A decent person who becomes a parent starts kicking him or herself for being an idiot about ten minutes after leaving the hospital where the nice nurses know exactly what to do when babies cry. Euphoria moves out and panic and guilt move in. A child comes with no manual, no directions. Your new baby is the most important thing in the world, but the only equipment you have to do the most important job in the world is the seat of your pants. Your own parents on speed-dial. Couple of books, maybe, but there isn’t book in the world that makes you feel better when your colicky baby is still crying at 4 a.m. and you have to get up at 5 a.m. No book can blunt the fears that stab your heart as the post-curfew minutes tick by and your teen-ager isn’t home yet. Especially if you’ve been a teen-ager yourself.
When I taught school, at parent-teacher conferences, I reassured parents that teen-agers making their own decisions is part of growing up and that if the parents let their children make bad choices, the children would learn. That’s what I said, and that’s what I meant, but many a time, depending on the parent, I also thought, “But your kid wouldn’t make such dumb choices if you’d taught him how to make better ones.” This isn’t entirely fair; children often make "non-optimal" choices regardless of parental guidance. Furthermore, blaming parents for what children do, even in part, reinforces what so many parents (including me) think far too often when our children mess up: THIS IS MY FAULT.
(Even though parents and children alike are all just making it up as we go along.)
Somehow, though, our children age into adults, and we’re able to lighten up. Kind of. When your child becomes a parent, say, part of you recoils in horror because he just got his braces off, for crying out loud. Part of you thinks “It’s payback time: I hope she’s just like you.” The last part of you is teary-eyed with delight and joy and, yeah, sadness too—after all, the new bundle of joy means you’re way further along your own life’s path than you’re ready to be. When your only or last child goes off to college, and home turns into a Laundromat, a la carte restaurant, and bank, there’s a sense of “Dang, that went fast. Is it really over?” combined with the joy that comes when you look in the bathroom mirror for the first time in twenty years and nobody’s banging on the door to use the shower. It’s a time to rediscover your spouse, yourself. As the ads would have it, it’s a time to go to Disneyland. It’s not better or worse, it's just different--a lot like you felt when you became a parent in the first place.
But watching your adult children negotiate life reveals more than anything else what part of you stuck to them. When they face a problem, you think about how you’d handle it if it were your problem—you give advice, if asked—but your child navigates the rapids and survives, and the way he handles himself shows you what he really learned from you: How to be a human being. Unfortunately, it’s not all good.
Here’s an example of what I mean. One value that’s been in my family for generations is conscientiousness:
When you make a promise, you keep it.
When you commit to something, you follow through.
When you’re given a job, you go above and beyond because that’s what a decent person does.
Conscientiousness is good, yes?
No. Not always. I worked outside the home as a teacher (a job that sucks you dry, trust me) and reared a child alone. I gardened and canned, wired and tiled, dry-walled and installed in between cooking and cleaning and kissing boo-boos. Not gonna lie—many a time I wished I had the money to just hire somebody, because the real coin of my realm was time. There was never enough because A Single Parent Gathers No Dust.
Turns out my boy watched and learned. He learned that you don’t have fun until the work is done. He learned you leave family celebrations early because you have work to do. He learned that you don’t watch TV or read a book or take a walk if you have work to do. He became the kind of person some parents dream of—but today I’m feeling guilty for modeling my workaholic tendences, especially since I’m the only model he had.
My son is an busy adult. He has a job. He is learning karate. He commutes 50 miles a day round-trip to college, and he lives at home. He does his laundry here, I keep the frig stocked, he has a little suite downstairs—he has his space and privacy, I have mine. It works for us. But he is not outgoing. His only two friends are guys he met ten years ago in high school, and one of them just became a parent while the other has no interest in the things that occupy my son’s mind nowadays. My son doesn’t go to bars: he’s just a quiet, nice guy who’d like to meet new people, make new friends. A week ago, my son paid to go up to the Boundary Waters on a weekend camping trip with an Outdoor Adventures group at his college. Finally, I thought, finally he’s going to hang out with new people. He told me on Friday he was leaving after class that day for his trip, and I said, “Have a great time!”
Saturday morning, his car was in the driveway and he was in his bed. Turns out a computer program he’d spent 30 hours on for an assignment wasn’t compiling by Friday afternoon, so he felt he couldn’t go on the trip. The campers wanted him to come, and they waited an extra hour for him, but he told them to go without him. He worked seven more hours on the assignment and turned it in by his midnight deadline even though it still wasn’t working properly. And so my son missed his trip, he missed getting up into Nature on a gorgeous weekend, and he missed out on connecting with people who might have turned into friends.
THIS IS MY FAULT. I didn’t tell him what to do in this situation—he made his own decision—but I modeled How to Live. I modeled stupid, crazy, long hours and no time-outs and fun only when the work is done. What I should have taught him is that the work is NEVER done, so you’ve got to live a little while you can.
If I could go back and do it over, I would. I’d hire out some of the home repairs and give out fewer assignments to my students. I’d work less and play more.
So today’s takeaway is this: even if it makes you feel guilty, step off the treadmill occasionally and make a daisy chain with your kid. Don’t wait for a better time, because there’s no such thing, and the lesson you teach your child about enjoying life is more important than completing task #568 on the List of Jobs you will be working on to the end of your days.