(The following was first published in 2011 and is offered again in response to requests. My son is now 29, married, gainfully employed, and living in Dallas. I’m still practicing prayerful negligence with him and his sister.)
“So, now that your son has graduated from college, what is he going to do?” That’s the question I’m fielding right now and my answer is pretty straightforward: “I don’t know.” After such a clear admission, it’s a little surprising how many follow up questions there are. “Is he going to grad school? Is he going to get a job? What’s he thinking about doing?” More chances for the same reply: “I don’t know.”
One of the reasons I don’t know is that he and I haven’t had a chance to talk lately. He’s been pressing to finish his final semester at Sewanee and now he’s taking a couple of weeks to travel with some fellow graduates and see parts of the country he hasn’t seen yet. I don’t know what he’s going to do because we haven’t had any time to sit with each other and discuss it. Next week we’ll actually have a lot of that time as we sit on the beach with each other. He’s a talker so I’ll know much more then about what he’s got planned or not planned.
Another reason I don’t know is that this is a time of transition for him. He doesn’t exactly know himself right now what he’s going to do. When we’re in those times, there’s a lot of not knowing. Dreams and interests take time to turn into goals and plans. Fertile times of waiting are full of questions, many more of those than answers. Maybe the most important times in life involve not knowing exactly what is going to happen next. These are the times of spiritual and character foundation-building. They’re also fairly dangerous times when people can get paralyzed or anxiously rush into things that end up being traps. Not knowing feels scary but sometimes we have to just hang in there with it until we do know. Not knowing shouldn’t develop into an excuse for not doing anything.
The main reason I don’t know, however, is that it’s his business, not mine. He’s the one who has to figure things out. He has to make some decisions and carry them out. My job as a parent of a 22 year old is to not know what he is going to do and support him as he figures it out. Isn’t that the job of a parent at every step of the way?
Over the years I’ve watched a lot of parenting mistakes and committed any number of them too. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the worst mistakes parents make are ones of over-involvement. When we solve too many of our children’s problems, they fail to develop problem solving skills themselves. We don’t want them to get hurt so we rescue them and then they don’t know how to take care of themselves. It’s better for a third grader to deal with the consequences of not doing his homework than for me to do his homework for him. Letting children fail is better than providing success for them. But that feels like we’re being negligent. Come to think of it, I don’t think I know any truly negligent parents. I sure know a lot of overly involved parents though.
My dad used to say (and still does) when I faced a decision: “You’re in the best position to make that decision.” When he says that, he is trying to build me up a little and encourage me. He’s also saying that he isn’t going to rescue me so I better get on with it.
Prayerful negligence is a pretty good parenting style. When it comes down to it, that’s really all we’ve got. We can’t make anyone else’s decisions for them. We can support and encourage but what else can we really do? Doing less is more than we think it is. But that feels like negligence. If we’re prayerful, that negligence is turned into tangible support and breeds confidence in the lives of those we love. We let them take care of their lives and we take care of ours. Then, when our lives intersect, there can be some mutual sharing and learning from each other. We can each grow.
Prayerful negligence is really all we have with all our situations. There are things we have to decide and act on, but much of life is letting others take care of themselves. Praying for them, and praying about our anxiety for them, helps in ways we can learn only by doing it. These are the times when faith gets acted out in allowing others to live their lives as they feel God is calling them.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.