Wednesday, August 20, 2008

One Thing a Parent Cannot Do

Compared to the stories of many parents (and adoptive parents in particular), I really should be grateful, but a current acrimonious situation with our oldest son reminds me that there is at least one thing a parent cannot do. (I'm sure there is more than one thing, but for tonight it's the one thing I know for certain).

I know that parents cannot choose for their children the way they will choose to live their life.

It's a mystery, really. Parenting is something of a mystery wrapped in a cunundrum (or however that old saying whose origin I cannot now place says it). Parents do their best for their kids. In spite of our human flaws and frailties and dysfunctions we really want what is best for our kids.

Sometimes it is because we ourselves have learned the hard way, and we want to protect our kids from making an equally disastrous choice. And there are times when our children venture in a direction unknown to us by experience, so we wonder because it's strange territory. It could be for some parents whose spiritual or moral foundations are clear and sound that a son's or daughter's moving beyond those bounds creates a sense of angst or despair.

So what is a parent to do? Society tells parents that we need to raise our children well so that they will be productive contributors, not takers. Communities of faith urge parents to be responsible for the moral formation of their kids. Law enforcement wants us to believe that parents who care about their kids will not see their son or daughter behind bars.

But one thing a parent cannot do is to choose the way of life their child is going to live.

While the child is living in the home the parents have more suasion that when the child is out of the house, to be sure. But while the son or daughter matures and discovers new ways of being, the parent is pretty much who she or he is. Parents typically do not change much in the course of their parenting careers, which is a good thing. Kids need stability and consistency in the life of a parent. (This is not to say, of course, that parents do not change or grow in the process, because certainly we do, and certainly we need to). But parents do not have the luxury of sudden, dramatic changes in life on the whim. There is simply too much invested in the adult life journey to be that carefree (or is it careless?). Parenting can be serious business, perhaps too serious at times.

Proponents of family systems theory believe that one of the ways to handle difficult times with children (or others) is to move away from a "serious family system" to one that embraces some levity and some paradox. I'm giving that a try with frustrating parenting situations I find myself in.

To place responsibility for personal choice squarely in the lap of the child (in the case of parenting situations) while remaining emotionally connected is the task. When the temptation is to cut the child off emotionally and walk away, the wise parent will find a way to be self-identified (that is, "Who am I?") The only thing a parent can do in many situations is to decide who she or he will be. We cannot decide who our child will be. That is a choice only they can make.

When we choose to deposit personal responsibility with our children (especially our adult children) we may find for ourselves a modicum of emotional liberty as well. Too often that emotional liberty feels like abandonment or careless disregard. It is a tricky thing to be the parent while allowing your child (of whatever age) to be the person he or she thinks they need to be. To do this and continue to maintain an emotional connection is certainly challenging.

Like I said before, I should be grateful. Our oldest son, who is now 21, still talks to me, as he always has, with varying degrees of closeness over the years. He respects my way of life, he believes he has good parents who are doing the right thing in the world. He's just not sure he's quite that person.

And so I am preparing to venture into an experiment of sorts. The one thing I cannot do is decide for him what or who he will be. But I can love him, I can place responsibility for his choices squarely with him, and I can choose not to cut him off emotionally, even if that's a choice he makes for himself.

As I reflect on what I've written here, I recognize it is a bit disjointed (certainly not my best piece of writing), but I think it accurately represents my current interior meanderings, so chalk one up for authenticity ... even if clarity and precision are lacking.


Yondalla said...

I understand and it is difficult to explain. I think I started to understand it through Alanon. It was there that I learned what loving with detachment meant. We can take their journey for them; we can only love them while they take it themselves.

Becky said...

Sometimes kids need to generate the distance in order to see themselves in a separate light. It's hard to know who you are when you've only ever been part a family (at least in young adult years). Being part of the family never goes away, even if you try to block it, and that is a big part of self discovery - coming around to being an individual and still being comfortable as part of a group.

This post goes hand in hand with your ODD thoughts.