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Betsy Kneepkens: Hoping an upcoming 21st birthday is uneventful

A family timeline works a bit differently than most other timelines. It seems that you place memories and celebrations based on milestones parents and children reach. Your engagement, wedding, anniversaries, the birth of your children, baptisms, first Communion, confirmation, and for me, your children’s wedding are all significant milestones. You acknowledge events like the first haircut, first tooth loss, your first day of school, high school, college, or your kids’ first day of employment, be it a paper route or a manager of a small department.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Nearly all milestones are reasons to celebrate for the Kneepkens, which often meant a meal out at a restaurant. We have eaten out a lot.

Describing events is not based on dates but instead categorized like this: “Shortly after my oldest was born, we sold our tent,” or “When my youngest went to kindergarten, we finally decided to paint the walls in our home.” That is how we put in context the “when we did this” in our lives.

Most of these memories that fall on this timeline are moments of celebration and call for ways to gather everyone together. There are a few events that we anticipate that come with a bit more anxiety. When your son or daughter gets their driver’s license would be one example that can come with a certain amount of angst. We have had our share of accidents within days and even hours after getting that little piece of paper that allows them to drive parentless. As exciting as it is for a teenager, it’s not always a thriller for parents or their pocketbooks.

We have a milestone coming up that my husband and I are not super excited about: the 21st birthday of our fifth son. Not much comes with being 21 except the privilege to consume alcohol legally in every state. Now, we have had four other 21st birthdays before now, but the culture has changed so dramatically that this already scary time has some additional worries. As parents, we decided not to consume alcohol or have alcohol in our home as we raised our children. Like most parents, we have no idea if our children consumed alcohol illegally when they were not living with us, but traditions surrounding turning 21 years of age in our culture can be frightening.

Our son, who will be turning “of age” soon, lived with us this summer. With a full schedule of work, internship, and COVID restrictions, much of his free time he spent with us. We had conversations with all our children about how friends often handle 21st birthdays. We shared our concerns for risk and really how unnecessary it is to manage their “milestone” in a way that would pose safety concerns. This time, our discussion included additional warnings directly resulting from how our society responds to each other. This additional dialogue was sad and pathetic but necessary.

When I was younger, I am sure there were things I said and did that I regretted. There are situations that I look back on and realize that, by today’s standards, would be considered inappropriate. My views on multiple topics have evolved significantly, and I continue to mature.

In the past, people were gracious enough to point your indiscretions out, and you could seek forgiveness. There seemed to be little desire to capture your inappropriateness to display to the world your erring ways. Instead, when you expressed remorse, there was respect between parties to keep your shortcomings between the two of you. Unfortunately, today, you can ask for forgiveness, but you will likely not receive that benefit. In many cases, you are shamed, labeled a bigot, and in too many cases, your hope of eventual good standing is eliminated. And worse yet, loved ones who support you are given the same treatment.

I say this because when people drink too much alcohol, they often say and do things out of character. Those who struggle with filtering comments in a more palatable way for their listeners when sober have additional difficulty filtering when intoxicated. Often when a young adult sees consuming alcohol legally as a rite of passage, parents not only have to worry about their physical safety, they have to think of how their behavior and words, although unintended, can affect the remainder of their lives. As absurd as this sounds, this is today’s reality.

It is my opinion that too many people are not watching out for the best interests of others and find joy in watching others fail.

During the time we had with our fifth son home this summer, we had many discussions on a variety of topics. It is exciting to see him mature into an adult and see how his views evolve over time. I am most impressed with his willingness to read and use multiple resources to seek out truth.

However, as we were preparing him to return to college and experience his eventual 21st birthday, we shared our concerns for his safety. We also had no other choice than to give him a reality check on the impact that a one-time mistaken statement or action could have on the rest of his life. He has returned to school, and we continue to guide him and hope he listens as his birthday approaches. It is my husband’s and my desire that this 21st birthday milestone is one of the more uneventful notches in our family’s timeline.

Being a parent is one of the most gratifying gifts God can bestow upon a person. If given the opportunity to collaborate with God in this way again, I would sign up immediately and perhaps hope I would have been blessed with more children next time. However, the nature and challenges of parenting seem to increase daily. I would simply like to wish my son a happy 21st birthday, have a family meal, a few presents, and call this milestone good. We don’t live in a world like this anymore.

As parents we must be attentive to the world around us because those times of simplicity and trust have gone nearly by the wayside. Being a parent is a vocation that comes with many milestones of joy, and being one step ahead of the world around you helps you, hopefully, have even more. Happy safe and uneventful 21st birthday, my son!

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.