Evidently, helicopter parenting is all the rage. And the results are visible beyond the playground, all the way up to the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, we have subtly and perhaps unknowingly shifted the meaning of family. Historically, families have been viewed as the context for teaching character and establishing our most important relationships. More and more families are seen as a means to establishing financial success.
“Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed a disturbing trend during her decade as a dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper. But with each year, more of them seemed incapable of taking care of themselves. (emphasis added)
“At the same time, parents were becoming more and more involved in their children’s lives. They talked to their children multiple times a day and swooped in to personally intervene anytime something difficult happened.
“From her position at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, Lythcott-Haims came to believe that mothers and fathers in affluent communities have been hobbling their children by trying so hard to make sure they succeed, and by working so diligently to protect them from disappointment and failure and hardship.”
Vivian Gornick wrote a review of the book “Why Grow Up: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age,” and hiding in there I found a few great observations, and several golden sentences that beautifully express the great contradiction of human nature: that we are both full of virtue and potential, yet also perennially evil and powerless to do what we know is right. For Christians this is understood in the tension between the image of God and common grace on the one hand set against original sin on the other.
“The desire to submit to the constraints of established authority at the very same time that we long to break loose of them seems to me a fair account of one of the major miseries of the human condition.”
She also talks about the human tendency toward revolution and says that throughout history, “the cycle of submission and rebellion repeats itself, without much permanent progress having been made.” Consistently today’s revolutionary liberator becomes tomorrow’s oppressive tyrant.
Gornick also says, “The catch is that learning to think for oneself is not a given; it is an ideal, one achieved only with immense effort. We resist making the effort as it involves damned hard work.”
“The Hebrew philosopher Hillel urged that we do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Kant urged, similarly, that we not make instrumental use of one another. With all the good will in the world—and remarkable numbers of people have it—we have not been able to make these noble recommendations carry the day. Not because we are lazy or venal or incompetent but because most of us live in a state of inner conflict that makes purity of behavior an impossibility. Every day of our lives we transgress against our own longing to act well: our tempers are ungovernable, our humiliations unforgettable, our fantasies ever present. We cannot stop ourselves from scorning, dismissing, challenging, and discounting. We spend years on the couch struggling to make our reasoning intelligence subdue our impassioned outbursts. When given a recipe for the good life, we want these realities on the ground incorporated in the mix.
“Aside from that of our own permanently conflicted selves, another unchanging reality is that the world as it is has been decried since time immemorial. Throughout history women and men have been writing—letters, diaries, poems, and novels—claiming theirs the worst time ever. While many have been truly horrendous, not one is without some redeeming feature.”
Earlier today I went to visit my mom. She has lived in a nursing home for more than a year. She was recently admitted to the “regular” hospital for a severe infection in her legs. The skin is red, and swollen, and hard from just below the knee. It is “cellulitis.” She has had battled this unsuccessfully for years. The medications fight off the infection, but it always returns with fire. This time it was bad. The doctor said if it wasn’t treated she could end up loosing her legs. At the hospital, the lab tests revealed it was a drug resistant strain- MRSA.
After several days she was able to return to the nursing home. She will be confined to an isolation room for a while. But she still has her legs, thank God. Though they still look red and swollen.
After wiggling my large frame into the required yellow gown, and putting on the gloves, I entered her room. My dad was there visiting her, as he does every day. He is there every day his own health allows him to come. While I was there a couple of things occurred to me.
First, I am aware of my father’s love for her. Today she was doing so-so. Not the best, not the worst. But her mind wasn’t clear. Whether it was the medications or the infection, she was drifting off to sleep. When she spoke, it made some sense, but something wasn’t right. She reminded me of the aged Bilbo in the last Lord of the Rings movie. She would fall asleep while sitting in her wheel chair and the sudden bob of her head would startle her awake. Then she would look around embarrassed a little and laugh. We both encouraged her to lay down. She took a long time to make this short journey. She kept getting distracted and falling back asleep. She rearranged the dishes on her tray. She rechecked the locks on the wheel chair. She switched some of the pillows. It was frustrating because we were standing there waiting to help her and it was almost like she didn’t realize this.
And my dad was there. I made eye contact with him, both of us realizing that something wasn’t right. That her behavior was awkward. I smiled to him, trying to indicate that it was OK and there was no need for excuses or embarrassment. He smiled back. He is 78, and his own health is not great. He has battled through cancer, a heart attack, and several vascular surguries. But he is a faithful man in the real sense of that word. And he has kept his vows to love my mother through the long years of sickness. To love her when love isn’t easy. To love her when the doctors don’t have any answers and there isn’t much hope. I was there with them today and this is what stood out to me. His love. A bright light in a dark cave. No doubt this is a gift of God’s grace. I am thankful for a dad like this. I want to be like him.
Second, I thought about my own future. This could be me some day. If I have the privilege of growing old, one day my body will give up. I may end up in a nursing home. What would that be like? I know my mom hates it here. When we talk about this, I usually remind her that this is the best we can do under the circumstances. The nursing home is actually a pretty good one. But still no one wants this. But all things considered, this is where she can get the care she needs. And even with all this, she is still pretty sick. Maybe some day, this will be me. How would I feel about it?
Or maybe I will be the one visiting. Maybe my wife will be the one that is sick and stuck in a tough spot. Today as I visited my mom, I was aware of the possible future that I would rather not consider. But, I want to at least think about this. And I want to take it seriously. And I want to behave differently because I thought about it. I don’t want to arrive here at some point in the future and hate myself because I was too proud or too rushed to make such deliberations.