Dysfunction is a special word we reserve for things which consistently fail to operate according to their design. We call a paper-making machine dysfunctional when it starts spitting out gooseberry muffins instead of paper, we call a non-stick pan dysfunctional when it starts resisting our efforts to capsize an over-easy egg on its surface.
Our world, being under a curse, has become a place of systemic dysfunction ― that is, there is nowhere we can go where brokenness will not be present to some degree. People will say this is crazy talk. People will say only pessimists and constipated fundamentalists find dysfunction behind every rock and tree. “Look,” they say, “the sun still rises, the grass still grows ― here’s a video someone even took of themselves feeding a homeless person. You’re the one who’s dysfunctional.”
But dysfunction isn’t always as obvious as chipping eggs out of a frying pan; and it’s even more difficult to notice when you’re standing in the middle of it. Picture thanksgiving at your Aunt Helen’s. Even though turkey is all you smell when you first walk in the door, within an hour it has become indiscernible from Helen’s Jean Patou Joy and your Grandma’s cabbage salad. Not being able to smell the turkey, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
One particular dysfunction I’ve noticed lately are children who continue to live with their parents far beyond what I would consider a good and necessary age.
Though there may be valid reasons for such an arrangement, the thing about relationships is that some of them – unlike shire-made goods – are not meant to endure. The infant must eventually wean off breast milk and the would-be Olympic cyclist must at some point bid adieu to his training wheels. To insist that such initial dependencies were meant to be permanent would also be to sanction the impeding, if not outright destruction, of the dependent.
And here most people would agree – at least in principle.
There are certain situations, however, when seemingly common-sense principles seem to take on a strange irrelevance; namely, when they intercept our routines. For example, the enmeshed Christian family that always takes family vacations in August and plays board games every Tuesday night may be uncomfortable ‘fixing’ something (i.e. resident adult age children) that doesn’t seem to be broken. The single parent may see their twenty-something son writhing out in the mud of the world and feel an obligation to rush in with a solution.
But all children, at some point, cross a threshold from childhood into at least the antechamber of adulthood. The basic means of survival have been communicated – it takes roughly ten minutes for pasta to boil, don’t sign door-to-door utilities contracts, the tag always goes at the back – and all that’s left to do is tumble over the edge of the nest. Obviously no hard and fast rules can be laid out, and maturity takes longer for some then it does for others, but surely here even nature itself teaches us the reasonableness of such a pattern. Our forebears certainly affirmed it.
For those who insist on denying this graduation, a predictable pattern emerges.
It looks like a parent who, having dutifully presided over a life for the last eighteen years, is now struggling to acknowledge the adult in their midst. They only see their charge who, if they’re honest, could probably benefit from continued management. There may be a small voice inside that tries to convince them otherwise, but the parental urge isn’t so easily dissuaded. Gradually, interactions which up to that point, may have been perfectly reasonable, begin to take on an unavoidably dysfunctional odor: “Danny clean up you clothes”, “Danny when will you be home tonight?” “Danny please do the dishes.” But the dysfunction is only apparent to those looking in from the outside.
Though the adult-child is likely aware of a growing impulse towards flight, they too may either be unwilling to meddle with such an established relationship, or unwilling to initiate the plunge into adulthood. And if the parent is reluctant to nudge, and the child reluctant to budge, a deadlock is inevitable. The parent will continue to parent, and the adult-child will either fester in resent at being treated like a child, or sullenly accept the price of convenience and go back downstairs to their PlayStation.
Humans are remarkably adaptable. Even with the loss of something so critical as an arm or a leg, the body will eventually adjust to compensate. The same is true of relational dysfunction. At first there may be a vague awareness that something is wrong. But if steps aren’t soon taken to correct the dysfunction, both parties will eventually acclimatize to the point where any attempt at correction will be resisted. Gradually these adult-children will “mature” into increasingly powerless parasites at best, and manipulating connivers at worst. Take this sad case for example.
And so we are left with the age old question – how to treat the new wine and the old wine-skins in such a way that both are preserved? Or, how do we treat the budding adult and the established parent in a way that preserves the harmony and health of the relationship, while allowing for its evolution?
The answer is that the child, at some point, must leave. I don’t mean going away for a few years to college, and then returning to reestablish old dysfunction. Nor do I mean trying out a few different jobs, then coming home after all the bridges have been torched. I mean leaving with the intention of staying left. Of course this isn’t to say that parents and children must erase all ties with one another, or that parents should ever withhold timely advice or assistance. Far from it.
But there must be an identifiable distancing.
In conclusion, a man (or woman) should leave his father and his mother. I don’t normally think it should end there – the sound of true flourishing, and the end of that verse, is heard most clearly in the harmony of marriage – but I believe it’s a good and necessary step in the right direction.
So don’t despise the training wheels – but if you really want to feel the wind on your face, don’t be afraid to lose them.