The other day my husband, Bill, said to me, “Don’t take this as an insult, but you have a very low tolerance level for dependent people.”
This is funny, coming from the only human being on earth upon whom I depend regularly and desperately. But he’s right. Nothing gets on my nerves more than unwarranted neediness.
We raised four strong, independent adult sons. I am beginning to see that my intolerance for dependence contributed somewhat to this outcome. Even so, God’s grace is still my final answer to anyone who asks how we did it. We didn’t. God did.
Bill reminded me of a phone conversation I had years ago with our friend, Delores.
Delores was the less likable, female counterpart of our homeless-ish friend, Bob, in our small Pennsylvania town. She was, how to say this? Gnarly. In the literal meaning of the word. One day my friend Lynel and I drove Delores to visit her boyfriend at the federal penitentiary near us—hands down the scariest edifice I have ever laid eyes on. When we picked her up a few hours later, we couldn’t help but notice the seven or eight hickeys blooming on her neck. Hickeys on the neck of a gnarly woman are a ghastly sight. To this day, I can’t think about prison visitation without my toes curling.
Anyway, Delores was all ask and no give. One day she called me (I had four small boys at the time) and said, “Kitti, can you do me a favor today and come clean my house?”
“Oh no, Delores,” I said, genuinely concerned and yet suspicious, “Did you hurt yourself? Are you sick?”
“No,” she said, “but, sometimes I just wake up, you know, and I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t have any motivation.”
To which I said, “I know what you mean. I feel that way too sometimes, but you know what I do on those days when I need to do something but don’t feel like it?”
“I do it anyway!”
End of conversation.
Not long after we moved away from Delores and Pennsylvania, Bill and I visited a wilderness program for kids and saw this plaque on the wall of the office:
I will not insult you by doing for you what you can do for yourself.
Our boys wish I’d never seen those words. But I’m glad because they gave me a tagline for those times when they leaned the ladder of their responsibilities on me. I’d tip the ladder back at them and say it, air quotes and all.
But this is not easy to live out. It’s one of those mom-tensions that no mom I know of gets right all the time. For every time I did not tolerate unhealthy dependence, I not only tolerated it, but I also welcomed it. I remember one son calling Bill to complain about his first day of training at a new job. I overheard Bill say, kindness not oozing out, but idling in the back of his voice, “I know you want sympathy right now, but that’s not what you need.”
I eavesdropped, fighting the urge to scribble a note to Bill pressing him to be nicer. Oh, we moms are experts at sympathy, and we are, I admit, experts at doing for our kids what they can do for themselves.
Hear that sound? You think it is the great sucking noise of your kid’s needs, but it might be the sound of your need for them to need you.
So, if you’re tempted to foster dependence in your kids, here are some reasons not to:
We die without purpose. But I am not sure being a mom to our sons was ever my primary purpose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the purpose question this way: Man’s chief end is to know God and to enjoy him forever. When I substitute mothering for this, my chief end, I lose my moorings big time. I start to think doing things for my children is my primary purpose instead of an ancillary one. Lately, I’ve thought that the very first way I achieved my mom-purpose was to birth our boys. What on earth did I have to do with that? Babies get here by God’s design, and all our planning to do it “right” is just fluff. I guess what I’m saying here is that life’s purpose is much bigger than my particular roles in it.
I challenge you to give this oldest, most powerful adversary of moms everywhere the boot. It is a flimsy motivation for your actions. No, it does not look sweet or kind to make your kids do things for themselves that other moms are out there doing with such beatific smiles on their faces. I made our boys do their own laundry by the time they were 12. I didn’t make them make their own lunches or meals. I happen to love doing that. But we made them buy their own cars and contribute to the insurance in an environment where most kids were given cars on their 16th birthdays, so this took a measure of parental fortitude. I don’t recommend this exact course of action, but I do recommend making a few parenting choices that fly in the face of the culture. It feels good. It frees you up. “They” can’t be right every time, after all.
I hear wives say this all the time: “If I didn’t (fill in the blank… pay the bills, discipline the children, cut the grass), he wouldn’t.” In marriage, it is easier to see how unhealthy this is. But it’s not much different in parenting. So much of my doing for our kids was a timing issue. It certainly appeared that they would never do it (study for the test, read those summer books, clean their bathrooms). My timetable was always, and I mean always, faster than theirs. In the lag time between my expectations and their actions rose up this monster-headed terror that they would never… never… never. But let me suggest a more realistic fear. Remember Delores? Do I really want children who—years from now—don’t know how to act independently of others? It occurs to me that the better part of raising independent children is patience. Making them dependent on you now may get quick results, but is that worth it?
4. Dependence on God.
I met Jesus Christ when I was 16 years old. One theme of my life since then has been the shedding of my self-dependence for utter dependence on Christ alone. Daily, moment-by-moment, I lean the ladder of my whole life on him. Sure, our kids learn to depend on God early on by depending on us. But at some point, each of our sons stepped all the way away from us and began to depend on God. They did this independently of us, which is the only way. As Corrie Ten Boom said, “God has no grandchildren, only children.” A wise mom once told me that our job as parents was to gradually transfer our son’s accountability from us to God. I love that word gradually. It has a margin for error in it. It speaks of a grace this intolerant, independent, inconsistent mom can depend on.
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