March 14, 2009

Teenage runaways and clear-hearted compassion

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Lady Taking Tea. 1735.

Sometimes we have put ourselves at the top of a busy day and schedule time to sit and sip. Time to relax at our favorite table and watch the steam rising from delicate teacups.

Teatime is a deliciously guilty pleasure...a time to do nothing for anyone other than myself. I'll admit to making a little extra tea for others, while secretly hoping they leave me be. Sip, sip, sip until nothing remains but a fine residue of leaves in the bottom of my cup. I haven't figured out how to read my future in green tidbits, but thank goodness I couldn’t predict the twists and turns my life would take at fifty.

One of the last entries on my blog referred to my nephew's latest fugue from the harsh confines of our three-women-and-no-man home. As readers, you might sympathize with a boy growing up in a home like ours. In his attempts to define himself as separate though, he decided to emulate the fabled heroes of American cinema and live in public buildings rather than submit to house rules he found totally unacceptable. I presume he believed this was the path to Independence and Success, becoming the 'self-made man' our American culture so loves to admire.

I qualified that last paragraph with 'fabled' since nobody is self-made or independent. But it's a useful illusion for arrogant people lacking gratitude and humility---pretending to themselves and others that they made it on their own.

Moment of Truth: Nobody gets out of diapers without assistance from someone. *wink*
After my nephew was returned home by a couple of seasoned police, he was sentenced to 80 hours of Community Service as recompense for his anti-social activities. We were given a list of charitable organizations accepting labor from teen-age runaways (not easy to do since most charitable organizations do not have time to supervise their help! They aren't there to serve as babysitters either; nor teach kids how to make moral choices).

My sister, daughter and I ran through all the available options and this time, we put ourselves first. We got out the teacups, peered into an uncertain future, and predicted what would most likely happen if we thought with our hearts instead of our heads. We decided that if the service project required OUR TIME and OUR ENERGY, we would check it off the list as an unviable option. We made sure that whatever service he provided; we would NOT be turning his fugue into a Family Bonding Moment.
If he was big enough to make big decisions on his own, he was big enough to suffer big consequences on his own.

Might I add that if he didn’t like The Law in my house, he really doesn’t like The Law in uniforms?

Our decision to back off is a long way from where many parents are when a child acts up and expresses remorse for breaking social rules. It's far too easy for parents to feel sorry for their child and dismiss bad behavior as adolescent error. Well, hell yes it was an error, which is exactly why he needs to feel the full force of that fact before he does the same thing again.

Don't think this was easy for us, though. Don't think his tears didn’t trigger us, or that we didn’t feel compassion for his misery. Rather, it's because of our compassion for him that we ALLOWED him to take full responsibility for himself.

If we really love him and if we believe he is more than the sum of his mistakes, we will let him suffer the aftermath of his decisions. His own experience will be his best teacher in the future. If it hurts bad, he needs to know it’ll hurt even badder the next time which may deter him from repeating the same mistake---whether he ever understands moral responsibility or not.

If a child has trouble sensing right from wrong, then allowing him the opportunity to experience negative consequences without our interference, will teach him more than any long-winded lecture a parent might deliver.

Pain is a universal compass when an innate moral guidance system is faulty.


Referenced blog entry: 


  1. Welcome back - Lord, you've been missed!!!

    "If a child has trouble sensing right from wrong, then allowing him the opportunity to experience negative consequences without our interference, will teach him more than any long-winded lecture a parent might deliver. 

    Pain is a universal compass when an innate moral guidance system is faulty."

    Absolutely brilliant in its simplicity and accuracy. And very, very wise. You are doing nothing whatsoever that would gratuitously augment his pain. You are also doing nothing that would gratuitously shelter him from the direct consequences of his behavior.

    Rare balance. And I know it comes at a price. It hurts like hell to watch these things happen to people we love... but it's going to hurt worse, ultimately, if these things don't happen now, or aren't a sufficient deterrent.

    There's nothing loving about enabling - nothing at all. Brava, CZ. [No accident, is it, that Brava - literally - means brave.]

  2. Dear Stormchild,

    I appreciate your support. Very much. This latest crisis has knocked the wind out of our sails because it was so unexpected. We aren't screamers, dreamers or schemers in my household so having a young man decide it was better to live on the streets was a shocker for all of us.

    He was unprepared for the Reality Check he got, though. Sleeping on the streets is not nearly as heroic as Will Smith's portrayal in "The Pursuit of Happyness."

    My nephew didn't end up becoming a successful stock broker on Wall Street, he ended up in juvenile detention with one crummy blanket in a cold, concrete room.

    Now That's a Wake-Up Call.


    (C=Courage, and Z for Zoologist)


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