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Honorable Adulthood

“…God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.” – Major Sullivan Ballou.

civilwar1September, 1990. Our son was six months old. My husband and I were engaged in Ken Burns‘ PBS documentary, The Civil War, whenever our baby would miraculously fall asleep. We were just getting used to the awkward new idea of parenthood, with no clue as to where this strange new odyssey might take us. My husband knows all Civil War battles by heart, a casualty of what I call the 1865 Male Chromosome. But the film’s compelling archival photographs, brought alive by the “Ken Burns Effect” and the haunting fiddle music of Jay Unger, guaranteed that I would be mesmerized by the masterpiece as well.

civilwar3We were both captivated by the touching legendary letter of Union Major Sullivan Ballou, penned to his wife before being mortally wounded in the First Battle of Bull Run. The letter’s most memorable words were, for us: “…God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.” That was many years ago.  While listening to that eloquent letter, its immortal words echoing from a distant century, we tacitly agreed to our own unique standard for parental success. Our vision was that our son would grow to honorable manhood, a phrase that embodies character, independence and purpose. I am proud to say that our son has developed these admirable qualities in abundance.

fathersonAs a college consultant, I meet parents with all sorts of hopes for their high school students. Parental goals for their sons and daughters have included: an Ivy League education; a college diploma, period; overcoming learning, psychological or physical challenges; graduating from college with minimal debt; a college major that can generate a secure living; settling down and raising a family near the parents’ location; following one’s calling wherever that may lead; self-actualization that has eluded the parents; a career that surpasses the parents’ accomplishments; or just being “happy,” whatever that means. The list goes on. Sometimes it is difficult to determine what results qualify as a success, and parents’ definitions are not generally the same as their children’s.

motherhappydaughtercomputerI have encountered my share of evolved and inspiring parents, as well as some misguided ones. On one end of the spectrum, we have all met (and occasionally been)  helicopter parents, who discourage their teens’ bid for autonomy, ignoring Robert A. Heinlein’s sage advice: “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.” At the other end of the spectrum, we have all known parents so absorbed in their own concerns that their kids practically have to raise themselves. They are perhaps following in the footsteps of Roseanne Barr, who famously quipped: “I figure that if the children are alive when I get home, I’ve done my job.”

congratulationsI am certainly in no position to judge others, with my own missteps never far from my mind. Every father, mother, son, and daughter is completely unique, so I cannot say what constitutes success for any young person growing up. What I would like to offer is supportive wisdom from Major Ballou, that loving husband and insightful father from the 19th Century, whose moving words have given us so much wise direction over the past several decades as we have journeyed on the great parenting adventure.

Honorable Adulthood. To me, honorable means behaving with honesty, fairness, empathy, and integrity, consistent with one’s beliefs and values. Adulthood connotes independence, inner-directedness, self-sufficiency and maturity. This vision is challenging for a young person to achieve, an ever-evolving target. It can also be painful for parents to love with detachment and eventually release their offspring to the uncontrollable terrain of their own autonomy. But isn’t it what we have always desired for our children, from the very beginning?

bowarrowPerhaps this paradigm can give you guidance throughout your son or daughter’s adolescence. If you are temped to fight your student’s battles, micromanage his college essays, squelch his youthful idealism, pressure him into a choice of college, major, or career that allays your own anxieties and addresses your unmet aspirations, yet drains him of genuine ownership, voice and meaning, think again. Are you encouraging honorable adulthood?