By Scott Keith –
Disclaimer: I am not a clinical or any other type of psychologist, nor do I claim to have any expertise in that field. I am a husband, parent, associate dean, college professor, and theologian who like my mentor is interested in the intersection between the theology of the Reformation and fatherhood. I am not an expert, just a thinker.
Is there a difference between an unhealthy and a healthy reliance? I recently wrote a blog for the 1517 Legacy Project, “On Being a Dad-A Tribute to Dr. Rod Rosenbladt.” Needless to say that this was a difficult thing to write and has consumed much of my mental energy since it’s posting. As I have ruminated on this topic, it has become clear to me that possessing a view of fathers such as I do––that is that they are the models of grace in the home––creates in my children a reliance on me that seems endless and unbounded. This reality scares me. I am the original criticizer of helicopter and snowplow parents and wonder if that is I.
I see in my kids, even the grown and married one, a deep reliance on me, and my wife for that matter, and I wonder about that health of that relationship.
I once had a conversation with Dr. Rod Rosenbladt about this when I was a much younger man with much younger children. He told me that he had received criticism from a friend saying that his children were too reliant on him. To which, if I recall, Rod told me he retorted: “maybe, but it’s a healthy reliance.” This statement from Rod in turn caused me to think: What does a healthy reliance from grown-child to parent or parents look like? In my position at the university, I see many parent-grown child relationships that seem unhealthy. I feel I could recognize this unhealthy reliance from a mile away, but a healthy one seems a little more vague to me.
Ironically, in my world this seems to be a pretty hot topic. The last time I was together with the Koch’s (not the night we were talking about how nice I am not) we discussed this same topic. How much reliance from grown-child to parent is too much reliance? Perhaps the best way to approach this is to break the question down into its pieces parts and examine each situation. By doing this, we can compare and contrast between unhealthy reliance and a healthy reliance.
From what I have observed an unhealthy reliance shares some common behaviors. First, when parents foster an unhealthy reliance, they seem to be afraid to allow their children to get hurt, experience loss, fail, or go through situations that are extremely difficult. Second, parents in this relationship with their children seem to be afraid to say “no,” ever, for fear that their children will no longer love them. These same parents seem to be willing to sacrifice everything while refusing to allow their grown-children to sacrifice anything. In turn, the grown-children seem to see these sacrifices on the part of their parents as privileges to which they are entitled; these are perks really of being lucky enough to be born as children of their parents.
A healthy reliance, on the other hand, is still a very giving relationship, but it is gracious, not smothering. A healthy reliance does not hide from the fact that children––even grown children––are sinners, and will at times get hurt, experience loss, failure, and go through extremely difficult life situations. In turn, because a relationship of healthy reliance does not hide from this reality, parents will allow their children to experience those very difficult aspects of living in a sinful world. But, because a healthy reliance is gracious, it will not bring unyielding condemnation or sanctimony down on grown-children when they experience failure, but will help them to pick up the pieces. The pieces can be picked up in many ways, (I would not presume to know what is best for you or your family in any particular situation) but will always set the grown-child free to make the same damn mistakes again. The theme here is gracious and free.
Parents are free to be gracious, and grown-children are free to fail. There is no dictate. Parents are free to create magic in the lives of their children while still allowing them to exercise their own freedom, take risks, and pursue their own lives.
How many times will a grown-child fail before we stop helping them? I’m not sure, but I know that if their reliance is on our love for them, the grace that we show on them, and the freedom with which we trust them, we are on the right track. If Rod is an example, and he has been for me, a healthy reliance is about grace, love, trust, freedom, and mercy. These seem to be characteristics, with which we, as Christians, should already be familiar. Those of us who know we are helpless sinners in need of a gracious Father to save us on account of His mercy shown to us in Christ, will know that we parents have no greater example. We are shadows, imperfect reflections, of his love for us, but we are shadows of this love nonetheless. We rely on His love for us on account of Christ, and from the outside looking in that probably looks unhealthy. But we who are bathed in Christ’s love know that there is no healthier reliance, which we could ever dream to find. My goal is to be a shadow of that healthy reliance as I forge this new relationship with my growing, and grown children.