I used to say that my son entered the terrible twos and never emerged. Through his entire childhood, if you were to comment “It’s a beautiful day,” he would say “I wish it were raining.” If you said something was white, he’d say he’d prefer that it were black.
I am a positive person. His negativity was a terrible burden for me to bear. Being positive and surrounding myself with positive people is important to me, things that have had everything to do with my survival. It is a terrible thing to admit, but my son’s oppositional behavior was a big “downer” for me, and I avoided him through most of the years when he needed me most.
Now that he is an adult, he has outgrown this behavior and we are close. But it was a long time in coming, and I feel bad as a parent that I was unable to do anything about the problem but just wait.
I had begun to think of him as my prodigal child. I recently did a little research on the term “prodigal,” and I discovered that the core meaning of the word prodigal is “waste.” But my son is anything but wasteful; I think he has banked (or paid off student loans with) virtually the first dollar he ever earned.
The origin of our understanding of “prodigal” is a story in the bible which says a man had two sons.
The man’s younger son asked the father to give him his inheritance so that he could enjoy it now rather than wait till his father died. The older brother dutifully remained behind.
His father gave the boy his inheritance and the son went out into the world in search of bigger and better things. He partied and lived it up for many years, and wasted his last penny. He thought he knew it all but had become flat broke, eating with the hogs.
He ended up having to come back home with his tail between his legs, a biblical “boomerang child”. He was humiliated, prepared to beg, to even renounce his kinship to his father.
But instead, when the father saw his son coming up the road home, he was happy to see his son again. The prodigal son tried to get out his supplication (according to an Eastern Orthodox prayer):
I have recklessly forgotten Your glory, O Father;
And among sinners I have scattered the riches which You gave to me.
And now I cry to You as the Prodigal:
I have sinned before You, O merciful Father;
Receive me as a penitent and make me as one of Your hired servants.
But the father cut off his son’s words. He called for his servants to set up a banquet to celebrate the son’s return.
The older son, the one who had stayed behind and worked for his father, refused to go along and attend the banquet. He sulked. It was unfair. He had remained behind, worked hard, and had received no special reward. His father had given him not even a goat with which to share with his friends.
“When he returns who has wasted the fruits of our labors on whores, you kill a fattened calf for him.”
His father reminded his son that everything the father has is the older son’s, yet that they should still celebrate the return of the younger son. “Your younger brother was dead, and is alive again. He was lost and now is found.”
The bible story is basically about waste, jealousy, being humbled. But it is also about how enduring bonds of familial love and loyalty can overcome all.
So what is the modern view of a prodigal child?
First, it’s important to realize that many children may exhibit troubling or rebellious behavior, but are not full-blown prodigals. If your child wears a different hairstyle, gets a piercing, is moody or depressed, comes home with Cs on his report card, or becomes angry when told to empty the dishwasher, that doesn’t make him a prodigal. These examples are normal for preteens and teenagers.
A true prodigal child will show extreme defiance and rebellion as a pattern over an extended period of time. In fact, the word defiance catches it all—a stubborn, rebellious spirit that rebels against authority, refuses to acknowledge responsibility for faults, and doesn’t embrace the truth. Here are some signs, according to Wikipedia, suggesting the presence of an Oppositional/Defiant prodigal:
- Throwing repeated temper tantrums
- Excessively arguing with adults
- Actively refusing to comply with requests and rules
- Deliberately trying to annoy or upset others, or being easily annoyed by others
- Blaming others for your mistakes
- Having frequent outbursts of anger and resentment
- Being spiteful and seeking revenge
- Swearing or using obscene language
- Saying mean and hateful things when upset
In addition, many children with ODD are moody, easily frustrated, and have a low self-esteem. They also sometimes may abuse drugs and alcohol.
As I said before, it’s not unusual for children—especially those in their “terrible twos” and early teens—to defy authority every now and then. They may express their defiance by arguing, disobeying, or talking back to their parents, teachers, or other adults. When this behavior lasts longer than six months and is excessive compared to what is usual for the child’s age, it may mean that the child has a type of behavior disorder called oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
ODD is a condition in which a child displays an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, hostile, and annoying behavior toward people in authority. The child’s behavior often disrupts the child’s normal daily activities, including activities within the family and at school.
In the above description of prodigal and oppositional behavior, the idea of waste is not explicit, but it is there. Says David Rainey, essayist and CEO of FamilyLife, for almost 40 years a subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ: “The famous prodigal son from Christ’s parable in Luke 15:11-32 not only wasted the material possessions of his inheritance and much of his life, but he also did much worse. He wasted, through rebellion and foolishness, his precious relationship with his father.”
According to Rainey, those who work professionally with such teenagers often mention two key root causes.
Selfishness. We are all self-centered by nature, but selfishness becomes an art form in the prodigal’s life.
Desire for control. This issue is often linked to selfishness. During adolescence, young people naturally seek greater control over their lives. Selfishly, they may ask for much more control than they can handle.
In my own experience, familial bonds are more important than any perceived transgressions by the child. Parents must remember who is the parent, and be held to a higher standard than the child. The child must be responsible for the consequences of his/her actions, but the parent must exercise patience and forbearance when the relationship isn’t working… keep looking for (and have faith in) the similarities between the child’s values and one’s own… and never abandon or “throw away” the child as unredeemable.
Also, according to Rainey, here are some priorities you should maintain as a parent:
Keep loving. No matter how broken and alienated your child may be, you always will be dad or mom—the only people in the world with the unique opportunity to love him without strings like no other person can. This is a powerful tool, like a huge magnet that can irresistibly draw a wayward child back to your embrace.
Connect. Your child may not even want to speak to you. And you may be weary of trying to reach out and always getting shut down. You have no choice; you must find ways to connect. Even in the face of angry words and cold body language, you can speak kind words and give hugs and tender touches. You can compliment and encourage. You can show interest. You can serve. You can pursue your child in ways that speak this language of love.
Establish boundaries. Although you will keep trying to connect, you and others in your family should not accept abusive, destructive behavior from an in-house prodigal. What will be the basic requirements for anyone living under your family’s roof? These rules must be carefully thought through and clearly communicated to your child. Your child needs to know that if boundaries are crossed, serious consequences will result.
I believe we can wait expectantly for a prodigal child to return, but we also need to accept the reality that this may be a wait of months and even years. Although you hope that resolution and reconciliation will come quickly, you must prepare for a long haul.
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