Monday, May 05, 2014

May 4th Letter from Harrisburg

Note--the Register-Guard has changed the schedule for my column just a bit.  Instead of once a month, it will be published every three weeks.

Letter from Harrisburg

Navigating the dangerous days of youth

By Dorcas Smucker
I’ve learned to be relieved when the cookies taste awful and the car runs out of gas.
It means my husband and I have managed, for the moment, to set the boundaries where our teenagers are making choices for themselves, but the consequences are still manageable.
Parenting is terrifying mostly because the stakes are so high.
It’s tempting for protective parents to make all the children’s decisions. Or, similarly, to let kids choose but to protect them from any of the results.
At the other extreme, there’s the chilling prospect of young people making increasingly unwise and unsupervised decisions until the doors to healthy future prospects close and lock, one by one.
So we search for a redemptive middle ground.
Jenny, our youngest child, celebrated her 15th birthday by having her cousin Allison over. The two of them decided to make a big batch of monster cookies for Jenny to take to school the next day, a birthday tradition at her private school.
Both girls are capable of baby-sitting, cleaning a bathroom and cooking a meal, so I had no qualms about turning them loose to make cookies after I handed them the right jar of peanut butter.
I hadn’t counted on the special insanity that happens when two teenagers work on a project together.
“Oops! Hahahahaha!!”
“How much flour?”
“This recipe doesn’t take flour!”
Waves of giggles.
The first batch into the oven oozed like a lava flow all over the cookie sheet.
They stirred in a cup of flour, but the next panful wasn’t much better. “I’m sure it’s that weird peanut butter,” Jenny announced, hoping it was all my fault.
The mixing bowl went into the fridge to salvage later. We bought ice cream bars to take to school.
When I made the remaining cookies, the dough was sticky and heavy, like a science experiment demonstrating highly viscous liquid, a lot like ... corn syrup.
That evening I asked Jenny, “How much corn syrup did you and Allison put into the cookie dough?”
She said, “I don’t know. Whatever the recipe said. A cup and a half I think.”
The recipe called for one and a half teaspoons.
“Oops,” Jenny said.
Next time, she’ll get it right.
Meanwhile, our 19-year-old son, Steven, was on a three-week road trip, accompanied by two friends, meandering home from a friend’s wedding on the East Coast by way of two cars and hospitable friends and relatives in Arkansas, Indiana and other places. One of the cars was a 1996 Cadillac “funeral car,” we were told, that an acquaintance had accidentally bought on eBay and asked these guys to transport home from South Carolina.
We pictured a sleek gray hearse with a swooping silver emblem on the side crossing Nebraska with Steven at the wheel, singing.
“No no,” Steven said, “Not a hearse. Like, a limousine to take the family to the cemetery and back. With six doors.” Either way, it was just the sort of quirky arrangement that Steven loves.
I prayed a lot about this trip, as texts from Steven were scarce and scary. “Where are you?” I sent one day, and soon got a reply: “Bottom of a canyon with a broken leg and I can’t move.”
What a guy.
They came home, safe and grinning, on a Thursday evening. “Did anything unusual happen on your trip?” my husband asked Steven, who gives out information like my mom used to dole out spending money: seldom, sparsely and like it caused her great pain to part with it.
“No. Nah. Not really.”
“Oh yeah, we ran out of gas four times,” Steven recollected, two days later. “I think there was something funny about the gas gauge in the limo. So after the first time we got this little gas can and kept some gas on hand.”
Between monster-cookie rescues and prayers for safety, it’s easy to forget that these are remarkably smooth waters. Many young people their ages face monstrous dilemmas where none of the options are pleasant and the consequences are almost unthinkable.
Sometimes it’s through reckless decisions accumulating one by one, sometimes through others preying on their innocence, sometimes through lack of a guide — they all lead to situations no teenager should have to face.
The day Steven returned, my friend Ila and I took our church’s Girls for God club to visit a pregnancy center and deliver the baby blankets and hats we had sewed at our club meeting the month before.
With 15 girls aged 9 to 14, we crowded into the beautiful waiting room. Debbie, our tour guide and director of the clinic, told us about the wide range of services they provide.
“Our youngest client ever was 10 years old,” she said. Seventeen pairs of eyes stared at her, round with disbelief.
“Such innocence,” commented Debbie wistfully, looking over our group.
“A third of our clients are under 19 years old,” she went on. “Almost every girl who walks in here for a pregnancy test has two things in common. She is scared to death, and she has no one to help her. No one. We try, first of all, to let her know that someone will be there for her.”
I tried to picture Jenny and Allison, not giggling in the kitchen, but preyed on, possibly pregnant, alone and terrified, facing adult decisions with the sketchy wisdom of ninth-graders.
No wonder we obsess about protecting them.
Two days after that, I noticed a news article about a young man who had been arrested and accused of recruiting children for explicit videos. His name stirred a memory, and a bit of Facebook sleuthing confirmed it: he had sung in a children’s choir with Steven, long ago when both of them were little and innocent. I used to chat with this boy’s mom while we both waited on our kids to finish choir practice.
He faces at least five years in prison if convicted.
I have been to state prisons to help with cookie projects at Christmastime and a barbecued lunch for the inmates in the fall. Prison is a hard, harsh little universe of its own, sharp with tension, relentless in its daily realities. It always reduces me to tears and makes me come home and extract promises of lifelong law-abiding behavior out of my boys.
What steps would lead from little choirboy to possible inmate, I wondered. Was it one impulsive decision, a series of worsening choices, or a disturbed attempt to salve pain inflicted by others? No matter what or why, his steps had led to darker places and narrowing possibilities until suddenly they stopped in disaster.
As a parent, I want formulas. These rules, these words, these boundaries — and at the end of the fragile teenage years, capable people stepping into adulthood.
The scary truth is, much of it is out of our control. We are dependent on what we know at the moment, the grace of God, unseen compulsions in a child’s soul, and the influence of many others.
So we try to let them experience results in doses they can handle. We let Steven figure out how to keep his car going and we have Jenny make the recipe over again. We love deeply and pray a lot and believe in second chances. We apologize when we get it wrong. We sew burp rags for the pregnancy center and make Christmas cards for prisoners.
And we try to keep our eyes and hearts open for all the lost young people who need someone to say, “I am here for you, I believe in you, you’re going to make it through.”


  1. My oldest is 6, and I do freak out sometimes, wondering what the world will be like by the time he hits the teen years. Will we perpetually be at war, will it possible to ever stay away from pornography and will a normal family be a museum relic? Thanks for the reminders to give it up to God and let Him take over.

  2. I have worked at a CPC for fifteen years. While there I think I have heard every story of human depravity imaginable. When I would leave the city, coming home 30 miles distant, I would be so thankful, so grateful for the conservative Mennonite culture that works to protect its young from the ravages of sin that I encountered every week there. The tragedy of this is that very few conservative Mennonite young - and maybe their parents - have a clue what I am talking about. Sad.

    Yes, Debbie is right on when she looked at your group of girls and saw innocence in their faces. People that work at a CPC will pick this up in a heartbeat. I promise.

  3. I mentor women coming out of prison. These are women just like any other women I know but they have been caught up in bad choices and ruined their lives. They can never go back to where they were before prison because their families do not want to deal with what they did or husbands divorced them while they were incarcerated. Their children do not want them to be their mothers. This is something that I would really like my adult children to see but the reality of it is too harsh and heart wrenching.

  4. May I state my opinion that this is probably one of your best posts ever?! My husband and I are raising two precious boys. To people who know me, I would appear to have had a charmed childhood, but it was filled with horror and hurt behind the picturesque scene. I constantly run to The Lord for wisdom and perspective and sometimes He uses your blog to answer my prayers!