If you’ve ever heard me talk about parenting — which I try not to do, at least not with any authority — you may have heard me say that all I want is for my kids to be healthy, happy, decent people. Lots of parents say this. It’s not at all true, of course. I mean, I do want those things, but that’s really a bare minimum.
I want so much more.
I want my kids to be healthy, happy, decent people who are also Christians, and Seventh-day Adventists, and politically left-wing, and avid readers, and huge sci-fi/fantasy geeks, and patriotic Newfoundlanders, and involved in creative work, and and and and … I want so many things for them. Things that might get tucked under the umbrella of “happy, healthy decent people” but, when I look at it more closely, boil down to “I want them to be happy and healthy and decent in all the same ways that have worked for me.”
This of course is a big improvement over, “I want my kids to fix my mistakes and not screw up their lives in all the same ways I’ve screwed up mine.” At least, I think it’s better. And probably more justifiable and achievable. If I believe in the values I live by, obviously I’d like my children to share those values, and if I’ve been a relatively decent role model I hope I’ve at least made those values look mildly attractive. But in the end, it still comes down to, “I want my children to live their lives in the way that I think is right for them to live.”
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you may have noticed that I don’t blog about my kids nearly as much as I did when they were younger. As they move into the teenage years, (Chris is 16 and Emma is almost 14) I’ve become much more aware of how separate they are from me; I don’t feel like they’re characters in my story that I can write about freely without violating their privacy. I’ve also become aware of their “separateness” in the sense that they are developing value systems of their own that don’t necessarily match mine in every way. And just to be clear here: I have great teenagers. I know from the work I do exactly how rough the teenage years can be for some kids and parents, and I am having (so far) a very easy ride through parenthood. But I’ve also noticed that even the parents of great, stellar teenagers are still worried about the choices their kids are making and the values their kids are developing.
Because it’s such a key part of life for so many people I know, I want to look at this for a couple of minutes specifically through the lens of religion. I think almost every parent who follows any religious/spiritual path themselves wants to pass that on to their kids — after all, you wouldn’t be on this path, or in this church, if you didn’t think it was the best way to live. For some parents this is not a very big deal as long as their kids are the above-mentioned happy, healthy, decent people; to others (including most Seventh-day Adventist parents I know) it’s a huge deal.
I grew up in our church, raised by SDA parents among other SDA kids. I have watched my friends go down their various paths in life and I have watched the many generations of church-raised kids that I taught or was a youth leader for, go through life as well. For a long time, I thought there were three basic outcomes for a parent trying to raise their kids “in the faith” (our faith, but a lot of this applies to any faith):
1. You did everything right, your child joined the church and continued to be a committed church member throughout life.
2. Your child rebelled as a teen, left the church but later came back as a young adult when they had kids of their own.
3. Your child rebelled as a teen, left the church and God, and completely screwed up his or her life.
I mean, that’s obviously a rough sketch, but those were, in my mind (and in the minds of lots of other churchgoing people) the basic outcomes, even though the real life we saw all around us suggested there were far more possible outcomes. Now that I’m parenting teenagers while living through my own middle years, I see that while any of the three outcomes above might happen, a lot of other things might happen too. Those could include, but not be limited to:
4. Your child joined the church and stayed in it, but it never brought her spiritual fulfillment and she was always hurting deep inside.
5. Your child joined the church and appeared to be a productive and committed member, but in mid-life discovered it wasn’t working for him and left.
6. Your child left the church and found spiritual and personal fulfillment in a different faith community.
7. Your child left the church and lived a completely secular life but still seemed to be happy and fulfilled.
8. Your child left the church, showed no interest in it for years, and then returned in midlife or even in later life.
Or, of course, any combination of the above, or any one of a number of other outcomes I didn’t think to add to the list. The longer I live and the more I observe people, including myself, the only thing I can be sure of is that everyone’s life is a long, strange journey, and it’s hard to predict where people will end up.
If I had stood in my church youth group 30 years ago and looked at the young men and women around me and tried to predict, on the basis of who they were then, which of them would be active members and even leaders in the SDA church by the time they were 50, which would have nothing to do with the church, and which would have ended up somewhere completely different — I would have had a lousy success rate at guessing. Nothing about the home they were raised in or the way they thought as teenagers predicted where my friends ended up, which is all over the map. And the other thing is — for those of us who are blessed to still be alive — we haven’t actually “ended up” anywhere yet. We’re still travelling, and even as we approach (or in some cases have passed) age 50, that road still has unexpected twists and turns.
That’s the other thing about parenting: when do you know the job is done? When do you know that your kids have turned out all right, and are happy and successful and living by the values you taught them and generally going to be OK? The answer is of course that you never know. Unless your child dies before you do — which is the tragedy we all hope will never happen — you will never know how your child’s life story ends.
I know of people who have died secure in the knowledge that the kid they raised has turned into a good, churchgoing adult, maybe even a church leader: that parent never knew that ten years down the road their adult child was going to reject all those values and become a Buddhist monk. I know of people who have died confident that their beloved child was enjoying a happy marriage and family life: the parent never lived to see the horrific divorce and custody battle that sucked up their child’s middle years. I know of people who have died grieving the fact that their child was “lost” to God and to the church: that parent never got to see the rich and lively faith their child developed in her 40s and 50s.
In other words, we don’t know. As parents — particularly parents who, like me, might be a teeny bit control freaks — we have the illusion that we can influence our kids’ lives — not just to be healthy, happy and decent people, but to reflect and build on the values we’ve spent years teaching them, whether those are religious, political or personal values. And we can — but also, we can’t. My kids are not puppets I’m controlling, or characters in a story I’m writing. They’re human beings who will make their own decisions, their own mistakes, walk down their own paths. To a large extent, I can’t even imagine what those paths will look like. And I hope I never know the end of the story, because I hope my kids go on living their lives and making choices long after I am gone.
In the end, all we give our kids is the starting point of their journey and the bag they pack to take with them: the things about which they will later say, “My parents always taught me….” It’s not that those things don’t matter; they matter a lot, and we all try to start that journey in a good place and pack their bag with the things they’ll need. But where they travel from there is not our decision and not in our control.
As I begin on this parenting-teenagers journey, soon to be followed by the parenting-young-adults journey, my biggest challenge — maybe yours too? — is learning to let go of that illusion of control, to let go of the outcome. And, of course, to hope that whatever roads they walk down, we’ll have a relationship that will allow me to walk beside them from time to time, and enjoy the journey.