“Sons”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations
Sons are hard. At least, I find it so with my son. My daughter is easier, for all of her fiery red-headed temper and die-on-every-hill determination. I share her stubbornness, and she is also much like my wife. I have decades of experience navigating those waters! Perhaps more to the point, because she is female, she is so different from me that I have no trouble drawing boundaries between us.
That's not true with Marky. He is so much like me that at times I feel like an outside observer looking at myself. He has the same hair, the same smile, the same dry wit. When he flops his ever-lankier body down on the couch, I feel the same movements in my muscles and bones. He is my son, and he could be no one else’s.
Perhaps I deceive myself, but I see so much potential in him. He is capable of both great compassion and great insight. When called on to care for me, he does so with attentiveness and discretion, like a highly trained servant. In Tennessee, his best friend had a peanut allergy, so he resolved never to eat peanut butter—not even in peanut butter cups!—for fear of cross-contamination. Though he has not obeyed the gospel, he spent part of the worship service yesterday writing a page-long meditation about how God's goodness proves His existence.
And yet, he remains an 11-year-old boy. He inherited my mouth but not my 30 extra years of experience in learning how to control it. He frequently puts on displays of great cleverness ungoverned by sound judgment or good sense. He avoids hard work with the same diligence with which he avoids brushing his teeth.
I see these things, and it makes me afraid for him. My father taught me so much through boyhood and early adulthood, but I know that Marky will go through his teenage years without me. It is my single greatest grief about dying. What if he never learns to apply himself? What if he wastes his potential in self-indulgence and self-pity?
I pray for him often, more than I pray for my own health. I also catch myself trying to compress 15 years’ worth of instruction into two. Some of this is harmless. He doesn't need my dating advice now, but he might remember some of it when he does.
Some of it isn't. It drives me around the bend when I see him slacking, and I let him know about that. Loudly. At length. I do the same when he pulls one of his stunts despite having been warned about the consequences if he did.
That hurts him. He finds his failure so difficult to contemplate that he shuts down emotionally, which I intuitively understand as a refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing. Sometimes I recognize what's happening and pull back; sometimes not.
The problem, though, goes deeper than a shortage of parenting time. Yesterday, I was talking with one of my oldest friends, someone who has known me since I wasn't much older than Marky. Marky ran up to my chair, grinned, and began scowling and grimacing theatrically while inches away from my face. I shooed him away and remarked ruefully to my friend, “He’s my son, all right.”
“Yes,” she replied. “Isn't it wonderful?”
My son problem, you see, isn't really a son problem. It's a me problem. My hard line on hard work reflects my own pathological fear of being thought lazy. When I rebuke his foolish cleverness, I am condemning my own, for I am often more clever than wise. Because he is so much like me, he receives the same savage, intolerant criticism that I lavish on myself.
To be the father he needs, first I must quell that internal critic. My son is far from perfect, but so was I, and so am I. Despite my anxious striving to do right, my only hope for perfection is not self-correction, but grace. Only as I accept that can I accept him.
This ability to accept and extend grace is one of the most vital parenting attributes. It’s not the same thing as indulgence or neglect, for grace can only exist in the presence of wrongdoing. Instead, it is the acknowledgement of humanness in both our children and ourselves.
I suspect that if I am driven by fear and self-loathing to withhold grace from my son, I will make him into precisely what I fear he will become. Rather, I must reconcile myself to where he is, setting standards but leaving room for growth and trusting him to grow, even if I won't be around to see it.
Stillness of soul is hard for me when it comes to him. I suspect it is hard for all good parents because we care so desperately. However, no matter how much we care, we cannot control our children. We can guide, but it's up to them to find the good way and walk in it themselves.