One evening recently my friend and I settled in for an evening of movie watching. The movie we chose is a modern classic, Fiddler on the Roof. It started me thinking, as movies often do. You see, in the movie, Tevya, a Jew living in the Russian Empire in 1905, is approached by each of his three oldest daughters regarding their choice of husbands. What is significant is that each approach takes a different perspective. Each time Tevya is faced with the choice of either denying his daughter, or breaking with the traditions that have dictated his life and held his people together for generations.
His eldest daughter, Tzeitel, asks his permission to marry a poor tailor that she has known since childhood instead of the rich, older butcher her father has chosen for her. (Tevya does give the couple his permission to marry.)
His second daughter, Hodel, falls in love with Perchik, a radical revolutionary and they determine to marry. The couple tells Tevya that they are not asking his permission to marry, but they are asking for his blessing. (Which, again, after much consideration, Tevya ultimately grants.)
His third daughter, Chava, falls in love with, Fyedka, a young Russian peasant and Orthodox Christian, and tells Tevya that they want to marry. Although her father commands her to “never talk about it again. Never mention his name again.” she and Fyedka run away and are married by a priest. After their marriage, they approach Tevya and ask for his acceptance. In this instance, Tevya comes to a radically different conclusion. He cannot accept that Chava married outside of her faith, and he disowns her. This act by Chava goes too far, and threatens an unbreakable tradition that defines Tevya’s very being. Tevya disowns his daughter, and tells his wife they must forget about Chava. Finally, however, at the end of the movie, as the family prepares to leave for America, Tevye shows signs of forgiving Chava, who has come to say goodbye, by murmuring under his breath "And God be with you.”
Tevya learns throughout the movie that traditions are only valuable when they serve us well. His daughters help him understand that he must change with the times and circumstances.
Permission. Blessing. Acceptance. What does each mean, and what is their implication for our relationship with our adult children? This is what I have come up with.
Permission implies the right to control the action of a person in a certain circumstance. You may give permission to a small child to do something, or to an employee for some work-related request. There is an implied responsibility and a mutual acceptance of authority when another person is involved. Granting permission is certainly called for in our relationship with a child, and may be fully appropriate in certain closely defined circumstances between adults, such as an employee/employer situation. But as a fully functioning adult, ultimately and completely, the only person we can give permission to, is ourselves. Hodel and Perchek demonstrate this when they ask Tevya for his blessing, but not his permission.
Blessing is granted when it is acknowledged that the other person has a right to make their own decisions, but favor is sought and given. It is an acknowledgement that a person has a right to do as they feel best and a wish for a positive outcome for them. Blessing shows support without being responsible for another’s actions. Blessing implies a mature acceptance that another person deserves the right to give themselves permission to act as they feel compelled to do.
Acceptance seems to imply something further, something beyond permission and blessing. It is the bare minimum we should hope to offer one another. Acceptance is the acknowledgement of another’s right to be as they are, even if that is beyond our understanding or approval. We give our acceptance when we give our permission or our blessing. But we sometimes must give our acceptance when permission or blessing is not appropriate or possible. Acceptance may be the ultimate gift we can give another. It is our willingness to believe in another’s right to live as they choose. It is our coming to terms with our own limitations. It is giving our consent and tolerance to another adult.
In offering our consent to another, we have given ourselves permission to be responsible for only ourselves. We have acknowledged without judgment the privilege that belongs to someone else to do the same.
Perhaps that is the true meaning of being a “consenting adult.” In her book, Consenting Adult, Laura Z. Hobson creates a tale about human relationships, and about a family, most notably the mother of the family, coming to terms with a son’s homosexuality. Published in 1975 and set in the Sixties and early Seventies at the very beginning of the modern gay rights movement, the novel has a particular poignancy and innocence born of ignorance, in light of our current knowledge. But it is beautifully written and still valuable for its exploration of the evolution of a parent’s struggle to understand and develop a relationship with an emerging adult child. The final paragraph of the final chapter records the thoughts of Tessa Lynn, the mother of the family, this way: “Consenting adults, she thought, and a fullness rushed to her heart. To consent, to assent, to be in harmony, to give your blessing. I give my blessing, all my blessing. Then I am a consenting adult too.”
I hadn’t been able to put it into words before, but this is the approach I want to take with my adult children. It’s hard as a parent to recognize when permission is no longer possible, and blessing may not be appropriate. I’ve somewhat humorously described my philosophy about dealing with adult children as “smile and nod.” Now I realize that what I really was trying to get at is that I must accept them exactly as the independent adults they are, and give myself permission to allow them to make their own way in the world. That’s a very freeing thought.
Perhaps my evolving understanding of permission, blessing, and acceptance will inform my relationship with my adult children going forward. I hope, dear reader, that it gives you something to consider as well.