Thursday, July 31, 2008

Restoring the Center

The Pawling community was shocked last month by the sudden death of one of its youth, Francis “Frankie” Hughes. Shortly after his death the word began to spread that Frankie died from a heroine overdose. Since then, several arrests of teenagers from our community have been made due to leads discovered in the investigation of Frankie’s death. Today, stunned, parents, teachers, church leaders, town and village boards, and countless others are alarmed, concerned, angry, and afraid. And the questions: How could this have happened? Why are our youth engaging in such risky behavior? What are we going to do to address this? Where did this problem come from? Why didn’t we see it coming?

Some thirty representatives from the above mentioned groups, including myself, met Monday morning (July 28) to discuss this problem. The one hour meeting amounted to little more than an airing of concerns, fears, and frustrations, but it was, nevertheless, the first step towards acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. In other words, the problem concerning the risky behavior of our youth is not a new problem and it did not suddenly develop over the course of a few months. And so, there will be another meeting, this time for the entire community, Tuesday, August 12, 7:30pm in the cafeteria of the Pawling Middle Schoolplease plan to be there.

Again, the problem is not a new one and it did not develop in a short period of time. In my opinion, the source of the problem (other than sin!) is the breakdown of the traditional family that began somewhere near the end of the 1950’s. When parents began to be encouraged to refrain from disciplining their children so as not to damage their self-esteem, to never say no, to ask the child’s opinion on decisions traditionally made by the parents (e.g., when to go to bed, what they would like to eat), etc. a fundamental shift in the structure of the family began to occur. No longer were father and mother (husband and wife) the center of the family with the children as satellites (remember the “nuclear family”), but the “nucleus” became replace with the children. Nearly fifty years later, our culture and society has further weakened the family structure with the phenomena of free and easy divorce, single mothers, gay and lesbian civil unions, etc. Further, children now decidedly reign as the center of the family. Particularly it seems in the Northeast, nearly all of the family’s non-working time is dedicated to the felt “needs” of the children. Parents expend countless hours and dollars shuttling their kids to myriad activities and events because they have been convinced, by child family psychologists and by peer pressure that they must do so to build their child’s self-esteem – and, of course, to make sure they have as good or better stuff as all their peers, to ensure their popularity with their peers, and to get them into the right college.

Let me address this boogeyman so-called “self-esteem”. A dictionary definition of self-esteem is “to have a good opinion of oneself.” Now I don’t know about other parents, but I, for one, am pretty certain that my kids were born with a healthy, strong opinion of themselves (or, they developed such rather naturally). Heck, to use Freudian terminology, young children are pure Id, all that they are concerned about is themselves and what serves and pleases them, me, myself, and I. Today parents are supposed to encourage, promote, and strengthen this infantile self-centeredness? Interestingly, there were some older teens present at the July 28 meeting. At one point they were asked what, in their opinion, were the reasons for their peers engaging in risky behavior. Their answer: boredom and – are you ready? – low self-esteem! For nearly fifty years parents have been derided, guilted, and pressured into building their children’s self-esteem and, lo and behold, it hasn’t worked! Youth still feel unfulfilled, there’s still something lacking – what could it be? Give me a break! They’ve been raised as the center of the family since infancy, they’ve been on the receiving end of their parent’s attention, time, and money – what’s lacking? MORE! We’ve made them into Id-iots and Ego-maniacs – they crave more and more attention and everything else they feel they need, and they’re never satisfied! You know what that sounds like? An addiction! Our youth are self-centered addicts who take and take, as we give and give, and can never be satisfied. And, you know what else – it’s YOUR fault (and MY fault), not theirs.

If you’re reading this and any of this matters to you then you have, or have had, school-aged children. This means that you are likely old enough to have not been raised in the most extreme child-centered way described above. So I ask you: Who had the final say in your family as to when you went to bed, what you ate for dinner, whether or not you went to church? When mom & dad had adult company over, did you participate in the conversation or interrupt repeatedly to express your desires, or did you sit quietly listening, speaking when spoken to, or remain out of the room altogether? Did you eat meals nightly with your family, or did you fend for yourself? With some degree of variation, I’m supposing that most of your experiences growing up were like this: Mom and Dad were the central figures of authority in the family. I may not have liked what they commanded, but in the end, their will was done. If I disobeyed I could expect to be disciplined. I knew that my Father and Mother loved me and cared for me. I knew that they forgave me. I knew that I could depend on them. I had a good opinion of myself because of this.

You see, it all goes back to God. God is a Father. God is Love. And God disciplines His children. God commands all of us to Honor your Father and your Mother and He promises that in doing so it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth. Parents have a God given vocation, a calling, to love and discipline their children (love and discipline are not in opposition). Today’s parents have been deceived into believing that they are showing their children love when they are permissive and lax with their children, and that discipline is abuse and diminishes their children’s self-esteem. They have exchanged the truth about God and their God given vocation for a lie. But there are some relatively simple things that parents can do to begin to rebuild their family in the image of God. First, nurture the marriage – this means husband and wife come first. For the family to function properly, the center (the nucleus) must be restored. Second, children should always expect to pay more attention to their parents than their parents will pay to them. Third, children must do as their parents say, and “Because I said so” is a perfectly good reason, no explanation needed.

In regard to the present problem of risky behavior amongst the youth of Pawling, it is not unreasonable for a parent to demand to know the whereabouts of their children at any and all times. A parent should know: Where are you going? Who’s going to be there? What will you be doing? And a parent should state when they’ll be home. At least the evening meal should, when possible, be eaten together as a family. Begin this meal with a prayer of thanksgiving and include any needs or concerns the family might have. And attend church frequently as a family. Ultimately, a family is only as strong as the marriage of mom and dad; and that marriage can only be strong if it is centered and strengthened in Christ.

Your children will know that you love them. They will have a high opinion of themselves because they will know that you, the most important people in their lives, have a high opinion of them. They will know that you love them because you actually care where they are and what they are doing, because nobody else does. Parents, does God love you? Does He expect you to obey Him? Does He discipline you to bring you safely back to Him when you stray? Yes, now go and do likewise, for you are like God to your children. But never lose hope and never quit. Parenting is the most difficult calling God gives, but through it we can experience what it’s like love like God – caring for, disciplining, loving even when your children rebel, fight, curse, and sin. God will bless you, strengthen and keep you because in such a manner He loves you too.

In the love and peace of Christ Jesus
Pastor Ellingworth


123 said...

A few quotes regarding the self-esteem you mention:

"Self-esteem is so deeply rooted in us and so firmly enmeshed in us, making us think that we are something, and something not unimportant, that it always hides in our heart as a subtle and imperceptible movement, even when we are sure that we do not trust ourselves and are, on the contrary, filled with complete trust in God alone. In order to avoid this conceit of the heart and act without any self-reliance, led only by your trust in God, take care always to preserve an attitude in which the consciousness and feeling of your weakness always precede in you the contemplation of God’s omnipotence, and let both alike precede your every action." (St. Theophan the Recluse)

"In their hatred of our souls, the demons sometimes promptly others to pay us empty compliments, and thus cause us to grow slack because we are praised. If as a result we give way to conceit and self-esteem, our enemies have no difficulty in taking us prisoner." (St. John of Karpathos)

"The demons that wage war on us through our shortcomings in virtue are those that teach unchastity, drunkenness, avarice and envy. Those that wage war on us through our excessive zeal for virtue teach conceit, self-esteem and pride; they secretly pervert what is commendable into what is reprehensible." (St. Maximos the Confessor)

"Illusion [delusion; Slavonic: prelest] results from the passion of self-esteem." (Evagrios the Solitary)

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Wonderful post, Fr. Jon. On a related note, I saw something in downtown Montreal I never saw in my life before. A guy tied surgical rubber around his arm and injected something--?heroin? Sad. Very sad.