Recently I was reviewing some articles I wrote about ten years ago, and came across a story I’d received permission to share that still intrigues me. I’d like to share it again. I’d been doing some writing for parenting expert James Jones, who told about a big lesson he learned from his son Danny.
From the time Danny was twelve the two of them had been engaged in a constant power struggle. Danny was doing everything his dad didn’t want him to do, including drugs, and James was obsessed with trying to control him. He shared the painful way he learned that control is a myth. He summarized his difficult years trying to reach him, help him, control his uncontrollable behavior. The following scene in his story I think is pure dynamite:
My son yelled, “Why won’t you just leave me alone? Stop telling me everything to do! Let me live my own life! Can’t you get it? Get out of my life! Stop trying to control me!”
His words stunned me. I stood speechless and looked at my wife, who looked pale and stricken. Thoughts flashed through my mind. What is he talking about? I have not been able to control him! I’ve tried every trick in the book; I’ve given it my best, and I’ve never been able to control him! He had emerged victorious from every desperate control battle we had ever had! He was impossible to control. Danny always won and we always lost.
Control Battle Score:
Dad and Mom----------ZERO
For me, at that moment, a great thing happened; the clouds of ignorance parted just a little, and a ray of sunshine fell on me. Then the light got brighter! In only a few seconds I saw the insanity of my attitude and what I had been doing. I rose to my feet, walked across the little circle of chairs, and faced Danny. In a calm voice I began to speak words to Danny that were really meant for me.
“Danny, I have never been able to control you. If I could control you, you would be in school right now, not serving time with other drug addicts. My decisions have not brought you here. Your decisions brought you here. I’ve never been able to control you!”
We stood eye to eye, and Danny shouted back angrily, “Well, you would if you could!”
Let me take just a momentary break from James’s story. All those years ago when I read Danny’s words “you would if you could” I stood convicted by my own conscience. I knew that had been the truth in regard to my own children. I knew that if I could have, I would have enforced church attendance, made them all read the copies of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ I had given them for Easter one year. I knew I would have controlled them if I could have, and they knew it too. Suddenly their resistance and frequent lack of enthusiasm to listen to my “words of wisdom” made perfect sense. My suggestions came with an undertow of pressure. That ah hah! moment began a new journey of discovery and repentance for me as a parent. Whose plan was it, after all, to control people and make sure they didn’t make any wrong choices? The same journey began for James Jones, too. Let’s go back to his story.
Danny was absolutely right. Even at that moment, if I could have kept him from choosing the wrong thing, I would have done so in a heartbeat--just to keep him from killing himself! I realized that those words clearly defined the very root of the problem I had with Danny: I would have controlled his every move if he had allowed it--to save him from his own stupidity, I quickly justified. However, the fact remained that, much to my frustration, he had never allowed me to control him. I started to speak again in a firm and confident voice, “Still, it is true, Danny, that I’ve never controlled you.”’ I paused and then said, “You win! I lose! From this day forward I give you full responsibility for your life.” I made a motion with my hands as though I were taking a heavy burden off my shoulders and putting it on his shoulders. I could feel a great burden lifting. It felt wonderful, like coming out of a deep, dark place into the light. Suddenly I knew again that . . . nobody is really responsible for anyone else's life. Only that person is responsible. Hadn't I learned that a hundred times?
Danny responded incredulously, "You aren't going to try to control me anymore? I can live my own life?"
"Yes! You can live your own life. You have been! You're living the exact life you have chosen to live, not the life I would have chosen for you." The words were comforting and revealing all over again.
"I can do what I want?" he asked incredulously.
"You have been doing exactly what you want." I was beginning to see clearly through the fog. I recognized at long last the lie that had driven me to nag and scold, to be angry, to drive Danny farther and farther away from us. It was as though an inner voice was saying “Now hear this! You are in this painful dilemma with Danny because you have bought into the lie that caring and capable parents can and must control their children.” That assumption had influenced every nuance of how I felt and thought and perceived my role as a parent, even after I had experienced the impossibility of it all. Even after I had rejected the lie with my mind, somehow my heart had hung onto it. But no more.
Danny immediately called my bluff. Danny had insisted on seeing a girl that we strongly disapproved of. We had done everything we could to keep them apart the last couple of years. Of course, the harder we tried to keep him away from her, the more time he spent with her. They were like glue on glue. Danny and this girl I'll call Suzy would walk back and forth in front of the house. Danny told me they were saying, "Oh, if only our parents would let us marry, we could be so happy." I was running from one window to the next watching them and praying for Danny. Lillie and I were terrified, helpless, and angry over his stubbornness about this girl.
At this emotion-laden moment in our counseling session, Danny said, "Dad, you mean I can live my own life? You will let me make my own decisions?"
"You have been!"
"OK, then! If I really can make my own decisions and you won't control me anymore, then give me permission to marry Suzy!" Danny was raising the stakes.