Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How to love a prodigal - part 1

How to love a prodigal - part 1

One of the first things that happens in a prodigal situation, a moment in which a child emotionally, spiritually, mentally or physically runs away from home is that a moral chasm is opened. I'm not talking about the obvious gulf that exists between parent and child in this situation. The separation of geographical distance, age or ideas. I'm taking about the distance between wrong and right, good and evil, clean and dirty.

What happens is that even though you might not try to do this, it's often tempting to live your life better when your son or daughter leaves the farm so to speak. To be a brighter light of God and Christian values and truth and peace. To show them more clearly the things they are missing by their voluntary decision to leave the safety of your home. You can see this in communication styles. I am sarcastic and if someone does not respond to that, I just get more and more sarcastic. What was a tiny distance becomes huge as they back away further and I keep going and going, thinking that more of the thing that has separated us will fix the separation.

I think that is noble in a way, but it does the opposite of what we intend. We think it will make the mistakes they are making easier to see. That it will shine a light on their situation. But it doesn't always do that. Like the silence of a church sanctuary amplifies the loudness of a cell phone ring, the righteousness of your behavior sometimes makes the wrongness of your child bigger.

Instead of closing the gap between us, it actually makes it greater. It stretches the distance further and further as the parent comes to represent the good and the child comes to represent the bad. Sides are drawn with more distinction instead of less and the gap grows exponentially.

How do you sidestep this? You might not be able to instantly close the distance between you in this moment, but how do you at the bare minimum keep it from earthquaking open even more?

You share your junk.

You tell your story. The good parts, the bad parts, the beautiful parts, the ugly parts. You fight the urge to simply multiply your good qualities as a parent and instead do the opposite. You confess your faults. You confess your own trash and share the grossness of your own life with your child.

That might feel like the opposite of what you should do. That might be exactly what a million books on parenting tell you. The only research I am pulling from is my own life and the lives of dozens of prodigals I know. But here is what happens when you share your junk in the middle of a prodigal story:

1. You earn life currency.

Even if you've been a horrible parent and are in no position to be labeled as the good one in this story, there is still going to be an amazing amount of guilt your child is dealing with right now. They will think you could never understand what they are going through or why they are making the decisions they are making. By sharing your story, you show them that you speak their language too. And that you are not perfect.

2. You close the gap a little.
You can't instantly eliminate the gap and maintain some healthy boundaries that actually teach your child the impact of consequences. But you can take small steps toward them by admitting your own weaknesses. You take subtle steps from the "good side" of the situation and take powerful steps toward the "honest side" of the situation when you talk openly. It's like deliberately tearing down the white wall of righteousness that grew tall the minute they left. And if they have legitimate reasons for leaving because of your hurtful actions, it gives you the space to confess what you've done wrong.

3. You remove the "inventor's curse."
I think I made this term up so it requires some explanation. When we mess up, we are immediately inflicted by the "inventor's curse." This is that little voice inside us that says, "No one has ever failed like this. No one has ever done something so wrong. You are the only one in the world that struggles with this." And so your child sits alone, on an island, weighed down heavy by the inventor's curse. Sharing your junk with them puts you on that island with them and destroys the inventor's curse.

This idea is difficult to execute because you don't want to be the parent that says, "I smoked pot too when I was in college. No big deal. Party on!" You have to be hyper careful that what you share is not romanticized by your words or made light of. And you have to be very smart about what you choose to share. This is not a full disclosure moment, a husband being honest with a wife. You have to make sure that in your confession you do not simply hand them something heavy to hold. The last thing a prodigal child needs is to now wrestle with the weight of some deep dark secret you carried for decades. You are not confessing to be free of something, you are confessing to share something.

Counselors and people that are trained are so much smarter than I am when it comes to this stuff. And I can't speak highly enough of the four I have seen in the last 10 years. But if you're not ready to see a counselor yet, hopefully you are ready to read a blog and maybe wrestle with the problem of the prodigal in a slightly different way.


Dog snob said...

Good thoughts Jon. I have a son I'm hoping won't go the "prodigal" way, but that's the direction I see him going, (since he's a lot like me). I'd like to avoid it as much as possible though and if simple honesty will help, I'm willing to give it a try.

Anonymous said...

I am one of your blog lurkers but have not left a comment.

This post is beautiful.

I am a prodigal and am trying to make my way back. But it is very very hard. I get paralyzed before I can take my first step. Paralyzed in fear of rejection, in not being 'enough', in my own shame that keeps me from God, in being truly known. In so many areas of life, fear keeps me from knowing and from being known by God.

Damage is always done in the context of relationship, and healing takes place in that same context. What you write about parents appropriately sharing their story is powerful. It is relational. Shame is never healing. Relationships, taking people where they are at, and really HEARING their story… that is powerful. It is healing.

I am a counselor, so I know the right things in my head but it doesn’t always translate to the heart. That is a process. Thanks for writing about this process.

Jake said...

I hope to remember this post some day when my son screws up.

Great info. Great post, Jonny.

Rob said...

Good stuff...heavy stuff...my son is 8 right now, and I hope he's never in a prodigal situation, but it's good to know how to handle it if he does. Thanks for being willing to share your "junk" with a bunch of people you've never met. My life and walk with God is better for having read your blogs here and at 97SWG. Thanks!

jeff said...

As a prodigal myself, and a father to 3 boys who take after their dad in almost every way conceivable, this post completely resonates with me. And I have to echo 1000 times over, that you are DEAD right, Jon. I grew up with parents who entered into Christianity in the late 70's/early 80's, at the height of the "do's and don'ts" list that was Christianity. They never spoke of their weaknesses, never shared their past, and only told us that we should or shouldn't do things "because the Bible says so!". Granted, I love my parents deeply, and I know they did the best they knew how, but even they will openly acknowledge the mistakes they made with us in this regard. Having seen that as the case, one of the things my wife and I absolutely promised ourselves is that we would never hide our "junk" from our kids. The mistakes, the slip-ups, the sin that made life miserable before coming to Christ. Granted, some things will wait until they are more mature, a bit older, and better able to conceptualize things, but just the same, our lives and our past is not something we'll ever hide from them. The trick, I've found thusfar, has been in the timing. But by us being open about who we are and were, it has opened a dialogue that has paved the way for open lines of communication with our kids. I think that is hands down the most important thing to maintain with your kids, because so much else hinges on it. If they know they can be open with you about sneaking a cookie before dinner, you can rest a bit easier that as they grow, they'll also come to you in those crisis moments as they occur.

Tamra said...

Great post. My children are youngish yet, but already seeing how important honesty is, and all the stuff that goes with that. (being open, asking for their forgiveness when I screw up, etc)
We've seen families torn apart with the parents still trying to maintain a facade of perfection.

Anonymous said...

I am a prodigal who has mostly made my way back but still feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. My 14 yr old son began making poor choices seemingly overnight. He has really messed up and continues to do so. I struggle with feelings of guilt for not being good enough as a mother to feelings of anger and frustration because his poor decisions are so blatantly dumb yet he continues to make them non-stop, digging himself in a deeper and deeper hole. I tend to compare my actions at his age (or any age) to his actions and knowingly and sometimes unknowingly use shame and guilt to convey my feelings. I now see that my tactics have done nothing but put more distance between us which is the exact opposite of what I want to occur. Thank you for showing me a way to interact with my son that will hopefully begin bringing us closer. We have also seen a couple of good therapists but I did not find such clearly stated suggestions. Much Thanks!

Amanda said...

Really great post.

Lauren said...

So good, so true. Especially the "inventor's curse." I think we all feel that way when we fall, whether it's a gigantic, momentous "how did my life end up here?" or what we like to call a small and besetting recurring sin, like "why can I not stop saying disrespectful things to my parents?" (guilty). It's such an easy lie to believe that we are the first - or only - ones to have ever committed such a grievous sin or to have such an "embarrassing" struggle. Good insight into reaching the heart of the prodigal - I once was one, and I struggled with shame for years after returning to the Lord, believing that my past would or had somehow disqualified me from being worthy of even worshipping in the same church as "more holy" folks. Strong work, Jon.

Christianne said...

i love the distinction you make at the end: you are not confessing to be free of something, you are confessing to share something. huge difference.

thanks, jon.

Lea Sims said...

Wow, Jon. This isn't just information...it's wisdom, sadly not always the same thing in our culture today and, more sadly, not always what you hear from believers. The part about burdening someone with a secret is powerful. In our Oprah-influenced culture, the pendulum of confession has swung wildly to the left. Having the sensitivity to realize that the decision to "unburden" yourself of a past pain or secret can often transfer that "burden" to someone else is so important.

Knowing what and how much to share with a wayward child is so much. As the mother of 3 (my first just now entering his teenage years), this post was a keeper, for sure. Thanks so much.

Jan said...

I wasn't a prodigal, but I once did something so very dumb it was a reason for my friend to end our relationship. I was so embarrassed and ashamed, I couldn't even bring myself to talk to her again. I lived in fear of running into her...and one day I did. My knees went weak and I froze in place as she approached.

She patted me on the shoulder and said, "Nice to see you, Jan. How are you doing?" With that one act of forgiving grace, it all melted away, and I am forever grateful.

I tell this in hopes that some will realize that sometimes the shame can be so very deep that the person may be too afraid to even apologize, and a simple act of grace can be very healing.

angelina said...

My husband is definitely a prodigal and I absolutely love this piece. My husband is still getting to a place where he is able to completely share his story, but I am confident that it will be a great tool to glorify God in the future. Thanks for being real.

Campman62 said...

...you are wise beyond your years my brother...

That *"18 Inches Journey" (head to heart) can also be a dark path for many recovering prodigals.

*Check out the song by Steve Wiggins (Before he formed Big Tent Revival).



*P.S. Starting today, Let's all wear our "Forgiveness" like a "Crown" instead of a "Ball & Chain". ><>

Troy & Tara Livesay said...

Thanks Jon.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.

Marni said...

I don't have a prodigal child per say, but she could have a better relationship with God and I covet that for her. And your post was a great affirmation for me. I have found the most effective way to reach my daughter (she's 17 and the world's pull can be greater than mine in many instances) is to (selectively) share my junk.

I've found it to be highly effective to let her see I am far from perfect and have made some dumb choices that swept me far from God in my past. In doing so, I'm avoiding the lecture mode that she will tune right out. Instead, it let's her see that on more levels than she realizes, I can relate to some of what she deals with and hopefully help her dodge those same landmines that I didn't. I've only been using this approach for about a year now, but for us, it's been really effective.

Thanks so much for your transparency...

Debbie said...

Thanks for throwing another bottle out it reached the Outer Banks.
I cannot begin to tell you how much I needed to read the words you shared. Through tears I thank you again.

Anonymous said...

I credit the fact that I never had some huge rebellious streak to the fact that my mom was always relatively open with me about things she had done in her past, and what my dad had done. I knew that my dad had drank in his younger years and that she had tried pot. She explained to me when I was probably 14 that she understood the temptation and curiosity of trying pot, and that if she ever found out that I had tried it, she would be disapointed, but still understand. But by no means did she make it seem okay for me to do pot. I guess that conversation is kind of hard to explain--kind of seems hypocritical--but it made sense to me.
On the other end, I have an aunt that was pretty heavily into drinking and drugs in high school and her kids don't know anything about it...and have essentially followed suit. I'm not trying to say it's only because their mom didn't talk to them about her past, but I'm sure some of the "thrill" would have been gone having known that their mom had essentially done the same things.
Anyway--I completely agree Jon--share your junk.

Chelsea said...

Hey! Lets get the online book club thing going strong! We should post it all over the place. I just joined your group and I want to get the word out!

robyn collins said...

oops. you did it again.

shared something brilliant and helpful and worthwhile and timely.. .and i love it.

as a recovered prodigal... i think this sounds exactly like what i would've wanted...

Anonymous said...

funny, i had just posted something in this same vein on my blog and went over to SCL and saw the link to this post. I believe that some mistakes and experiences are so powerful, you have to overcome the shame of admitting them. Thanks for all your posts. I appreciate them.

The Christian Ranter said...

If you look at churches today, there is a clear line of distinction between two groups.

Those that are vulnerable at an organizational and personal level and those that are not.

In order to create safety, there needs to be more transparency that I'm not ok.

At least from what I've seen, those churches that are vulnerable are the ones that are growing; possibly because so many prodigals sit in their pews?

Anonymous said...

I'm a mother with 3 prodigals--2 sons and 1 daughter. I'm taking your words to heart and bookmarking this site.
Thank you.

Jeremy said...

Good, good stuff. When's part 2 coming?

Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

hi, john. i don't know you, but found your "shining our scars" blog through a friend's face book. wierd timing. my prodigal son shot himself that night -- died around 12:30 the next morning (july 18) i have been searching for any source of comfort i can find in that i knew my son had accepted and followed Christ as a child, but that doesn't completely satisfy a mother's desire to know that he's in heaven since he spent the last several years of his life in full-on drug addiction. well, i guess God used you to encourage me a little today. the process of losing a child is indescribable, but a very raw opportunity to connect with other believers in a very unique way. i guess i'd like to do that as much as i can. thanks for your writings. hope to stay in touch with you. kellie alexander, missouri

Seda said...

And #4: Read Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn. Because it's not so important that YOU feel unconditional love when you deal with your children - what's important is that THEY feel your unconditional love.

And that ain't as simple as sharing a story.

NewJerseyJesus said...

Wow. "Sharing your junk," never heard it expressed that way but I love it. Thanks for the insights.

Anonymous said...

I shared with my children. We made most all the mistakes before the love for Christ ruled our lives. One, my youngest refuses to settle. He seems totally determined to learn for himself. I am so grieved. O Lord watch over him.

Anonymous said...

My husband told our 15yo. daughter that he had experimented sexually, too, when he was an unsaved teen (although he was 18 and in college at the time, not 15) and that no good came of it and he wished very much that he could have a do-over and make a different choice. Her response was that it's wicked and wrong of him to not allow her to try the same things that he got to try as a teen and live the same lifestyle, and that she deserves the same freedoms that he took.

So, a lot of good that did. Now he's coming across as unfair to her.