Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. – Ephesians 6.1-4 ESV
Societies are built upon foundational principles that govern the lives of its members.
Traditions, standards, ethics, morals – they all play a part in that process. This passage from the Bible reflects one of those fundamental principles that is common in nearly every traditional belief system around the world – children obeying and honoring their parents. Among the benefits of adherence to this principle are harmonious families (and thus, societies) and preservation of cultures which would otherwise be lost. God-believing societies, such as Christians, further benefit from the knowledge that they are living in harmony with their fundamental doctrine and with the Bible. Indeed, I, as a Christian, uphold the value of this principle, not as a human tradition, but as a principle given to man by God Himself. And as a Christian, I would not attempt to challenge the place or value of this principle in society. But because of something unseen (which I am still attempting to discover), a rather significant social problem has grown cancerous in modern Western society. That problem I believe is the result of a complete lack of any form of mutual recognition between parents and child of when that child reaches adulthood, i.e. a rite of passage. Due to this lack of recognition which fails to present a goal or incentive, children have become inept in their maturation process. Parents have become ‘umbrellas’ for their children far beyond the point when adulthood should have been reached by their child. This has manifested into a very indistinct transition of a child to an adult in Western society which ultimately causes difficulties in social and family relationships and delays maturation and the development of a child’s independence.
I do wish to take a moment to state that by ‘children’ and ‘parents,’ I mean only generalizations within Western cultures. Of course, there are exceptions, and I in no way wish to criticize either parents or children who do not fall into the general category. I also wish to say that many parent-children relationships work out without this problem presenting a great influence. I think the greatest influence is seen among parent-child relationships in which one or both fails to acknowledge some form of rite of passage. Lastly of note, I have conferred with several other people on this topic in order to gain a more comprehensive picture of the problem. Since my views are often radical and controversial, however, I will not include a list of those individuals so as to not indicate their endorsements.
Yesterday’ children seem a completely different breed to we are today. In my parents’ generation, a 14 year old guy could handle just about anything life could throw at him. By age 14, my dad was responsible for helping with the harvests and farms, and he was skilled in every aspect of that responsibility from operating and driving wagons and equipment to slaughtering and preparing livestock. Girls commonly married and became competent wives and mothers at 14-16 years of age. My mother married my dad when she was 16 and was a mother of 2 children by age 20. Of course, there were times of difficulty and learning along the way, but they both knew the responsibility they’d accepted in marriage. They’ve been married for over 55 years now. I’ve talked to other women from that generation who married as early as age 14 and had a long and fulfilling marriage. But then the next generations came, and as I grew up under the guidance of elderly parents, I never understood why our family friends and neighbors marveled at the level of maturity of myself and my youngest sister. But when I became exposed to the ‘norms’ of my generation, I understood. That level of maturity that occurred in early teenage years in my parents’ time had now moved into the upper teen years. Parents would not give responsibilities or expectations to their children until their children were nearly legal adults. Children spent their time ‘just hangin’ in the cool jive of the 1980’s rather than developing their senses of independent responsibility. Gangs, drugs, and sex became the way of life for the ’80’s teenager where I grew up, and when irresponsible accidents such as teenage pregnancy occurred, it was the parents who took on that responsibility rather than the child. Life was just a fun ride, and ‘mom and dad’ would always be there when something went wrong. Now, as an adult in a modern college-age world, I can easily see that the age of maturity has been pushed back even further. I know college graduates in their early- to mid-20’s who still have not grown into maturity and who still live under the umbrella of their parents. They act irresponsibly, they make bad grades and poor choices, but ‘mom and dad’ are quick to attack the teacher, the preacher, the court and eagerly point out that there has been a mistake apart from their child. Then they graduate with degrees, yet still have no individual identity or purpose in life. They wander, they fall into depression, often because they feel they are missing the boat on life. And sadly, they are.
Parents seem to have lost their ability to sense both when a child should be a mature adult and when, once reached, a child is indeed an adult. I’ve often heard parents say they wish their ‘babies could stay babies forever,’ and without giving much thought to how such an irresponsible outlook would affect their child’s life, they attempt to make that outlook a reality. Often, teenage children become discouraged and troubled because they feel their parents do not respect them as adults. And they’re usually right, not because the child is deficient in some way but because the parents simply refuse to acknowledge that the child has grown into an emerging adult. Parents don’t want to think about their ‘babies’ leaving the nest, making their own decisions, and building their own families. So in their minds, they simply refuse to accept that their nearly adult child is anything more than a swaddling babe who is dependent upon them for everything. Furthermore, there are very few external events in modern Western society that will force parents to acknowledge a child’s maturity. In my generation, events which usually filled this role were high school graduation, leaving home, marriage, or (for girls) unwed pregnancy. Today, that isn’t the case. Parents continue to hover over their children beyond high school. They dictate which college the child will attend. They decide when the child needs to get a job, and where. They decide when the child needs to move out, and where. Young couples are beginning to get married while still in college and lacking independent financial support because their parents foot the bills. When a guy impregnates a girl (or a girl gets pregnant), the parents take care of all responsibilities, medical bills, and even the new baby if need be. All this is because parents refuse to let their child be responsible for his/her own life. They seem to be oblivious to reality. This 18 year old girl who is not allowed, albeit for her own safety, to befriend or date a guy of her choice can legally have sex, get pregnant, and have an abortion. She can work as a stripper in a ‘gentleman’s club.’ She can sign her name on a recruiter’s form, pick up a rifle, and kill or be killed on the frontline of some foreign land, all without her parents’ knowledge or consent. This 18 year old boy who is not allowed to be out with his friends past midnight because he lacks responsibility can legally work all hours of the night as a bouncer in the local bar. He can place himself on dangerous roads across the country as a truck driver. He can put himself in the line of fire as a law enforcement officer, security guard, or soldier. And he is perfectly free to do these things and much more if, as a legally recognized adult, he so chooses. Parents seem to be oblivious to these things. They run their college aged children’s lives just as they did when they were in middle school. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to go away with age or maturity of the child. I have talked to 35 year old women who have had no motivation for parental independence until later in life, yet even then when they decide it’s time for that independence, they face the same struggles of gaining that independence as a teenage girl has. I’ve talked to young married couples whose parents continue attempting to make their decisions for them even after they’ve committed to begin building their own homes. Parents refuse to accept that parenthood is a temporary role. They refuse to accept that, as parents, they have the responsibility to prepare their child for an independent life as an adult. And they refuse until they are forced to accept the day when their efforts are put to the test when they must release their child to fare as an adult.
At this point, some would simply say to me something like this: “Well, you’ve never been a parent. We’ll see how this story changes when you have your own children.” And true enough, I’ve never been a parent. But there are many things I know that I’ve never done, as do we all. This attempt to discredit my claims is simply to say: “Well, you’ve never been subject to the feelings of a parent for his child. So dispite your currently objective viewpoint, those feelings will one day cloud your reasoning and justify your irresponsible behavior when you become a parent, just like it does the rest of us.” Perhaps so. And perhaps that is one of my reasons for writing this essay, that when that day comes, I can look back to this time when my vision was more clear. Either way, this is no credible rebuttal against my claims, but rather only an attempted excuse from them.
I began this essay by presenting the fundamental principle of the parent-child relationship that is prevalent in many societies around the world. I then presented the trend of the nature of that relationship across several generations over the past century and how that trend has, at some point along the way, lost any indication of a defining point of a child’s transition to adulthood, a rite of passage. Now I believe the lack of this decisive event has caused some of the social and family conflicts I’ve observed over the recent years. Of course, there are children who are perfectly content to remain under the shadow of their parents until whenever. And there are parents of such children who are perfectly content to take care of them until whenever. But for the most part, that is not the case. Due to such things as a personal dream that has finally made its way into consciousness or that special someone that just walked into life and said ‘Hello,’ children usually come to the point when they want to begin building their own lives. They come to the point where they want to live their own dreams, make their own decisions, claim responsibility for their own mistakes, and take their place among a world of independent adults who all do the same. But many parents disagree. They disagree that the child’s dreams are realistic. They disagree that the child’s decisions are the best. They disagree that responsibility and mistakes are a necessary part of development. They disagree that their child is an adult ready for the world of independence. And who has the right to challenge their position? Certainly not the child in question, who clearly is not viewed as an authority. Certainly not friends, family, or other mentors who are viewing the situation from the ‘outside’ and can thus not be an authority. The most credible authority is law, which states that a child is a legal adult at 18 years. Yet even the credibility of law is often countered by the excuse that laws are for generalizations and that each case must be determined uniquely. That leads back to the ultimate authority being placed upon the parents themselves and leaves the child in an imprisoning cycle of authority in which the only escape is rebellion (the typical modern rite of passage, in my opinion), which, for ethical youngsters, is a violation of the principle of parent-child relationship. Any attempt to gain independence is seen as the vice of the child rather than the vice of the parents. Many ‘primitive’ cultures have overcome this problem by utilizing some form of rite of passage. Such an event carries several benefits. From the child’s position, the rite is something that is definite that he/she can securely anticipate, something that, when completed, will guarantee recognition as an adult. That gives the child a goal that, once obtained, can be reviewed as the pivotal point in which he/she must accept his/her own responsibilities without running home to ‘mom and dad,’ even when things are difficult. It forces the child to anticipate the outcomes of actions and seek guidance (as opposed to support) from his/her parents and other elders. It is a point of no return. From the parents’ position, it is a decisive point of accountability, not only to their child but also to their peers. It presents a defined moment when they must acknowledge to themselves, to their child, and to their peers that their child is now an adult, and once that moment occurs, any attempt to ‘hover’ over their child’s life is considered a vice to themselves – not to their child who is simply trying to live a normal life. Yet more ‘civilized’ cultures such as Western society have disregarded the value of such a rite, and in doing so I believe have created many of the problems that families deal with today.
I do not claim to know the answer to this problem. I am merely putting voice to a trend I’ve seen. It would be possible to address this problem by utilizing this rite of passage. But to do so would require cooperation between parents and children, and if such cooperation between parents and child were possible, the problem most likely would not exist between them to need the remedy. The greatest problem situations I’ve seen are those in which ethical (or religious) children, who wish to do the right thing and be respected by others, God, etc., are born to parents who are both inconsiderate to ethics (or religion) as well as being controlling or dominating. In these situations, the only choice the child has is to take a stand against the parents, which violates his/her ethical principles. Thus, it becomes a choice between two evils, and the most ethical child will make the selfless decision to be dominated until something external changes the situation, which is often a forlorn hope. However, I do believe it is possible for such a child to gain independence while remaining true to his/her ethical principles. It is simply a matter of perspective and devotion. To honor parents is to become an honorable adult while not rebelling against them. This was the case with me. There certainly were many tears shed and feelings hurt, but I never really rebelled against my parents. I simply came to the point where I drew the line and stood firmly upon it. I had to say, “I’m going out tonight, and I don’t know when I’ll be back, not because I’m rebelling but because I’m maturing,” and I saw to it that I neither met my parents’ demands nor blatantly abused their concerns. I would often call home when I was supposed to be home, signifying that I was acknowledging their concerns but that I still would return only when I decided. My decisions to be considerate to them helped them to recognize that I was responsible and that I wasn’t just rebelling. At first, I’d often come home to get the ‘silent treatment’ or worse yet, fights. But over time, I respectfully forced my parents to acknowledge that I was an independent adult capable of living my own life. Now, my relationship to my parents is stronger than ever. They are now quite elderly, and I know my time with them is very limited. I insure that I spend as much time with them as I can, helping them with things that they can no longer do. And I tell them that I’m doing it all not because of some sense that I should but because I love and respect them as my parents. It took a long while, but they are now very proud of me as their son who is an adult man they know they can depend upon. I can see the peace in my dad’s eyes when he realizes that he and my mother can age beyond their abilities to function yet still be cared for. This never would have occurred if I hadn’t forced myself and my parents to allow me to mature. This was the answer to my story.