This is a story about Kara
Kara is a middle aged mother of young adult son who became addicted to various drugs. Despite being brought up in a strong Christian family with high values, her son (we’ll call him Rick) fell in with the wrong crowd, as often happens in adolescence and early adult hood when many changes occur and personal responsibilities increase.
Just as young people gain freedom to make their own decisions, they become free to make wrong decisions and well as good ones. Diminishing parental influence is naturally supplanted by influence from peers, making it all the more important for the young person to have learned the wisdom of discernment in the years leading up to adult responsibility – identifying just who is a good friend rather than the lazy ‘going along with the mob’. At all times, it is important for everyone to stay in charge of her/his own life.
Honesty essential in parent/adolescent relationships
What happened to Rick seems almost a rite of passage for many youth. I can remember my own son at 14 years old being swept along into potential trouble by his ‘friends’ who were lying to their parents about where they were and what they were up to. Lying seemed to be an established pattern of the relationship with their parents. On this occasion we came to my son’s rescue in the middle of the night with emphatic advice: to stay in charge of his own life; and to call his friends out if they choose to deceive their parents. If others chose to lie to their parents and the parents chose to believe in their child’s ‘innocence’ and blame others rather than own responsibility, then that was their business. Such a salutary lesson at a critical stage had longer term benefits: our son gained confidence to stand up to his friends, as well as to challenge the dysfunction in their relationships with parents.
Kara’s son Rick did not face the same challenge to honesty. Emphasis in Christian families is on sacrifice, tolerance, forgiveness, kindness and support. Taken to extreme, virtues can become disadvantages. Over time, as his addiction compounded, Rick fell to lying and stealing to feed his habit. To their distress, his family was often an easy target. He came in contact with the legal system and by the time he was in his early twenties it seemed he would end up in jail.
Quandary in crisis
At that point Kara faced a quandary: Rick had exhausted the family’s tolerance, funds and energy. They were drained and distressed. Rick was now an adult making his own decisions for which his family was no longer responsible. It seemed there was nothing more they could do to help him or to help him come to his senses to take charge of his own life.
The best thing Kara felt she could do was to let the law take its course. Harsh as it seemed and as much as it hurt her to concede, she would let him go to jail. At that critical point when she most needed support herself, Kara was berated by family and friends for her decision. All, without exception, believed Kara should continue to persevere. Her confidence declined under ostracism, leaving her bewildered about the consequences of her decision and the impact it would have on the son she loved.
It was at that point I shared with her the Maturity Model. The Model illustrates how, the longer one stays in a situation in which expectations load responsibility and limit choice (her choice), the more likely both parties will become immature, with high social and economic costs. Rick certainly wasn’t being challenged to “grow up”, to become mature, as all family resources were pulled into line to ‘help’ him. Kara, too, was being drawn towards immaturity, distracted from the tasks of growing on in her own life and attending to other personal and family responsibilities. Continuing along the same path would ultimately lead to the fracturing of both individuals and the family. Costs, already considerable to that point, would escalate with no satisfactory end in sight.
In such a situation, truth was absent: Rick was an adult expected to be responsible for his choices. His mother was no longer responsible for what he did and others had no business pressuring Kara to continue to persevere in a losing game in which they had no ‘skin’. Kara gained tremendous confidence and affirmation from using the Maturity Model. She was able to move forward with her decision, regardless of considerable external pressures from people who should have respected and supported her decision. In doing so Kara was able to grow and mature, fortified through the crisis, avoiding fragmentation where she could easily have crumbled.
Resolution of crisis
This is a longitudinal story. Rick did end up in jail. While there he did come to his senses, pulled his life together, however imperfectly. Upon release he has applied himself to earning a living, has entered a steady relationship and become a father.
Once over the difficult realisation that he had reached the limits of family and community tolerance, Rick was able to concede to his mother that letting him go to jail was the best thing she could have done. Her actions brought him to the abrupt realisation that he was responsible for himself and his own actions. Rick was able to understand the harm he was visiting upon others dear to him. The spell ‘inside’ gave him a chance to turn his life around – a chance that he chose not to waste.
We can only build on truth – on what is real, rather than some fantasy – of perfect family cohesion. Almost all families are bound to experience crises of some sort as young people come into their own as adults, and parents relinquish responsibility for them, however tentatively. Kara had the courage to look at the reality of the situation to make her critical decision. Validation of the Maturity Model and the confidence it provided to Kara at a crucial time is demonstrated in the enhanced maturity of both Kara and Rick as they face the future. In doing so they have avoided the enormous social and financial cost that would have occurred had they continued to back Rick in self-destructive patterns of lying, stealing and drug abuse.
On being Christian in spirit
The pressure that Kara faced from her Christian friends and family to continue to support Rick is understandable. Interpretations of the gospel message from which our culture draws Christian tradition, exhort people, especially women, to sacrifice in the service of others in need. As a pastoral message, such an interpretation has limitations.
Two concepts challenge commonly understood interpretations of sacrifice:
1. The sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross is held as the ultimate example for Christians to emulate. Yet throughout his public ministry, when his life was threatened by mobs, Jesus spirited himself away to safety. The ultimate sacrifice was made only once, when it would have full meaning. Reflection on this fresh interpretation could help those people and parents, who constantly try to do too much for their young adult offspring, with all the best intentions, yet at the same time, lower expectations of others (like young adults) who should be stepping up to own responsibility for their own life.
2. Christian emphasis on the sacrifice of the cross is central to the pastoral message and important in itself, whether you are a believer or merely view the stories as metaphors for life. Yet the cross is part of a bigger story which includes the joy and exhilaration of the resurrection. Far too often, the story truncated at affirmation of sacrifice, fails to foster a person’s due reward for the perseverance, dedication and commitment, in joy and exultation, for having endured to become a more mature person.
For youth and their parents, becoming adult can be a fraught time. The young person’s body and mind are growing and evolving as they position to take greater power over their lives and future. Developing the enduring competencies of intimacy and mutuality at that time will help them on the way to becoming a mature adult.
Whiteheads identify the resources developed in the struggle for intimacy as:
• A supple sense of self
• An empathy with other people
• Willingness to be influenced by an awareness of others
Intimacy involves real openness to another and to oneself. Mutuality plays an indispensable part in true engagement: in friendship and love, cooperation and competition, inspiration and intuition. Becoming a sound adult is a pre-requisite for becoming a strong couple, which, in turn, is essential foundation for becoming a family.
How well these resources are developed is an indication of the level of maturity of the young adult at that time.
Competence in the resources of intimacy and mutuality, even when well developed in the young adult, often need to be refreshed at different stages as life evolves and further challenges need to be addressed. Far too many elders tend towards inflexibility and intolerance.
Developing sound decision-making skills
Ideally children should be developing decision-making skills from the earliest years, building capability through experiences appropriate to their age and stage of life. In young adulthood, as the efforts of the parents and children come to fruition, however imperfectly, celebration is warranted.
Most parents would position their parenting skills as “trying” – somewhere between the extremes of helicoptering and neglect. Nobody manages perfection on a day to day score sheet, so there is no need for parents doing their best to beat themselves up about occasional misjudgements and shortcoming: these are necessary to enable children to experience life’s realities. However, the child’s development is helped by having clear and reasonable boundaries and expectations that allow the child to make choices and assume responsibility for the choices made, within the safe environment of family, on the way to young adulthood. That way adolescence can be approached with some confidence in the work already done, trusting the next generation. Parents are then freed to address their own tasks of midlife in preparation for later years.