“To raise any child is to live in the constant presence of a miracle and a mystery.”
Wow. Jim McDermott hit the nail on the head with that one. As is often the case, my musings are inspired by others’ commentary. Within the context of McDermott’s recent article, the above statement may be nothing more than a nice transition between paragraphs. But, for me, the weight of the line stopped me cold thinking about the awesome gift of parenting and teaching teens. Allow me to dissect.
Any child. What’s the difference between raising a child and raising any child? Raising a child infers a familial tie and/or a level of direct responsibility for their welfare. This often extends to our friends’ children and our children’s friends. Within the context of teaching, that might mean distinguishing between those whom “I have in class” and those who aren’t. The associated obligation is apparent. Even when encountering a particularly difficult child, we do our best to guide and support.
But what about everyone else - those outside our direct sphere of influence? It’s alarmingly easy to dismiss the “any” child. This isn’t meant to suggest that we need to go out of our way to mentor every young person we encounter. But there’s a basic level of acknowledgement and dignity that each person deserves, particularly teens who need the modeling of others. This begins with recognizing the miracle and the mystery within. From there, let the spirit guide you.
Living in the constant presence. The crux of parenting teens can be summed up in one word - accompaniment. Surely our physical presence matters, but our emotional and intellectual presence matters more as life’s pace seems to increase. We often talk about the precious moments, but the sad reality is that with every passing year most teens would prefer fewer and fewer of those moments to involve mom and dad. Long gone are the days of micro-soccer when your child would immediately run to you for a hug after the final whistle. Certainly being present still means showing up for games and performances. But more often, it means having the “open for business” sign illuminated. Though your child might not enter the shop as often as you’d like, they’ll know you’re there and available.
The miracle. Earlier this summer I was listening to a speaker sharing St. Ignatius’ vision of God as being intimately involved in our world, constantly laboring in creation and redemption. Our being and that of our children are part of God’s ongoing miracle of creation. In addition and more importantly, because everything around us is in a constant state of creation and re-creation, our relationship to those things is constantly changing as well. As the speaker suggested, we are “swept up every day” in the creation story. Our options, then, are to engage as co-creators or to simply go along for the ride.
Pablo Picasso once said, “Every act of creation begins with an act of destruction.” If that’s the case, most teens are REALLY good at creating! Every day is a roller coaster ride of destroyed and reconstructed relationships, broken promises followed by repair, lies and deception followed by acknowledgement and growth. Our role in the miracle that is that child is to help them see past the destruction and embrace the creation.
The mystery. Whether it’s an Agatha Christie novel or an episode of Scooby-Doo, everyone loves a good mystery. In biblical Greek, the term mystery refers to "that which awaits disclosure or interpretation." The high school years are all about finding oneself. Teens aren’t just a mystery to us, they’re a mystery to themselves, and this can be quite disconcerting to all involved.
What should we do with these teen mysteries? Just like a novel, the key is to keep reading - always looking for clues until, one day, a truth is revealed. These are magical moments. We see inside, getting at least a partial glimpse into the talents, hopes, dreams, insecurities, and roadblocks that exist within. Our hearts swell. We love unconditionally.
Of course, it’s easy for me to romanticize raising teens at this point in my life. My wife and I have made it to the other side. Our four kids are in their 20s and are, thus far, functioning young adults. Does that sound like a low bar? I don't think it is! Life is hard, which brings me back to the idea of God laboring in redemption.
TEENS ARE SO INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING! Teachers in particular have been around enough students to recognize patterns of self-destructive behavior. Parents, too, remember all the dumb things they did in their youth. If teens would just listen to us, they would save themselves from so much angst and disappointment! Obviously, that’s not the way it works.
We parents and teachers don’t get to be the arbiters of all decisions regarding right and wrong that our children make. God doesn’t even do that - at least not out loud. When does God intercede? As seldom as possible. Because of the grace of free will and the fact that temptation and evil exist in the world, this can lead to some pretty big messes. So when is God actively redeeming? On the back end. After all, without the mess, there’s no need for redemption.
Being the parent or teacher of a teen means being a redeemer a thousand times over. We all make messes. Teens, though, have a knack for making BIG messes, some of which can leave them feeling pretty desperate. Helping them get beyond the mess is what matters. Notice I said “get beyond” and not “clean up” the mess. In the journey to adulthood, the clean up is for the teen to do.
In the end, our role in all of this is to model for teens a framework for living a just and honorable life that recognizes the vast capacity of the human spirit. This is a role of love and forgiveness. In this way, "living in the constant presence of a teen" is actually calling us to be our best selves; and I know very few post-teen parents who don’t feel that to be true.
Here’s to the 2022-23 school year…
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President
vol 5 issue 1