Several years ago, the twelve-year-old version of my oldest daughter single-handedly, and unintentionally placed the whole world into a state of suspended animation. This miracle of physics was created, neither through a Harry Potter-like incantation, nor through an Albert Einstein-like quantum equation. No. Annalise caused a momentary pause in the time-space continuum by simply uttering a completely innocent, yet, atom splitting kind of question.
“Daddy, did you ever try marijuana?”
The moment those words left her mouth, traffic immediately halted. Songbirds fell silent in mid-chirp. A stream of coffee that was just being poured at the local diner hung like an ice-cycle over an outstretched, empty cup. In the back seat of our vehicle, my children waited for an answer…an answer that I knew had the power to reshape their concept of dad…an answer that could potentially shape their concept of appropriate adolescent behavior.
In the twinkling of an eye, I consulted my inner-mental blackboard, scribbling, and then erasing a variety of complex answers. I momentarily weighed the Clinton Approach: “It depends upon your definition of ‘trying marijuana.'” I briefly considered performing a typical Psychotherapy Pirouette: “What is it in you that makes you want to ask this question?” I even thought about pointing out the window and yelling, “Look, a bald eagle in the middle of the city!”
In the end, I went with the Moral-Minimalist Approach, which involves providing an honest, but not necessarily open answer. Every teen and pre-teen comes equipped with a profoundly sensitive BS detector. After my less than forthcoming answer, Annalise shoved the microphone more fully under my nose with a flurry of follow-up questions. “You did! How many times?” I stuck with my minimalist approach and feigned nonchalance. I then proceeded with a necessary, but decidedly generic, and professorial speech about drugs and kids.
In this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 18:15-20), Jesus provided a step-by-step teaching on how to deal with a brother or sister who has taken a wrong turn off of the path. As a counselor, and a man with a past, I know how various gravel roads and alleyways will eventually be presented to my children as viable pathways to happiness. I know because I followed one or two of them far enough to glimpse their dead ends.
In the days that followed my conversation with Annalise, a gnawing feeling inside was telling me that my less than forthcoming narrative had meandered away from a pathway I had marked out for my relationship with her. Up until that conversation, honesty, and developmentally sensitive openness have characterized my relationship with Annalise. I determined to find an appropriate way to tell her the truth.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus made references to the authority that comes from subjecting one’s discernment to the light provided by a faith community. Before booking a talk with my daughter, I spoke with a couple of friends whose spiritual and psychological maturity I trusted. I bounced my talk off of them in an effort to make sure that my comments wouldn’t give Annalise some unintended permissions.
Knowing a child’s discomfort with heavy, deep, and real talks, I invited her on an “impromptu” bike ride. Side-by-side, our bicycles followed the contours of an empty country road while our conversation wound through my personal story. Through the medium of my life, Annalise and I were able to discuss important topics like peer pressure, bullying, the effects of isolation, our family’s genetic predisposition to addictions, and Christ’s ongoing power to set our feet back on higher ground.
The most effective interventions do not come from a “one up” position, but rather, from someone who is willing to own up to his or her status as a fellow wayfarer along the journey-someone who is willing to share from their common humanity. Real authority in any given relationship is earned from regular investments of trust and respect, and the willingness to show up with warmth and vulnerability.
I am a firm believer in self-fulfilling prophesies. If I look toward the ups and downs of teenaged years with dread, I believe that I will send 10,000 unconscious negative messages to my children about this developmental stage. I will create what I fear. Therefore, I steadfastly choose to look forward to the teen years with joyful anticipation. Having said that, should Annalise, John Harry, or Lizzie stumble, or one day take a wrong turn, I believe that I will be glad for the investments of trust and honesty I set aside for them at each stage of their lives. I also believe that the God who brought these unrepeatable miracles into existence will pursue every avenue to steer their steps back toward the path he has marked out for each of them.
Questions for Reflection
Have you ever taken a step off of the right path?
If so, have you ever deeply reflected, with the help of a spiritual director, or counselor on the factors that led your feet down the wrong pathway?
Through what people and circumstances did God place your feet back on higher ground?
What are the things in your life that keep your feet walking on the right path?
Are there any wounds from your own adolescence that condition how you view your own child’s teenage experience?
Are teenagers a joy to you?
When was the last time you allowed a teenager to call you to grow?