Taking responsibility

Over the past 150 years society has exerted tremendous pressure on people to outsource duties that were once part and parcel of family life, so that they might be more available to stoke the engines of industry. We gave in because the old way was hard and uncertain, rarely leading to unqualified success, and the promise of an “efficient” society—you focus on being good at one thing, we’ll take care of the rest—appealed to both our laziness and our fear of taking responsibility. We learned to leave as much as possible to the experts. They ended up living our lives for us.

I’m all for countering this trend by reclaiming responsibility. But I think we need to recognize that there’s no way to wind back the clock without winding back society itself. There once was a way of living where families were fully functioning groups, tending to their own needs while participating in and contributing to a larger community. But it worked because that was how people lived. The necessary pieces were there to inform you, guide you, support you, exhort you, and rebuke you as you walked a well-understood path. Now those pieces are gone, long discarded by a society that had made them irrelevant. And there’s no use pretending that we can recreate that intricate social mechanism by a sheer act of will. The task now is to find new ways forward, regaining the benefits that normal life once bestowed as a matter of course, trying our best to coexist with modernity while avoiding unhealthy entanglement with it.

We try to be fully responsible for our own family in the sense that we don’t blame our problems on outside forces or look to them for solutions. But we do not view our family as a project with a lofty goal, some sort of standard by which we judge our successes and failures. We do not micromanage our family, making sure that each member behaves
properly and despairing when they don’t. We simply give the other members of the family our best, feeding them well mentally and spiritually, not putting obstacles in their way, encouraging them to grow.

We took our oldest son out of school in the middle of second grade, not because of some abstract notion of responsibility, or because it was a hellish place, but because we realized that it was ridiculous to expect some underpaid, under-educated, overworked teacher to love him (and 23 other kids!) as much as we loved him. By turning him over to that environment we were neglecting our responsibility to him. Some people will find themselves in circumstances where that choice is not available to them; the expense or other obligations may prevent them from it. We counted ourselves fortunate that we could do it, not more pious or godly.

Even though we school at home, our kids find ourselves in environments where they learn from other people—neighbors, friends, music teachers, and so on. We do our best to make sure those won’t be damaging encounters, e.g. we’re careful not to turn them over to some authoritative blowhard who believes differently than us and will talk against us. But we also teach our children how to deal with such situations when they run into them, and we put our trust in them and in God to watch over us all.

Our older children have adopted our deliberate approach to life, but only to the extent that we have walked the walk, not talked the talk. It’s easy to be valiant and principled while talking about what you would do in a particular situation. But as we attempted to walk that talk, we found that such walking requires compromise and creativity and generosity that isn’t required by mere talking. And so we’ve tried to let our children see us meet each situation as it arises, thinking it through, not falling back on mechanical rules or pat teachings to resolve them.

I see many young adults who are willing and eager to rattle off the "truth" as they’ve learned it from their parents, church, or favorite teacher. It often sounds like rote learning to me, and I’m never surprised when I hear that one of them has done exactly what they were railing so adamantly against just a few months earlier. Memorized words will not sustain you in the breach, only internalized wisdom.

Easiest to talk about what the Bible teaches on, say, honoring parents. Harder to counsel friends who are struggling imperfectly with a mother who meddles with their children. Hardest of all to do the right thing by your Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother and the father who is struggling with the situation.

On the other hand, we endure and even expect a certain amount of parroting. Children need to practice deep thinking in all its aspects, and it is too much to require them to have carefully constructed each and every attitude and position for themselves, from scratch, before they are allowed to express it. Sometimes I’ll hear a bit of pontificating that sounds exactly what I would say—because it came from me, not from a deep understanding of the issue. As long as I don’t detect any puffed-uppedness, I generally let it go. At least they are parroting something I think is true and good! Since we’ve also taught them to continually re-test their assumptions, time and circumstances will refine their thinking. Meanwhile, they’ve tasted the heady experience of deep thought.

We’ve given up the delusion that speaking adamantly against something will have any lasting impact on the hearer. If I speak adamantly against fornication, then the only reason my child has for hesitating when confronted with the opportunity is the fear of angering me (or God, perhaps). But if I talk comprehensively about life and how it should be lived, and teach them to think through all those things, they will understand all the many reasons that fornication should be avoided. I’d rather have them make an informed decision in this case rather than blindly obey.

These are weak and inadequate tools for shaping a person. But they are the only ones at our disposal. Recognizing their limitations, and the resulting limitations on what we can accomplish, is far better than setting ourselves the goal of creating a godly person—and then enduring the frustration of inevitable failure.


2 thoughts on “Taking responsibility

  1. Don,

    I took down your comment because I think you misunderstand some things about our situation. Contact me via email and I’ll explain; then if you want your comment restored I’ll be glad to put it back up.

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