“Dad,” said the brilliant negotiator, “you have a choice. If you agree to listen to what I’m doing in college without judging or punishing me, I’ll tell you the truth. Or I’ll just lie about what I’m really doing. Which do you prefer?”
That story has so shaped our relationship over the decades and still so informs my thoughts and feelings about accountability, human relationships and moral formation that I often return to it.
Should I have found some different solution? Should I have explored consequences for this brazen acknowledgment of readiness to lie?
As my daughter’s phase of family building suggests she may someday face the riddle, I remember my mother watching me, her once argumentative teenager, parent my children. When Mom witnessed a trying interchange I’d see a sweet but sly smile. She was sinfully enjoying watching the son once sure he knew more than she confronting daughters confident they knew more than he.
If my daughter faces her own reckoning with “or I’ll lie to you,” what should she do?
I’ll have to let her cope while I smile. Yet maybe she should conclude, as did I, that she has been outfoxed. One reason I didn’t call my daughter’s bluff was that it was no bluff. She really would hide what she was up to.
I grasped this from knowing her but also myself: I had done the same thing to my parents, if less courageously. I simply invented something like a five-year statute of limitations: Here’s what was going on then that I didn’t want you to know, like the time I stole a banana when I was a boy in Mexico City, ran across the busy street to throw the peel in the grassy median strip, forgot to check traffic on the way back, got hit by a Jeep but not tragically so, hence pretended running happily on was just my James Bond-esque style.
But a key reason I accepted my daughter’s deal was that I loved her. I loved that teenage mix of bravado and precisely the openness of soul that had led to her to offer terms that would let her stay open.
The years to come were challenging. I’d wrestle with: OK, now I know this. Now what? How do I honor the bargain when some choices terrify me and could lead to bad things that the underdeveloped frontal cortex isn’t fully grasping?
I stumbled onto two responses. One was: If you do X or Y, dear daughter, other authority figures may impose unhappy consequences; keeping me in the loop won’t spare you. The other was to repeat, in so many conversations such as that classic one over chicken and pasta, that like mountain climbers supporting each other, my rope is clipped to your soul no matter what rock face you climb or cliff you fall off.
What I could glimpse then, but more clearly years later, is what a gift she gave us both. Social and church glues fail as angers and alienations sever us from each other’s hearts. Rising anxiety, depression, suicide intersect with cruel social media and political worlds that encourage being the best — how many likes do I have? — or one-up: No, I won’t seek the Light with you; I’ll exploit your weaknesses to impose my ways. Mutual-accountability ground between whatever feels good and zero tolerance shrinks.
What if instead we connected the carabiners of our souls to confront life’s mountains and cliffs with ropes clipped together?
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo.