Loving and Enabling

I struggle with this both as a therapist and in my personal relationships. Having a codependent nature I worry about enabling others dysfunctional behavior. In fact, I attend a celebrate Recovery small group for men with codependent issues. I constantly wonder about the boundaries of agape love for those of us who try to follow Jesus?  It is pretty much a ongoing battle in my thoughts. I wonder, did Jesus display love that was without limits and boundaries? Universalists, like Rob Bell and others—those who believe that in the end all will be in heaven—apparently believe that.

And what are the limits to the Lord’s “care-taking” of others?  I’m certain Jesus doesn’t enable others in their dysfunctional behavior, and I wonder about examples in Scripture of Jesus not giving folks what they want but instead giving them something better. One would imagine He gives people seeking help what they need instead of what they want?

Two examples that quickly come to mind are the stories of the wealthy young man found in Mark 10, and the request by the mother of James and John found in Matthew 20. The young rich man wants a ticket to heaven, but Jesus gives him some unwelcome news—sell your possessions and follow me. Mrs. Zebedee, the mother of James and John, asks Jesus if her sons could sit by his side in his Kingdom–but instead He gives her a lesson about servanthood.  Interestingly enough, both of these requests are made by people on their knees. I also think of the raising of Lazarus (John 11).  Mary and Martha want Jesus to come immediately when they inform him that their brother, his friend Lazarus, was ill. But Jesus mysteriously tarries for several days. He has a plan that is beyond the grasp of their human comprehension.

We do not have transcendent insight or agape love, and I wonder, for me personally, where caring or loving someone bleeds over into enabling? I want to be a care-giver but not a care-taker. I’m all for “tough love” but I have trouble enacting it myself. I wonder if that’s a Godly inhibition—or just another example of do as I say and not as I do?  A good friend recently had his adult daughter arrested and jailed because she stole his ATM card to fuel her drug habit. I congratulated him on his strength. That was not an easy thing to do but I wonder if I could have acted with the same tough love.

In a recent blog I noted that how the flight attendant’s directive to put the oxygen masks on ourselves first before helping our children or others just doesn’t feel right to us codependent care-takers. Think of ourselves and our needs first? Now there’s a guilt-provoking notion for sure.

The usual definition of “maturity” is the ability to delay immediate gratification for a greater good later. My observation is that codependent care-takers give folks what they want right now instead of pointing them to a greater good that will come later. They are doing this for their own needs and not that of their child, family member or friend.  Care-givers, on the other hand, see the big picture and make decisions that may not feel good at the time but may lead another in growth toward maturity and emotional independence.

I work with many parents who make seriously dysfunctional decisions in rearing their children. The most common parenting error is mixing up indulging (spoiling) and enabling with “loving” behavior. These parents give their kids pretty much anything they want. Their own needs are inconsequential when little Johnny or Judy’s latest whim needs to be satisfied. The most egregious example that comes to mind is that of a late-50s father who is a single dad rearing a 12-y.o son. This man is disabled and lives on about $800. per month. They were evicted from their home and temporarily homeless, and yet on the 4th of July the kid wanted fireworks and so dad spent $100. on firecrackers and bottle-rockets. When he told me this I was speechless. I wanted to shout at him–but I didn’t. Later in the session I quietly noted that it wasn’t always in Johnny’s best interest to give him everything he wants. What was enabled in this case is the son’s very infantile, greedy behavior. He wants what he wants whether its good for him or his dad in the long-term, and the dad fearful of losing his son’s love gave into him.

Next to spoiling, the other frequent error I see is being over-protective and not allowing a child to grow up, experience failure, and make mistakes. It is indeed a scary world in which we live, but some parents wish is to swathe their kids in bubble-wrap in a perpetually smiley-face germ-free environment. I believe that we learn from our mistakes, from life’s bruises and experience’s setbacks. Failure and pain can be a good teacher, and over-protected kids are not allowed the chance to grow. Our immune systems become strong because they’re exposed to dirt and germs. Sadly, many of these over-protective parents are Christians. I think the message they give their offspring is, “God is in control–well, sort of. But just in case, we better. . .”

I believe over-protective, over-controlling parents think they’re thinking of their kid’s needs first, but in reality much of their motivation has to do with their own needs and their own unconscious fears.  The unconscious fear of the loss of love drives both indulging and over-protecting. The impulse to love our offspring unconditionally is so basic as to be part of human nature. It is one of the ways in which we are made in God’s image. However, sometimes God’s love involves pain for his children. The Bible is chock full of the Lord administering painful discipline. The same fear of the loss of love underlies a third parenting issue: Being unwilling to administer physical punishment.

Some children’s disobedient and disruptive behavior seemingly will only respond to having their butts spanked. Forty years of dealing with children with behavior problems has confirmed for me the wisdom in Proverbs 13:24, 19:18 and 3:11-12.  Sometimes the “Lord’s discipline” involves administering pain. Parents who fear the loss of their child’s love and/or their own unconscious rage are afraid to discipline physically.

But we are not God, and we can make all-too-human errors in parenting, and there are some parents who have issues with, rage, explosive anger, poor impulse control and/or alcohol who should never consider administering physical punishment. The ability to physically discipline a child in love is a special type of intimacy that not every parent is capable of, and their are many who should not use physical discipline because of their issues.

I know there are secular parenting gurus and biblical parenting experts who could trot out dozens of examples (and scriptures) pro and con to make their points about physical punishment and loving discipline vs. enabling behavior in child-rearing. I don’t have any easy answers. I attend a Celebrate Recovery (CR) group for codependents. These are typically people who enable the dysfunctional behavior of others because they “love too much.” What I’ve learned is that mostly I can be aware of my own issues and tendencies—and that it’s best to be accountable to folks with a similar problem. So I’ve been doing this CR codependent group for over four years, and all I can say is that maybe I’m 10 or 20% less codependent than when I started.

And as for child-rearing, I was fortunate to inherit a nine-year old with pretty much perfect behavior. His mother was tough on him and probably did some things that a state worker would consider abusive. For all her own anger issues, and her extremely dysfunctional childhood, she still did a pretty brilliant job rearing him. Or maybe it was just God’s grace that he turned out as well as he did.

Perhaps, how a person turns out has little to do with parenting at all— little to do with loving or enabling. I have seen some of the kindest most loving adults come out of abusive and unloving homes, and conversely I have seen really narcissistic and mean-spirited people come out of good homes. It is a mystery. But maybe in the end it is no more or no less than the mystery of grace.

Now, that is something worth pondering.


About diospsytrek

I am a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. I am also the author of four books. The books have to do with coping with depression and other mood disorders, and the nexus of psychological problems and spiritual warfare.
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