The Roles We Do and Do Not Choose: Reflections on Vocation, Parenthood, and Raising the Rebellious Child

The roles of husband and wife are each freely chosen. The roles of father and mother are each freely chosen. The roles of being single or entering the priesthood or religious life are each freely chosen.

There are exceptions of course. Some marriages are arranged. Some women become mothers from acts of rape or incest. As well, priests and religious describe their “state of life” as a “calling” or vocation from God to which they freely respond (cf. John 15:16, where Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”).

Moreover, each of these roles requires the active participation of another: a man becomes a husband by being covenanted by the woman he is marrying, a woman becomes a mother by means of the man choosing to impregnate her and she choosing to engage in the same act with him, and so on.

In other words, we don’t assume these roles apart from another person’s free choice to marry us, to engage in sexual intercourse with us, and so on. The choices of the two persons are mutual and they are made to achieve together a certain good or goods – a “common good” they share.

The roles of grandmother and grandfather, however, are ones that are not freely chosen – unless of course we include the much earlier choice to have a family in the first place – and then there is the very real possibility that one may have a child, that one’s child will marry, have children of his or her own, and make you a grandparent whether you want to be one or not!

So also not freely chosen are the roles of brother and sister, uncle and aunt, nephew and niece, and cousins. Here too there are exceptions of course (e.g. couples freely choose to adopt children and some persons become grandparents by wrongly choosing to carry their own grandchildren by means of in vitro fertilization with embryo transfer).

These natural familial roles that we do not choose for ourselves are profound and ever-present reminders that there are aspects of our lives that we are not in control over. For instance, for the parent with a virtuous and intelligent child, they will most likely thank God for this blessing in their lives.

But these same parents may very well carry the cross of having another child who is addicted to drugs and involved in criminal activity. They will still thank God for the life of this child as well.  He or she too is capable of conversion. He or she too can be the means by which his or her parents learn the nature of forgiveness and unconditional love – not by overlooking or indulging the child’s sins, but by grace-filled acts of re-creative and redemptive love – and thus achieve holiness of life as a couple.

There is a sense in which the parents of this difficult child may even have to love him or her more than their other well-behaved child – simply because the child needs it – much like what we observe of the prodigal son’s father’s love for him (cf. Luke 15:11-32, called the “Parable of the Lost Son” in the NAB). The father’s love is generous (“my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat,” v. 17; cf. vv. 22-24, 31), compassionate (“filled with compassion,” v. 20), affectionate (“He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him,” v. 20), conciliatory (cf. v. 28, where he pleads with the older son), and forgiving (cf. vv. 24, 32).

The merciful love of the Father in the Parable of the Lost Son should be the same kind of love that parents have for their disobedient as well as obedient children, just as the father in Jesus’ parable (representing God the Father) has for his two very differently behaving sons. This remains true even if their feelings for their wayward child are sour rather than sweet. What’s important is what they will and what they do with these negative feelings. Do they, for example, overcome them and will the child’s good or do they give in to them and become bitter and resentful towards the child?

The parents will also find that raising a rebellious child will require the moral virtues, especially prudence and fortitude. The help of these virtues will be a cause of their development. But here definite choices are involved either to do what’s right or to do what’s wrong for all the members of the family.

So, one must choose, and choose wisely. The difficulty of dealing with such a child, however, may be not only the occasion for acquiring a particular virtue and/or its growth – by means of making good moral choices over-and-over again over time – it may also serve, unfortunately, as the perfect crisis which can tear marriages, families, and individuals apart. This latter scenario happens all too often, even to couples with good marriages, to think that it can’t happen to you.

This is when couples must make a conscious decision to stay together and fight the good fight – not only for the child’s sake, but for the sake of their marriage itself. The choice they make together to be faithful and to be constant will build up moral virtue in them. With God’s grace and the cooperation of the couple can secure the stability of their marriage bond as they go forward to meet this particular challenge and the challenges of parenthood in general.

It is a choice that they should freely choose to make for the good of marital fidelity. Their goal is twofold: to strengthen their vocational commitments and to be faithful to them and to help their children and wider family unit to do the same. Prayer will be a significant aid that helps these couples to fight rather than flee from the stressful situation they are faced with.

According to Blessed John Paul II in his work Love and Responsibility, to say that a specific person has a specific vocation “means that his or her love is fixed on some particular goal.” Ultimately, for Christians, that goal is the Kingdom of God. Until the Kingdom is a reality in its fullness, our goal is to freely choose to love God and neighbor with everything we have, even when that “neighbor” is a troubled child whose life course we did not choose for ourselves – but rather was chosen for us.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
Articles by Mark:

  • Pingback: New Classicism: Flowering of Traditional Church Architecture | Big Pulpit

  • Stephanie Bahoura

    I really enjoy reading articles about Marriages and the dynamics of a family. Great article. Thanks for sharing Dr. Latkovic

    • Mark Latkovic

      You’re most welcome, Stephanie! Good to hear from you! God bless!

  • Gloria La Bella

    Choosing to be a parent is an eternal commitment, thank you for
    this article. God bless.

    • Mark Latkovic

      Thank you, Gloria! May God bless you too!

  • Episteme

    “…being single… [is] freely chosen.”

    “Moreover, each of these roles requires the active participation of another: a man becomes a husband by being covenanted by the woman he is marrying…In other words, we don’t assume these roles apart from another person’s free choice to marry us, to engage in sexual intercourse with us, and so on. The choices of the two persons are mutual…”

    It’s ludicrous to argue that we singles freely choose our role, then two paragraphs later start describing in detail how marriage involves the free will participation of man and woman together. Especially when in the meanwhile you’ve given an out for the clergy/religious in the meanwhile, while still leaving the single hanging.

    Yes, some singles choose to remain so. However, the vast majority – especially those in Catholicism and other faith communities – are seeking spouses (often chastely for decades) and failing to find them, thanks to the complications of the modern world coupled with a modern Church that deliberately abandons them past the 18-24 bracket. Case in point is right here with the philosophical and theological wrangling of casting out that segment of the community in the first sentence before going on to discuss the role “we” (a.k.a the married, because it’s the Church and the unmarried are not accepted because that supposes that the community might have to offer moral, spiritual, and perhaps one day physical support for them) “choose.”