How to let young people grow into their freedom

4 mins read

The end of parenting is letting go, but not prematurely. It is about bestowing freedom, but first shaping the conditions of freedom so that it may ripen, rather than becoming stunted under the sway of arbitrariness or fads or convenience. It is about giving but not controlling, directing but also releasing, guiding but without forcing. Parenting is an art because the end of parenting is about letting a work of art stand on its own. The work of art is a human person: created and called by God, nurtured and tended by us. Our children are not ours alone; they are first of all God’s, even as they are entrusted to us in his mercy.

In his book “The Power of Silence” (Ignatius Press, $18.95), Cardinal Robert Sarah includes a lengthy excerpt from a letter written by the mother of a family. The mother’s name does not appear — she is anonymous, like the rest of us. And yet her testimony brings forth the delicate and sometimes painful paradox that runs right through the wild act of parenting:

“When my children were little and I thought for them and made decisions for them, everything was easy: my freedom alone was in question. But the time came when I realized my role was gradually to get them used to making choices, and as soon as I agreed to do that, I felt worried. While allowing my children to make decisions, and therefore to take risks, I at the same time took the risk of seeing freedoms other than mine arise. If, too often, I continued to make choices in place of my children, it was, I must admit, to spare them from suffering the consequences of a choice that they might have to regret. Yet there was another reason at least as important, if not more so: in order not to risk a disagreement between their choice and the one I would have liked to see them make. I essentially tried to shield myself from possible suffering, the pain I felt each time my children committed themselves to a way different from the one that to me seemed best for them. This way I manage to glimpse the fact that the Father can suffer. We are his children. He wants us to be free to build our own lives, and the infinity of his love makes any constraint on his part impossible. Perfect love, without a trace of self-interest … but that implies the acceptance from the outset of some suffering inherent in this total freedom that he wants for us.”

The fullness of love

You could very easily come to the end of this passage and conclude that “parenting is suffering.” That would not be wrong, but it would still likely be misleading to others. The suffering this mother is testifying to is the suffering entailed in the fullness of love, of allowing another person whom you care for to be themselves, fully and even differently from what you might prefer. It is to love them, not your idea of them.

This mother touches on a profound theological mystery in the course of her reflection: God releases us — as parents — from his control so that we might choose to love in a manner like unto how he loves us. He frees us so we can love freely, and so we can free those we love to grow into that same kind of unselfish love. All of this is wild, but the wildness is first of all in the heart of God. What reckless love, indeed.

The first and perfect disciple — the Virgin Mary — embodies what we ourselves, as disciples, are to become. She is free. She is the model of what we hope our children will become. She is the one who listened to the Word of God and acted on it. She was patient and discerning, she was bold and courageous, she sacrificed and she loved. She said “yes” to God and entered fully into the love of her own blessed Son, who is our Lord and hers. Whether parent or mentor, minister or teacher, the fulfillment of our own call is not only to be like her but also to form those entrusted to us to become as free and as brave as she is, so they can say with their own voice what she said with hers: fiat.

Learning to say ‘yes’ to God

Young people are not looking for someone to say “yes” for them, as tempting as it is to trade away that responsibility. What they are looking for is what they really need: preparation for and support in learning how to say “yes” to God, and to take responsibility for that choice through their own life commitments.

Young people are looking for liberation from the hidden assumptions of our dominant cultures, assumptions that hold too much power and fill the space of their own freedom with expectations and demands that exceed their due proportion. They long to be re-centered. They desire to live true, meaningful lives, and doing that requires the practice of mercy: to see the needs of others and to act on those needs, while, at the same time, becoming strong enough to allow our own vulnerability and needs to be known to others. Sharing suffering and caring for each other’s needs is how we become fully human together. That is what young people want: the fullness of humanity.

Young people are looking for the privilege of sacrifice: to become people of substance who are capable of bearing the cost of love. They want help in becoming capable of saying what they mean and meaning what they say when those quiet moments of personal decision arrive in life when they must claim responsibility for who they will be and how.

Guides and mentors

And as hard as it is to believe at times, young people are looking for us to be their guides, their mentors, their pastors, their catechists, their teachers, and especially their parents who will provide credible testimony to what matters most. They need us to practice what we preach, but also to preach something of substance, something true and bold and beautiful. They deserve people of confidence and compassion, who both model for them what it means to live in Christ and who help them to do just that.


They are looking for honesty, they are looking for humility, they are looking for consistency, and so that is what we must be: honest, humble, consistent.

In the end, it is part of our vocation to help them become capable of theirs because ones who give life beget ones who give life.

May the Lord bless and keep us, as we bless and empower those entrusted to our care.


Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., is Professor of the Practice in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative and the Inklings Project, and hosts the podcast Church Life Today.