*Big thanks to a friend of mine who gave me permission to post this letter he wrote to his stepdaughter recently. Thank God for step parents who do engage and don’t choose apathy.*
This is long. You will find it annoying and will likely skip entire paragraphs the first time you read it. I ask that you please do me one favor: keep it, and revisit it again sometime in the future.
The truth can often be awkward, uncomfortable and even painful. Life in the absence of truth often seems easier. A little white lie, a misleading statement, an exaggeration or invented story, an ignored phone call, or simply failing to reveal what should be revealed all serve to selfishly better our positions in whatever circumstances that each moment presents us. We are all guilty, each and every one of us.
Most people speak of the importance of the truth with the idea that a lack of truth will compound upon itself and create burdens and ever-increasing problems that ultimately collapses under its own weight. This thinking is, for the most part, true. However, examples of a lack of truth personally benefiting an individual and having no long-term negative results are also plentiful (politics is rife with examples). Children, like politicians and everyone else, do not live a life guided entirely by truth. The reason, despite what people claim, is simply because it is an effective strategy. Dishonesty sometimes works out just fine. It seems logical that if no benefit were to ever come from dishonesty, then dishonesty would slowly disappear. That is not what I see. I see a world that puts the truth on a pedestal, as if it is truly special and to be cherished. This implies that genuine truth is more rare than dishonesty. The problem, as I see it, is this: to not speak the truth is to stop genuine conversation, to have such little respect for another that you deny them the fundamental right to know, be it a good or bad truth. A lack of truth is usually no more than a display of loving oneself more than another.
Without question, words can hurt. Words are often designed specifically to hurt. The words I spoke to you the other night were an example of exactly the kind of language that is designed and used to hurt another person; for that, I am truly sorry. I am sorry that they came out of my mouth aimed at the young girl I try so hard to make feel exceptional. It is the hurtful wording that I regret. As for the message behind that wording – the simple truth is – I do not genuinely feel sorry.
I asked your Mother that night, “Why the hell would the guy that spoils her say that to her?” She didn’t have an answer, and neither did I. I have thought a lot about that question I asked your Mother, and I want to take a moment to explain what I believe is the answer.
Despite my questionable choice of words, my timing, and my tone of voice, I spoke the truth at that moment. That doesn’t mean that you are forever labeled in my head as that person. It simply means that in describing your treatment of your Mother at that very moment, I spoke with honesty. What I said has come up a couple of times since, which tells me that you have thought about it. You likely disagree, but it affected you enough to dwell a bit on it. You likely called me a few choice names to your friends. You probably got angry, maybe sad; the point is that you reacted with emotion just as I reacted with emotion. Reacting with emotion is the opposite of not reacting at all, or apathy. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, apathy is essentially the opposite of love, which oddly puts love and anger on the same team and apathy on the opposing. A child with a parent who truly doesn’t care about her actions is one of the saddest things. It is a sin against that child, and against humanity. You may know of such a child. A child with apathetic parents can hide among their peers as a child with relaxed, or easy parents. But they often feel unloved and unwanted, and sadly, to varying degrees, they are.
Our simplest, most basic of all desires is safety. True safety is felt in a loving, respectful home. It may not make sense right now, but reasonable expectations, discipline and punishment are critical in establishing a sense of safety. Behavioral boundaries are set, children (specifically ages 2 and 13) consistently test those boundaries, and good parents consistently reinforce them. Failure to establish and consistently reinforce behavioral boundaries results in chaos. Inconsistent, unpredictable parenting makes for ill-behaved children. A parent who simply doesn’t care causes exceedingly more damage. It is said that overly harsh disciplinarian style parents create children who need therapy, but apathetic parents create adults who need therapy.
The truth is subjective, meaning that the same event described by two witnesses may differ, not due to dishonesty but to individual differences. In your world, in your subjective opinion, is the disrespectful attitude shown to your family any different from the way any other 13 year-old treats theirs with? The answer is… I don’t have any idea. Nor did it occur to me to even consider how other children speak to their mothers.
I have felt bad after our conversation, but not for you or my son or myself. I feel bad for your brother. He seemed to listen intently when we sat down and spoke. He seemed concerned, not about being grounded, but about his mother. I was shocked. I expected the disrespectful disobedience that I have come to expect since meeting him. He is older, not around much, and we never formed any sort of bond, but he cared. I felt like he wanted me to be as upset with him as I was with you. I really don’t know. I have always thought I was doing everyone a favor by treating him as an adult.
I don’t know how this ends, or where things go from here. Just know that it was anger and love that guided my words the other night, just as it was anger and love that guided my hand into your door. People can question how that anger and love were displayed, but they cannot question their existence. I’ll never lay an angry hand on any child, but where there is love and disappointment, there will be anger. To not be angry at disrespect, to not be let down at finding an inappropriate video of you online, is fundamentally the same as not smiling at your dance moves, or feeling pride in your accomplishments. Likewise, to provide for you and make no demands of your treatment of others is not only unjust to others but also to you. There are only two ways that a stepparent cannot have the same expectations and make the same demands of their stepchild as they do their biological child… apathy towards that child or ignorance of raising children in general (sadly, not uncommon). This may sound harsh, but it is reality.
The truth is not in what’s said, but can be seen in the actions (or inactions) of many. The idea that “She isn’t really mine, so how she ends up isn’t my problem” is sadly more common than not. You may even prefer that I feel that way. If I could somehow care just enough about you to provide for you a good quality-of-life but refrain from caring enough to discipline you, you would have a great few years. But the long-term consequences that your lack of discipline and lack of respect combined with receiving -without effort- the things you wish would be very damaging and very real. You likely do not feel that way (neither does anyone else at 13), but I assure you, eventually you will.
In short, it is only my apathy, my ignorance, or your compliance to reasonable expectations that will ensure that the poorly worded sentence that came out of my mouth the other night will never come out again. I care very much about you and about what and who you become. Regardless of right or wrong, regardless of your own wishes, it is too late for apathy and ignorance. I am not making an apathetic suggestion; I am making a demand, guided by love, that you change your current treatment of people in my home, or you will find yourself not welcome in it.
To demand any less from you is to not love you.
With much thought and love,