Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Love of One and the Best Interests of Many

A perennial parenting struggle is knowing how to balance the needs of the individual child with the best interests of the entire family. A long time ago Claudia and I gave up on the "treat everyone the same" philosophy of parenting. The truth of the matter is that parents who think they can treat each child the same are deluded. This is the case in any family, but especially so in the case of families caring for children with special needs. It is simply not possible to have the same expectation for a child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), say, and a child whose organic brain development has not been impaired. Each child's strengths and weaknesses need to be individually evaluated with appropriate expectations following the reality such an inquiry produces.

Beyond the issue of psychological diagnoses, there are also the dynamics of parental favortism. Because of shared interests, similar personality traits and even the ambiguity of intuition, parents may naturally be more attuned to an individual child more than to another. Such attunement cannot be equated with love (after all, parents love their children equally, but in different ways), but sometimes shows itself in time and interest invested.

In the midst of all the family dynamics, however, there is the overriding, perennial preocuppation of parents: how to develop the individual's capactiy with love and attention while tending to the needs of the entire family system. The more participants in the family system, the more complex the issues become. While this complexity intimidates some (hence the misunderstanding on the parts of many regarding the dynamics of a large family), it can provide a good opportunity for children to become conversant with the challenging depths of life before entering the world as an independent person. Is there a better place for a person to learn about relational complexity than in a family with healthy functioning?

I'm meandering in these thoughts, but I began mulling them over in relation to a scripture text I read this morning. It's the portion from 2 Samuel (in the Hebrew Scriptures) where King David learns of the death of his son Absalom. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you need to know that Absalom was one of David's numerous offspring and that Absalom declared mutiny against his father's kingdom and attempted to overthrow him from the throne. While David protects his right of kingship in the face of this rebellious son, he never relinquishes his love for Absalom. Throughout the battles, David admonishes his military leaders to deal gently with Absalom, expressly forbidding his death. Taking matters into their own hands, however, David's military leaders kill Absalom and bring the news back to the King. Upon hearing the news of his son's death, "The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The King's grief continues for a period of time, until finally one of his advisors reminds David that he has a responsibilty to the military who defended him (and to the kingdom) to show his appreciation for their support of his kingly rule. David has to confront his love of one (Absalom) and the best interests of many (his defenders and the people of his realm). These are not mutually exclusive categories, but navigating the pathway between the two is one of the most arduous of the parenting journey.

Here again, is one of the paradoxes of parenting. How is it that parents, in the midst of rebellion and outright mutiny, maintain such a deep connection with their son or daughter? One of the keys seems to lie in remembering better times and other days or envisioning a preferred future while maintaining a consistent presence for the child rafting the tumultuous waters of life. Even if those waters consume the child's life -- perhaps to the point of extinction -- a parent's love echoes through the corridors of time.

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