Why aren’t they stopping and reflecting on our relationship? Why am I having to do this for crying out loud? Isn’t this, their job as a parent? Why am I having to take the first step? I don’t think this is my job. They should do it.” So, it is kind of like this stare off a little bit.
Bob: Let me back you up, though, to the student who is struggling and saying, “Why do I need to do this? Can’t I just seal that off, call it the past, and move on? Why do we have to revisit this?”
Tim: One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the tribute is that I struggled for years to write a tribute for my father. Precisely, for the reason, I didn’t think he was worthy of the tribute.
Dennis, I heard you speaking on the tribute for year, after year, after year. Every time you’d speak on the tribute, I could easily see writing one for my mom. It was my dad that was the sticking point.
Then, one year I heard you say, “We want our kids to honor us, but are we honoring our parents?” It was the Holy Spirit who just took a sledge hammer. It was at that moment I realized, “You know, I want my three boys to honor me, but I am not modeling that at all.”
Bob, that is an inherently American, pragmatic answer to the question. There’s a more profound answer to the question. The answer is God commands it.
My heavenly Father looks at me and says, “Listen, there is something I’m going to ask you to do, and that is I want you to honor your parents because it is the right thing to do. I am asking you to do this.” That’s a profound issue we all need to wrestle with.
So, I say to my students, “Before I give you the American answer to this question, let me give you the God answer: that is, that your heavenly Father, who loves you and knows deeply how human relationship work, has asked you to do something.
Here is what He asks you to do: honor your parents. Now, you need to wrestle with whether you’re going to do that or not. By the way, He is not making the qualifications: are your parents worthy of the honor? He is asking you to do this.”
Bob: So, what specifically do you assign the students? What’s the project they have to do for your class?
Tim: It’s projects, not just one. The first project is they write this paper. It is applying a stress model to their parents. It is called ABCX Stress Model.
The A refers to a stressor event that happens. The B refers to the resources that a family has to actually deal with the stress. The C refers to the perception that you would have of the stress based on the resources.
For example, if a family gets in a car accident but actually has a lot of money (they are fairly well off), well, the car accident really doesn’t mean that much because I have the financial resources to really deal with it. If I don’t have a lot of resources, then getting into that accident is crippling because I cannot replace it. I don’t have any insurance to help me. The X refers to all three of those being taken together.
So, I assign this assignment that they have to pick one stressor event that has happened in their history of their family that they feel like as a student caused the most stress in their family. Second, they have to call one of their parents and ask them, “What’s the biggest stressor that has happened during the life of the family?”
Now, the parent they’ve selected is the parent they are eventually going to write the tribute for. I ask them, “Go ahead and pick the parent that you feel like you have the least intimate relationship with.”
Dennis: So, you’re flying right in the face of the challenge of the conflict to begin with, aren’t you?
Dennis: Calling them to some courageous action?
Tim: Yes. Step up to the plate—
Dennis: —to a step of faith, to trust God at His word and say, “I’m going to honor my dad. I’m going to honor my mom.”
Tim: I’m giving them an opening to have a productive conversation; so that, they make the phone call. They say, “Hey, Mom, Dad, I have this class, Family Communication class, and I’ve been given this assignment. I have to ask you, ‘What do you think has been the most stressful event in the history of our family?’”
Students will later respond to me, “That was the most adult conversation I’ve ever had with my dad. I’ve never had a conversation like that. It was pretty amazing the things that my dad said to me. I was blown away.”
So, then, they have this really interesting conversation. Then, they write it up in a paper. Once the paper is completed, I then say to them, “Now, I want you to write a tribute for that parent. I want the tribute to be completely finished, matted, framed; but it is between you and the Lord whether you actually give the tribute to the parent.” I would never mandate that. “So, you’re going to write this thing, frame it, mat it. It is going to look like a million bucks, but it is up to you whether to actually give it.”
Then, by the way, they all present it to each other in the class.
Bob: They read the tribute they wrote for a parent to one another?
Tim: They don’t have to read it; but they summarize it, or they can choose to read it.
Bob: I want to jump back to the thing that precedes the writing of the tribute, this diagnosis of the stressful moment. There has got to be some empathy—
Bob: —that enters into the heart of a young person—
Bob: —when you hear Mom or Dad—
Bob: —talk about stress because we all grow up thinking our parents—well, they are parents. They’re grown-ups.
Bob: They don’t have to deal with stressful issues. So, when Dad says, “Well, I was—yes, I had a real stressful time when this happened.” You start to thaw a little bit, don’t you?
Tim: Well, maybe, Bob, because a key part of the paper is the third section: did this produce empathy? Why? Why not?
Some of my students will say, “I listened to my dad say, ‘I did not handle that job loss very well. You know what? It hurt my family. I didn’t treat Mom very well. I wasn’t around for you kids. You know what? It was really hard for me to lose that job. I did not act very well. I wasn’t a very good leader.’”
So, then, I say, “Now, did that produce empathy for you?” It is amazing some of my students who say, “No.” I’m kind of like, “No? Why? Reflect on that for me. Why didn’t that produce empathy?”
I want to say to my students, “I read that.” I think, “Oh, that poor guy! He lost his dream job, and kind of went into a downward spiral. I feel bad for him. You just reflected on your dad and said, ‘Eh.’ Reflect on that with me. Why that ‘Eh?’”
Well, that’s just kind of a nice moment for the child to say, “I don’t know. I guess I’m not very charitable towards my dad.”
Tim: That’s a pretty big expectation.
Dennis: Yes. What I have seen, as I’ve interacted with students, is that really shows a lack of understanding, a lack of compassion as you’ve mentioned. Ultimately, the big issue here (because Bob and I have interacted with this a bunch over the years) is they are unwilling to forgive their mom or dad.
Tim: Good. Good.
Dennis: You can’t honor someone that you haven’t forgiven.
Tim: That’s really good.
Dennis: Basically, the reason why I think God—one of the main reasons He’s put this in the Ten Commandments is He puts the big goal out there: “Honor your mother and father that it may go well with you.” Why would it go well with you? Because you’ve given up the right to punish them for those things and those ways that they hurt you.
Tim: That’s good.
Bob: So, when the students present their tributes, I’ve got to imagine that class day or series of class days is just one mess after another.
Tim: Well, it is an interesting contrast. Some students can write the tribute on the backstroke because they love their parents. Those tributes are just funny, affirming.
It’s key students who can get up and say, “I’m just not close to my dad. We just never connected. This was really hard for me. I struggled and didn’t want to do it. Yet, I knew I had to; and, well, here it is.”
Just this past semester, we had this one student who could just barely do it. I said to him twice—I said, “You know you don’t have to finish reading this. You really don’t.” He said, “No, I need to.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I literally commended him. I said, “This was powerful.” He said, “Yes. I just needed to get it out.”
Bob: What stands out in your mind? You’ve been doing this for four or five years—
Tim: Probably, four years I’ve been doing this assignment.
Bob: What moments stand out? You just mentioned one. Are there others?
Tim: Yes. One woman mentioned to her mom—
—Wow! Didn’t think that would happen.
Bob: That’s alright.
Dennis: You’re getting emotional now because the emotions, even in hearing another person’s tribute—
Dennis: —really are profound.
Dennis: What’d she share?
Tim: Well, her mom said to her that we don’t have very many positive memories. She knew that. She recognized that. So, she bought a camera. She knew that her daughter was going to New York on a trip over spring break. She knew that her daughter wanted to the tribute for her but said, “I’ve not been a good mother; so, I can imagine it must be hard to do the tribute. So, take this camera. Have some fun. Just pretend that I’m with you, and we’re having fun together. Just pretend that we’re having these fun moments.”
Tim: So, her tribute was filled with all these great photographs of New York; but then, she had one key photograph saying that she had found love with her mother during that week.
Dennis: For you, Tim, you said you could easily honor your mother but found it difficult to write a tribute to your father. Why?
Tim: I had breakthrough moment with my dad speaking with Tom Fortson. Tom, at our conferences, heard me give my dad talk and took me aside. He said, “Would you mind a little critique?”
So, when the Vice President of Promise Keepers asks if you’d like a little critique, you know, what are you supposed to say? So, I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Here’s my observation: you’re judging your dad with your generation’s love language.” He said, “Your generation’s love language is going in the backyard and throwing the football around. Your generation’s love language is wrestling on the carpet in the living room.”
He goes, “What do you think your dad’s generations love language was? I think it’s not leaving your mother and working double shifts to provide for you.” He said, “Did your dad ever leave your mom?” I said, “Nope.” “Did he provide for you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I think he loved you.” It was honestly like the Holy Spirit turned on a switch.
I remember getting my varsity jacket for wrestling as a freshman. My dad says, “Put it on.” I’m like, “Dad, it is the middle of August.” He goes, “Put it on.” So, I put on my varsity jacket. We’re driving with the windows down because it is incredibly hot. I’ve got my hand out the window. My dad just looked at me and said, “You look good.” That was it. That was my first memory on my tribute.
When I put that down, things just came to mind. Working triple shifts sometimes at General Motors, not a great job. One summer he got me a job at General Motors. It was brutal. I thought, “My dad did this for thirty plus years.” I often say to my students, “I think you’ll be surprised once you start to put them down on a piece of paper.”
Bob: How did it go with the factory worker from GM when his son came and said, “I’m going to read you a tribute?”
Tim: You know, it was funny. My mom cried like a baby. Just, you know, the classic. My dad didn’t know what to do. I was not verbally expressive at all. I was a pain in the neck towards him. I never affirmed him, ever. So, this was like a double shot gun to the chest of affirmation.
He didn’t know what to do. So, I remember driving in the car with him, and he looked at me and said, “Thank you. I’ll never forget it.” It hung up on the wall ‘til the day he died. When I spoke at his funeral, I simply took down the tribute and read it. Kind of nice that the tribute came a year and a half before he died.
I say to my students, “You’re thinking you have all this time to do this.” The book of James is very clear you have today. It is a fool who says I have tomorrow. I said, “No. You need to take care of business now.” It’s really powerful to do.
Dennis: Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” I don’t know what the application is for every listener. I think the same freedom you gave your class is the one I want to give our listener. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do; but whatever God is asking you to do, might be a good idea to do it. Thanks, Tim.
Tim: Yes. You bet.
Bob: I can imagine that some of our listeners are going to need to get a copy of your book, The Best Gift You Can Ever Give Your Parents, to help guide them in this process. The book really does a great job of helping an adult think through how to express honor, particularly, if you’ve had a hard situation like some of your students had.
If our listeners are interested and maybe thinking about something special they want to do Mother’s Day or Father’s Day this year, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and ask for a copy of the book, The Best Gift You Can Ever Give Your Parents. We also have links online to articles and past programs where we’ve talked about this.
So, if you want to dive in and listen to a little bit more or read some articles that are available online, again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information. Or call us toll free at 1-800-FL-Today, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- F as in “family”, L as in “life”, then the word “TODAY.” We can send a copy of Dennis’s book out to you.
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Well, I hope you can be back with us tomorrow. We are going to hear Part One of a message from Dennis on the subject of surrender. What does it mean when God calls us to surrender our lives to Him? Dennis will answer that question tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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