13 Dear Jack: Don’t Lose Heart

 

Dear Jack,

My shifting faith away from Mormonism hasn’t created a problem with my parenting decisions – until now as my kids hit their teen years.

My 16-year old son hangs out with other kids who seem like nice, reasonable and fun teenagers. Often there will be a mix of them hanging out – a few boys, and one girl – let’s call her Katie. They all insist that nobody is hooking up with Katie, and do truly seem to be buddy-buddy with her. I believe him. So one night, Katie invited him to her house to hang out after a gathering, at 1AM. (1AM!) Then last night, I received a phone call from him asking if he could stay the night at a friend’s house after hanging out with this group. Turns out everybody is going to just crash there – including Katie.

Based on my gut, I said “no”. My son is truly confused as to why they can’t all just hang out and crash together – after all, we do let them hang out late at night together and there are parents at the house. Hey, part of me is super grateful that he is really comfortable with all sorts of mixed friendships and that he views Katie as an equal friend. Yet my jaw involuntarily drops to the floor when he doesn’t understand why this wouldn’t be OK with me. Is this my Mormon Conditioning messing with my head, or my inner wisdom guiding me? I can’t tell.

What do you think? Can I trust my gut here? SHOULD I trust my gut? How do I tell the difference? And, the clincher is – how do I explain to my son what I can’t explain to myself?

Sincerely yours,
Confounded

Dear Jack,
My son went through adolescence during my shift out of the Mormon faith. I have encouraged him to go to church with my husband who remains active, and we pair that with some historical/doctrinal inoculation, and a family value of developing critical thinking skills. We encourage him to choose for himself what he believes. So far, he seems to have weathered it all very gracefully, grasping nuances of belief, themes of metaphor and myth better than most grown adults. He attends church and seminary very regularly and happily, enjoying his Mormon community. Yet he self-proclaims, “I THINK I’m probably an agnostic”, and definitely leans toward Eastern Philosophy to answer his big existential questions.

Sounds great, right? So here’s my problem. With this shift in our family, despite multiple efforts to value higher education and work ethic, he is struggling to find his way. An easy-going, laid-back, and wickedly intelligent kid who just doesn’t care about school. His grades are suffering, and he doesn’t see the point of college or traditional life. It seems that without the clear-cut path of mission, BYU, marriage, and family – all things he’s not interested in – he has not found a vision for his future with which to hone his present. The openness of it all seems to have definitely affected him. We’ve recently completed the diagnostic process for learning disorders such as ADHD, and they’ve all come back negative.

While we’re grateful that there seem to be no disorder affecting his abilities, it leaves us as parents with the elusive problems of dealing with both laziness and apathy. So here’s my actual question for you….

What suggestions do you have for us as parents in this mixed (and very open) family culture to help our son build a new vision for himself? How do we combat laziness and apathy without being the Type-A over-achieving, harpy/shrewish, dogmatic religious type? Admittedly, that’s a loaded list, but how do we expect the best from our kid, when he no longer sees the point?

Many thanks,
Baffled

Dear Baffled and Confounded,

You’ve both been constantly in my thoughts for the last two weeks. I’ve been trying to come up with some good practical advice, but I keep coming back to the same thing over and over and I’m not sure either of you are going to like what I have to say. The thing is — I think it sounds like you are already doing everything “right,” it just isn’t making a difference. Not yet.

If I see any vestiges of Mormon conditioning in your letters, it isn’t about your gut saying no to mixed-gender sleepovers (that is between you and your gut and I do think your gut should be trusted. Some parents ban all kinds of sleepovers for all kinds of good reasons) or a desire to see your son achieve in a Type-A way without a Type-A mentality. No. If I see any leftovers, it’s your fear. It’s in your hope for a tidy solution, the little sliver of unconscious magical thinking that tells us there is a right way to parent so that our children will become upstanding, productive citizens in the way we’ve imagined them. Unfortunately, my dear friends, I just don’t think it works that way.

We know that every parent makes mistakes, but we still have no shortage of ideas about avoiding mistakes and being good parents — ideas about depression and ADHD and the proper diet and exercise and spirituality and the right amount of TV and talking to our kids frankly about sex and reading to them every night before bed and keeping them away from first-person shooter video games and being aware of sexting and Facebook and getting them involved in activities, but not too many activities, breastfeeding for at least a year and using a sling and expecting them to be kind and clean up their rooms and doing their homework with them and attending every parent teacher conference and getting them tutoring and counselling and listening to classical music while they are in the womb.  But sometimes it doesn’t matter. We can do every single one of those things and more and sometimes it won’t seem to make a bit of difference in the becoming of another human being.

Some people seem to go through the growing up process smoothly and some people seem to hit every bump along the way. I suspect you already know this, but let me remind you that if you know any Type-A overachieving Mormon families, you’ll know that some of those people did everything by the book and had some children that fell away or were complete messes. Sometimes it didn’t happen until after the mission and the temple marriage, but at some point there was a reckoning. You probably know some people that seemed to have it all together in high school and then fell apart in their 30s or 40s. You probably know some chaotic homes with parents who’ve done terrible things who produced incredibly resilient, accomplished kids. You probably know some kids that made huge mistakes in their teens and early twenties, mistakes they are living with today – some that have made them more compassionate and stronger and some that are still struggling. You probably know some kids that were a mess in high school who have gone on to become happy, healthy adults and you have every reason to hope that your sons will be the same. You probably also know that being a bad student in high school or making bad sexual choices in high school does not necessarily doom you to an unhappy life.

Even in abusive situations, there is not always a direct line between the successes and failures of the parents and the successes and failures of the children. We know this, we know that our children must own their own lives and ultimately live with their choices, especially as they get into the difficult teenage years. We know that there is no perfect formula, but we still resist this truth. We love our children and we rightly want to do everything we can to help them succeed, but we lose heart when our everything doesn’t seem to be working.

Don’t lose heart. Your sons are in the thick of it and you are all holding on for dear life, trying not to let things fly apart.  All you can really do is keep holding on and continue being the engaged, present parents you already are, rising to each challenge that comes and tackling it with the humor, love, honesty and courage your letters display. Keep adapting, keep trying, you owe your sons no explanation other than you are doing what you think is best. It may not turn Baffled’s son into a good student or keep Confounded’s son away from sexual activity. You may not see the fruit of your efforts for years to come, but I do have faith that honouring your best intentions in parenting will give you and your boys the best possible chance of making it through this time.

Blessings to you both.

Yours,

Jack

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