The Struggle to Accept ‘Zero Agency’

At one point – many, many years ago – I seriously entertained the idea that one day I would open up my own custom automotive shop, the primary focus being on high-end sound systems, flashy exterior modifications and after-market detail work. This is perhaps not too surprising for a kid growing up on the outskirts of Detroit in the 1970’s, breathing in the turbo-charged atmosphere of what was (back then, anyway) the automobile capital of the world. Like just about every other male in the area – but particularly true during junior high and high school – I spent countless hours getting greasy under the hood of my car and crawling around on the garage floor.

Nowadays? I don’t even change my own oil.

At some point, I started to understand that my “spare” time was actually worth something – I could attach a dollar value to it, if nothing else. And so, for me, it just made more “dollars spent vs. time lost” sense to begin allowing a mechanic to take care of this routine chore (and all other car repair, for that matter). Priorities had drastically shifted and several on-the-ground realities of work and family life made countless hours spent in the garage untenable. Even so, my pulse will noticeably quicken when driving past a new car lot or being exposed to a television show about custom car shops. Tearing down and rebuilding vehicles even yet swims around somewhere deep in my DNA.

With all that in mind, I’d ask you to imagine for a moment that I have diligently searched and found the ultimate classic muscle car of my dreams, something my heart had been yearning for ever since I could differentiate between regular gas and diesel. Having driven my dream car back to my ultimate custom car shop, with every possible tool I would ever need immediately at hand, I at once begin to take the car apart and break it down into a pile of parts, meticulously cleaning, sanding, painting and so forth until the point where everything is “just so.” When every part has been reconfigured to my exacting specifications, I then begin to put the car back together again, one shiny well-oiled bolt at a time.

Now imagine that I have been engaged in this automotive love fest with much love, time and money for a period of 18 years. The time then comes – for whatever reason – that I must now sell the car to someone else. Of course I am reluctant to sell, as this particular car has occupied so much of my heart and my attention; I have spent incalculable time, talent and treasure making this car the very best that it can possibly be. How difficult, then, to hand it over to someone else, someone who may or may not value the car as highly as I do? How much worse, we can imagine, to subsequently drive by this particular masterpiece on the road, and to realize that the new owner couldn’t care less about maintaining the shiny chrome up front, the custom upholstery or the factory-specifications paint job into which we poured so much time and effort?

And yet, how absurd would it be were I to slam on my brakes, execute a screeching 180-degree turn in the middle of the road, follow the new owner of the car home and then begin to surreptitiously “fix” all of the things that he or she was ignoring with regard to the upkeep of “my” beloved car? As the new owner thoughtlessly ate dinner, slept or watched TV inside the comfort of his or her home, there I would be in the driveway…emptying out the fast-food trash, cleaning the countless smashed bugs out of the grillwork, checking the inflation and road-worthiness of every tire (including the spare) and at least making sure that all of the fluids were topped off…only to have the owner walk out the very next day and show as little disregard for my masterpiece as the day before?

Were something like this to actually take place, I’m sure that we would all rightly call this behavior unhealthy (and perhaps insane). This car, the one we’ve legally sold to someone else, is no longer ours to maintain. What was once “ours” is, in point of fact, no longer ours, and every time we indulged our desire to care for what-is-not-ours, we could rightly be blamed for assuming responsibility where none exists. In this hypothetical scenario, were the unasked-for car maintenance to continue, I have to think it would not be long before a restraining order was put in place.

Applying this vivid word picture to our family lives, I am convinced that many parents would completely agree with the assessment that this eccentric behavior is wildly unhealthy but then might, in the very next instant, field a phone call from their 20-something child who had, through their own foolishness and lack of planning, managed to get the power turned off to their home. The strong temptation would be to “run after” their kids and “fix” this thing that the grown adult really should have taken care of on their own. How many times have we all seen this sort of scenario play out in real life?

Like it or not, whenever we run around trying to patch up the various messes our grown children have gotten themselves into, we very often are “rewarded” for our efforts with even more of the careless behavior that caused the problem in the first place. Soft landings are notoriously bad life coaches.

Lately, there have been a lot of good sermons and excellent discussions about how our generation of parenting has produced young adults who are quite inadequate to the challenges presented by the ordinary everyday stressors of what we might call, “real life.” If you have yet to become part of this conversation, I would like to urge you to read “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy” as a jumping-off point, listen to the follow-up discussion (“How Good Parents Ruin Their Kids“) that took place on Feb. 10 at The Crossing and then hear Dave Cover briefly address this topic in his sermon from Feb. 17 (“Right-Side-Up Joy“). The question that we are being asked to grapple with basically boils down to, “Are we courageous enough in our parenting to allow our kids, for their own benefit and instruction, to fall flat on their faces from time to time?”

I am deeply sympathetic to this generation of parents. I am one. As a kid who grew up within the “basically ignored” paradigm, I also fell too swiftly and deeply into the mistake of trying to be an over-involved parent, a “helicopter father” all too eager to swoop in and fix whatever was wrong in the lives of my children. At some point not too long ago, though, I was finally able to place myself solidly within the word picture* offered above, a “too-concerned mechanic” sitting outside on the cold driveway, scraping bugs out of grillwork I knew all too well would be similarly defiled the very next day. This was a good and God-honoring wake-up call, and my love for my kids has by no means decreased as I have pulled back and accepted the “loss of agency” as they grow into real-world problems with no simple solution. In fact, seeking to love them harder by allowing them to screw up has had the unexpected side-effect of actually deepening my love and concern.

Funny how that works. (Proverbs 13:24; 23:13)

A Prayer About Gospel Parenting
By Scotty Smith, “Everyday Prayers

Unless the Lord builds the house,
  those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
  the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
  and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
  for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
  the fruit of the womb a reward (Psalm 127:1-3)

Heavenly Father, it’s a joy to address you today as the architect and builder of your own house – including the household of faith and my children’s place in your family.

As I look back over the years of my pragmatic parenting, I’m saddened, but I am also gladdened, for you’ve always been faithful to your covenant love, even when I was overbearing and under-believing. The move from parenting by grit to parenting by grace has been a fitful but fruitful journey. Take me deeper; take me further.

You’ve rescued me from a parental “laboring in vain” – assuming a burden you never intended parents to bear. Father, only you can reveal the glory and grace of Jesus to our children. Only you can give anyone a new heart. You’ve called us to parent as an act of worship – to parent “as unto you,” not as a way of saving face, making a name for ourselves, or proving our worthiness of your love.

Oh, the arrogant pride of thinking that by my “good parenting” I can take credit for what you alone have graciously done in the lives of my children. Oh, the arrogant unbelief of assuming that by my “bad parenting” I’ve forever limited what you will be able to accomplish in the future. Oh, the undue pressure our children must feel when we parent more out of our fear and pride than by your love and grace.

Since our children and grandchildren are your inheritance, Father, teach us – teach me – how to care for them as humble stewards, not as anxious owners. More than anything else, show us how to parent and grandparent in a way that best reveals the unsearchable riches of Jesus in the gospel. Give us quick repentances and observable kindnesses. Convict me quickly and surely when I do not relate to your covenant children “in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). I pray in Jesus’ faithful name. Amen.

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*I am indebted to Walter Coplen for this memorable word picture of inappropriate parenting boundaries.

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