Enabling versus love

The three cardinal virtues St. Paul tells us are Faith, Hope and Charity (agape) and the greatest of these is charity or agape-love. A very old saying is that charity begins at home. Perhaps because I’ve been writing about AA and Al Anon and because of a call in to Dr Ray I listened to recently and another peice of research about family life I heard about this morning I am wondering more how we as parents tread that fine line between a thoughtful love (as Miss Mason would have us give) and an enabling but ultimately destructive ‘love’ that isn’t really love at all.

In some ways the alcoholic, drug addict, gambler or porn viewer makes it easy to see how enabling is easy and love can be hard. Handing over money to the alcoholic only helps them drink – it doesn’t help them pay the debt they owe because they drink. Those of us who have taken on the responsibility of making sure our addict friends and family get to work or have free food are treating them like children so they have our permission to continue the irresponsible destructive behaviour. It can be horribly difficult to step back and see that we have to stop doing that for their sake and our own.

But we are still called to love and to do so in the caritas/agape/love way – so we cannot take the advice of some group members that we separate ourselves from the other person. Sometimes of course there is no choice in this – we can’t stay around to be abused or have our children abused – but the decision to pull back or ignore the behaviour must be made with care. Ignoring can be just as enabling as actively doing something to help the destructive behaviour.

But moving away from the world of addicts and their care – what about our own children as they reach adulthood and must take on more responsibility? Are they to be more independent and if so what is independence anyway? And how does that equate to being good parents and our brother’s keeper?

All three of my adult children live at home. They have never lived elsewhere. The reason for this is simple – the older two are on minimum wage and Iona who is 17 has yet to find employment. Although both the lads are working near enough full time hours at this moment they have neither the income nor job security that would allow them to live and eat.

As the economy is not allowing adult children to live independently, then how can we help them be part of the family but not enable dependence?

I think the key to this is how it goes wrong. When parents of adult children phone Dr Ray and complain that they are at home – they are not complaining that they are at home, they are complaining that they are at home and living as though their home is a hotel with no bills. I am sure that parents, like us, whose adult children live at home but also contribute to family life through chores, and some financial help are not going to complain. While I could certainly say that Josh is regularly out all hours of the night and sleeps all day, this is because he works nights as a care assistant and not because he is up to no good.

It’s not a perfect arrangement. The boys do want to have their own place and lead their own lives and I pray that in time this will happen. For now their bills are mostly paid although they take charge of their personal bills and their food is on the table.

In the past families did stay together and work together especially in rural societies, so the fact that our nuclear family is still in one house is not in itself a bad thing. But we are not living the rural life and the boys do need to carve out some space for themselves.

If I thought they were trying to live “free’n’easy” and make no effort to find employment or further training I would have to rethink what we gave them. In fact I think we would have to charge rent at the going rate. But they are applying for jobs and working hard on more studies as well as taking part in the family as they should; so far I think we are no ennabling anything bad. Not that I am trying to say it’s all hunky dory and there are no difficulties. Far from it. The local economy is pretty bad and this impacts all the younger ones. Many have come out of Uni with huge debt and must be grateful for a part time shop job.

Even so, we are grateful the boys have a job and are working hard.


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