The other day I heard the story of a 13-year-old girl who is beginning to break rules, drink rum, hang out with unknown kids on the weekends in the city, write provocative things on Facebook. She comes from a ‘good’ home, with clean sheets on the bed, gourmet food on the table. Her parents are suffering, wondering at how she seems to have no regard for their rules. It makes me sad, for I see how they suffer.
I know the parents a little bit. I know they have approached a psychologist friend over the past three years for advice on their daughter. I know this psychologist referred them and their daughter to very highly-regarded therapists and I know they never went.
I know she gets mostly Cs, Ds and Fs in school, although she is smart. I know her mother let the first Ds go without much notice, not wanting to be overly-ambitious. I have seen her mother give her $100 to go out and buy new jeans, for the family puts great value on clothing.
I have seen how the girl pretended all was well when her parents lived together and her father treated her mother with derision. I have seen how she suffered when they separated. And I have seen how happy she seemed when they got back together. I don’t know them well, but I have watched from the sidelines.
I mean, what business has it been of mine? At what point on the friendship gauge is someone supposed to speak out? As an acquaintance? As a casual friend? As a good friend? At what point does a husband’s emotional abuse, subtle and cutting, become something a mere acquaintance should address at a school musical? When do we speak up, and when do we just leave it all alone? … To hear, a few years down the road, about a girl doing her best to mess up her life. And to know, that had her parents received solid, professional, on-going insights at ANY point along that road, and had they had the courage to really change their familial manner of relating, she might have built a different adolescence for herself.
At this point, some people I speak to just shake their heads and say ‘ah, kids. It is a minefield. It’s amazing they grow up at all.’ As if it were fate that forced this personable little girl into a 13-year-old mess. This is a fallacy. Fate is an automobile accident, or a babyhood tumor, or an illness caught during an innocent clinic stay, or a flood, or a factory being shut down with no other employment in sight. That is tragedy where we can only help and cannot explain.
But fate in parenting skills? Well, perhaps one could say growing up in a ghetto, with a drug-addicted mother, an absentee father and brothers in gangs, is a fateful childhood – one that narrows the chances of getting a good education, being raised in dignity and respect to go on to raise healthy children yourself. Or, being raised in a war zone or in impoverished refugee camps might be fate stepping in.
But, for families in the West that have enough to eat, enough of an education to get a decent job, a roof over their heads and holiday decorations in the windows, confused parenting is not ‘fate.’ Often it is fear, fear of relating and showing our emotions and growing and changing and making mistakes and forgiving.
Psychology and traditional theology give us clear explanations for why this might be so. If we had parents who were cold or unempathetic or abusive or mentally ill or completely unstructured, we as children will bear the effects. BUT, we as adults later can learn about these effects and change, thus breaking the more egregious generational legacies. Relating to our children, putting down authoritative boundaries, keeping rhythms to the days, and reflecting our offspring with love and affection rather than mockery and neglect: those are basics that can be learned and can be put into place, maybe not perfectly but adequately. It is the fear of starting this process that adults need to tackle.
Raising children in this crazy world today is an enormous undertaking. Not all of us were raised well ourselves, but we have the responsibility to reflect upon our own childhoods and change what we can. If we do this, our children can thrive and grow even more for their children. We all need help every now and again. Not in the form of a pill or a quick-fix weekend seminar (“Ahah, and now I understand myself”). But in the form of a long process of discovering who we are and who our parents were and how that influences our way of parenting our own children. Some people can do this on their own. Others need some inspiration and insights from a trained source along the way. Had the 13-year-old’s parents taken up the serious therapy they were offered, many things would certainly have changed. I would hazard a guess that the change for the girl would have been for the better.