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Parents Forever: You and Your Adult Children.

Biases, flawed philosophies warp good intentions

You are not alone if you have problems with your adult children. That is the bait for Parents Forever, Sidney Callahan's new entry into the coping-with-life books. It claims to be "the first book to explore the unheralded new dilemmas facing parents of adults." The key word must be new, since Shakespeare's King Lear and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons are but two of the writings that have exposed the problems of parents and their adult children. "New dilemmas" means, then, those arising from the new circumstances of the suburban middle class -- the audience for whom the book is written.

On one level, you get a surprisingly thorough litany of dilemmas. If you can imagine a middle-class suburbanite job, you will have some sense of the litany: accidents, drugs, sexual differences, faltering friendships, illness, irresponsibility, conflicts of belief and old age, to name a few.

On another level, you get comfy parental guidelines wrapped around the "tried-and-true guidelines" of "The Good Friend Test" and "The Disciplines of the Tongue." The guidelines are to ensure the maintenance of communication, the most important outcome, even if it means, for parents, "silence and neutral noncommital response."

On yet another level, the book reveals the kinds of lives -- their purposes and values -- that these guidelines are to help us realize if effectively applied.

On level one, as noted above, the book is very successful. With the omission only of in-law problems -- daughter-and son-in-law -- the book is exceptionally complete. It is on the second two levels that Parents Forever is unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory not because it ignores the poor and urban of our society, but because it holds out so little to its middle-class suburbanite audience beyond safety and comfort. It is difficult to explore this in a short review, so I shall limit myself to brief statements about how the author is revealed as a scientist and an individual and about her treatment of mortality.

As a scientist, the author is particularly careless. Depending primarily on anecdotal stories from friends, the author generalizes without documentation. Some examples from the book: "Women are often adept in . . . conversation because they are more practiced in intimate friendships"; "Personality deficiencies and social inadequacies play a greater part in failed careers than lack of competence"; "Almost every parent has a friend whose adult child has committed suicide."

As an individual, the author displays an astounding bias. With regard to careers: "Most young families do have mothers who stay home while children are small"; "Unmarried motherhood is not socially acceptable in most circles."

Guidelines for behavior inevitably tackle issues of morality and, in so doing, betray, as this book does, a vapid sense of value. The path is clear. First, "morality has to be differentiated from religion" and "in certain cases, however, some uncertainty arises as to what moral standards should apply." What clearer statement of situation ethics, vindicated presumably by the goal of comfort and a non-rocked boat.

Particularly objectionable is the statement, "Parents are anxious because idealistic young adults can end up like Jean Donovan, raped and murdered in El Salvador, martyr to the cause of helping Christ's poor." How to answer a morality that condemns us all to safety and, in the end, meaninglessness.

Here is Alan Paton's answer from Your Land Is Beautiful. Mr. Neni, when asked whether he was sure he understood the risk of his mission, said: "I don't worry about the wounds. When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, 'Where are your wounds?' And if I say I haven't any, he will say, 'Was there nothing to fight for?' I couldn't face that question."

Sadly, Callahan doesn't even ask it. One wonders whether she could even understand that I, also a parent of adult children, would have rejoiced and been proud to have had Jean Donovan as a daughter.

In conclusion, it must be said that Parents Forever mistakenly endorses the current philosophy among so many grief workers: "I think American families are better off for being more sophisticated and self-conscious." Such self-consciousness and sophistication can only conspire to destroy the spontaneity and awe and mystery and love that the good Lord has made available to us in our human relationships. One is, sadly, reminded of that very old doggerel:

The centipede was happy quite,

Until a toad in fun

Said, "Pray, which leg goes after


That worked her mind to such

a pitch,

She lay distracted in a ditch.
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Author:Kenner, Morton R.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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