Honor They Mother and Father

As I was driving to our local co-op to do some shopping yesterday, I flipped to NPR on the car radio. I tuned into the middle of a segment involving an interview with someone giving financial advice to the families of students about to go off to college. Since we will be driving my daughter to Lawrence University for her first year of college a week from Monday I started listening.

At the end of some discussion about credit cards, the interviewer asked the guest if she had anything to say to the students. Yes, she said, “be nice to your parents.” In elaboration she said that she understood everyone had dreams about where they wanted to go to school. However, she said, if going to the school of your choice would require one’s parents to dig deeply into their retirement savings or take on personal debt, one should be going elsewhere. She encouraged students to be part of discussions with their parents about options. And, she said, students need to understand that going to a particular college should not be considered an entitlement.

So far so good. I do think far too many people (including many young people) have a sense of entitlement about far too many things. Encouraging discussion about whether one’s dreams are realistic and avoiding making unsound decisions struck me as sound advice.

It was what came next that I found troubling. The next line out of her mouth – by way of explaining why one should not demand decisions that require one’s parents to spend money they don’t have was, “After all, you don’t want to have to take care of your parents. I know I don’t want to have to do that.”

Now, it may be that what she really meant to say was that it would be difficult for one’s parents to later have to feel like they were a burden on their children. But my fear is the message heard was how horrible it would be to have to have some responsibility for the well-being of one’s parents.

I recognize that two or three generations of a family living in a single homestead is no longer a reality for most people. I also know that for some people, having to care for elderly family members can be a great burden.

Nonetheless, I don’t think the message we want to convey to our young people is that they have (or should feel) no responsibility for their parents.


Taking Responsibility

When I was a very young child (I’m talking really young, age 3 or so), I had a friend named Arthur, with whom I used to get into all sorts of mischief. Whenever Arthur and I got caught doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, our first response was always, “Dee-Dee did it,” Dee-Dee being my younger sister, Diane, who was about 1 at the time. It was nothing short of preposterous to think she could have done any of what we had attributed to her, but that was our line and we stuck to it, time and time again.

In today’s first Mass reading from Genesis, we hear God accusing Adam and Eve of doing something He had told them not to do. And what is their response? Adam says, Eve did it – she gave me the fruit. Eve says, the serpent did it, he tricked me into eating of the tree.

Whatever else one thinks of the Genesis story, it illustrates a common tendency – finding someone else to blame for what we’ve done. Not taking ownership of whatever our failings and mistakes happen to be. To be sure, there are times when things are not “our fault,” where external circumstances are such we are not responsible for what occurs. Nonetheless, where the first impulse is to blame another, it becomes too easy to avoid taking responsibility for what is really our doing.

I was a debater in high school and my debate coach had many rules, some of which I thought were a bit inane. But one of his rules was one that served us remarkably well. The rule was that we could never blame the judge when we lost a round. We were never permitted to say the judge was biased or made a mistake or any other variation on those themes that might excuse a excuse our losing a ballot.

Now the reality was that there were some really bad judges out there and they sometimes made bad decisions. There were also some judges who were nowhere near objective. (I was once judged in a round by the aunt of my opposing debater.) Nonetheless, his view was that if we started blaming judges for our losses, it would be too easy to get into the habit of doing it, of making excuses. And that habit and those excuses would prevent us from examining seriously what we could have done better.

My coach’s advice was good. And it is something worth taking to heart outside of the context of debate rounds. There are doubtless many things out of our control. But our first line response when we fall short can’t be to find someone else to blame. It has to be to look inward, not to blame or beat up on ourselves. But to simply examine what we might have done differently.