Reality Testing

There’s an interesting story about the English botanist Alfred Russell Wallace who lived about 150 years ago. One day in his laboratory Wallace was observing an Emperor butterfly seeking to get free from its cocoon. The scientist was struck by the little butterfly's painful struggle and the length of time it was pushing and pulling, working to get free. He wondered, "What would happen if I assisted in the process?" And so he took his scalpel and cut down the length of the cocoon. He watched to see what would happen. The butterfly emerged from the cocoon, spread its wings, drooped perceptibly—and died. 

Why? What happened?

The butterfly needed the struggle. It needed the exertion and the intense work required to extricate itself from its confinement. Otherwise, the fluid from its body would not be pumped into every square millimetre of its large, beautiful wings. Without all the effort, there would be no beauty, no colour, no character, no life.

This is a principle of spiritual growth for all of us. The struggle that comes when our faith is challenged or our beliefs are questioned is a key way we grow spiritually. Struggle is also a principle of growth for young people as they mature, and something adults need to recognize.

In the process of transforming from the caterpillar of adolescence into the butterfly of adulthood many young people go through the struggle of what I call “reality testing.” They are trying to figure out who they are as individuals and their relationship to God. They often question the reality of their faith, “Is it real? Is it my faith or my parents’?” And they are confronted with ideas and beliefs contrary to their upbringing that causes them to ask, “What do I really believe?” In trying to figure all these things out they test the realities of the world around them, often exploring and experimenting with different things.

Seeking to assist their child through this phase, or maybe because it is painful seeing their child struggle, many Christian parents give pat answers to the probing questions or parrot what someone else said. Some bring in the “big gun” of their pastor while others respond with a straightjacket of tightly regulated codes of conduct designed to control and maintain parental authority.

These approaches cut away the cocoon.

Here’s a spiritual reality: real faith grows in the crucible of crisis and struggle. Struggle builds character and resilience. And a major factor making the difference between a strengthened, authentic faith or walking away in unbelief is the context in which the struggle takes place.

What can we as parents and grandparents provide that will produce a better environment for our child’s (or grandchild’s) reality-testing struggle? Here are three suggestions.

1. Authentic personal faith

It is critical that we are authentic and consistent in our own walk with the Lord because that is the first place our kids look to test reality. If we’re not living it, the Christian life lacks credibility as far as our young person is concerned. Authenticity doesn’t mean perfect. It means being real about your own struggles and showing how your relationship with Christ makes a difference. Model redemption to them, not perfection. We can also strengthen our own faith by making our child’s struggles a matter of daily prayer.

2. Unconditional acceptance

Let your children know how much you love them now, in the midst of the reality testing, and always—no matter what. They will make poor choices and mistakes. And they will be quite aware of them so no need for us to remind them. It is our responsibility to love them; it is God’s responsibility to change them.

3. Continued honest communication

Our relationships with our kids will come to a time where it will be a relationship of influence, not authority. It is important to be present to influence and to keep talking about the realities of life (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). Don’t overreact when they say something you disagree with. Listen between the lines. Listen with your eyes and heart. Remember, they are testing, exploring, and thinking so conversations need to be ongoing.

The struggling butterfly would have eventually broken through the cocoon without any help. It may have taken some time. It may have been painful. But his life would have been so much more fulfilling and meaningful had he been able to fight the battle on his own. 

The reality-testing time can be tough on both parents and kids. But exercising wisdom, seeing it for what it is, and providing a supportive environment will go a long way in helping them become the butterflies God intended.