Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Adolescence, Family, and Community

I'll bet you didn't know that Alex Ovechkin lives at our house. Well, in any case, his oversized jersey is here, along with a young man who has enough heart to fill it.

With fear and trembling, we are being launched into a new dimension of parenthood. John Paul is approaching 14 years old, and he has grown interiorly and exteriorly in some remarkable ways this past year. I know that there is a lot more of this to come. Agnese is 12 and straddling the boundaries of girlhood. Yes, we are just at the threshold of a great adventure. I have been assured by my friends who have adult children that we will all survive.

Maria Montessori said that adolescence is "the infancy of adulthood." I'm beginning to see the emergence of independent personality, use of freedom, decision making, and frustration. We are beginning to have new kinds of conversations, in which these once little kiddies are manifesting the signs of strange adult qualities like ego and anxiety. A child has fears, but also a kind of blissful lack of self awareness. The onset of adolescence brings with it that sudden awakening of reflection; the child realizes that he or she is a person. They begin to compare themselves with other emerging persons and become aware of their relative strengths and weaknesses. It is the dawn of anxiety.

But it is also the dawn of the capacity for relationship. Girl/boy dynamics have not yet begun for our top two (as far as I know), but that time will soon be upon us. Nevertheless, the reality of friendship has begun to emerge as a real interpersonal engagement. Children are mostly playmates; they focus more on what they are doing together rather than on how they interact with each other. But as they become young people they begin to have friends, and with that comes sensitivity about themselves and others, expectations, disappointments, and even arguments--not over toys but over perceived personal slights, or faithfulness to the friendship.

We are blessed to be in a community of good and generous families, united in that mysterious bond that is the Church. I can't imagine raising my family outside of the context of a community where there is not only "support," but also solidarity in helping to bear each others' burdens, in praying for each other, in example and encouragement, and above all in that mysterious but real unity that comes from being the "body of Christ" (as St. Paul so often stresses).

What I am talking about here is entirely different from the "it takes a village to raise a child" concept. It is not a matter of invading the family structure or the abdication of personal responsibilities for one's children to larger social organs of manipulation. It is rather a matter of taking up those responsibilities within one's own family, but also in the context of a sharing of life with others who bear these responsibilities--a sharing of interpersonal relationship, of concrete needs, of resources as necessary, of counsel, and above all of love. Family friendship, parents and children.

I have already seen that this kind of community is the context for the journey of adolescence, because I have watched the children of my friends grow up. And it gives me hope that my children can take these steps, with friends of their own, with the discovery of freedom, with a foundation for openness to the needs of the world.