I know every person who reads this is wondering, just like I am, how to make sense of a twenty year-old boy-man who, in his anger or contempt of his mother, did not speak disrespectfully to her but shot her in the face, and in his anger or contempt of society, did not write a diatribe letter to the editor but massacred its young, and in his despair of the state of his own life did not choose to repent but made it permanent in suicide. While we rightly focus on supporting the victims and their families, the refrain pounding away in our brains is why, why, why?
What happened in that young man’s life to make a path with such an unthinkable destination? What could have stopped it? Was it beyond his parents’ ability to effect?
These questions matter so much to me, because I, too, am the mother of a twenty year-old son.
Twenty is when a person’s parents are pretty well done with hands-on parenting. Twenty is when a person is responsible for his own actions and direction. Twenty is accountable.
But twenty is near enough to the unaccountable childhood time of Mom and Dad teaching, training, directing, and instilling to make every parent tremble at the possibility that their offspring could become that terror. Of course, we would not dream of it. And yet.
And yet, because every diligent parent knows in his or her heart that the differences between the exemplary person and the criminal are not, in the end, so very great.
Usually, it is just a bunch of little things that matter. Little choices about what will be allowed and what will not, little moments of catching a bad attitude before it gets ugly, nuances half-noticed in the bustle of everyday that give us pause and make us look at our child with fresh eyes and renewed determination to address negative tendencies and raise the trajectory of his life’s purpose.
Sometimes it feels like we are figuring it out moment by moment in this hardest of jobs. With certain kids, the challenges come thick and fast, leaving us breathless and worn out and wondering how much more we can take, how much more we can give, how many more times we can talk them back into heart-softness. Some of us, because we believe God is the ultimate Parent, the one who knows us better than we know ourselves and gave us a Guide to help us figure ourselves out, some of us who believe in that God keep at it because we believe we have brought into the world a soul whose choices in this life have eternal consequences. Some who do not believe in God still work very hard. I think they believe in working for the good of mankind and feel the weight of responsibility to bring their offspring to an adulthood that will do good instead of harm to others. Others give up. They do.
Am I saying Adam Lanza’s evil heart is the sole fault of his mom and dad? No. He was twenty. Accountable. Responsible. And, of course, I have no idea what sort of parents they were. They may have done all they knew to do.
But, I do know this: as a parent, a lot matters. Staying married matters. Being present – physically, emotionally, spiritually – matters. Saying sorry matters. Extending forgiveness matters. Addressing character faults matters – over and over, again and again. Wisdom matters. Being tough matters. Being tender matters. Humility matters. Vision matters.
And the parents who have successfully raised a child into responsible, admirable adulthood are the first to say it was hard, and scary, and sobering, and that they can see how easily things could have gone awry in spite of their best efforts. And then in the next breath they’ll tell you they know they didn’t actually always give their best effort – sometimes they were lazy, or selfish, or hypocritical, or blind.
If you came here looking for reassurance that half-hearted effort yields excellent results anyway, I can’t help you. I know the reality – that sometimes even very hard work doesn’t, well, work. And that mediocre parenting rarely produces anything greater than mediocre offspring.
I certainly cannot yet speak as one who has succeeded. It is far too soon to tell. In many ways, my parents cannot speak from that position, either. After all, their daughter is only forty-five, probably with many opportunities ahead of her to go off the deep end if she chooses. Please God, she will not, and please God, their grandchildren will not, either.