In November of 2001 my wife and I took our five kids to Disney World. It was to be the vacation of a lifetime for them and in many ways it was. They were just the right age—my oldest was 12 at the time—to really enjoy everything Disney had to offer. My fear upon returning home, though, was that we had just dropped ten-grand on a trip they’d barely remember. So I made them each a 20” x24” frame filled with photos and memorabilia from our trip and hung them in their bedrooms so that they might never forget what a fun time we had as a family.
Fadeout, fade in.
It’s been said that the teenage years are God’s way of preparing parents for their kids to leave home. My oldest will leave for college this fall and for my wife and me, this is a difficult time. We’re simply not ready to begin thinning the herd. The fact that my son has avoided the major pitfalls of youth is making it even harder. But away he goes and the process of emotional separation has already begun. His answers to our queries are becoming more monosyllabic by the week.
This past February, though, will go down in my mind as one of the great periods of relationship building in my son’s lifetime. He has applied to several premier music programs in the country in order to continue studying the tuba. So my wife and I took turns taking him from our Texas home to Chicago, Baton Rouge, New York, and Boston.
Having an opportunity to spend one-on-one time with my son one last time was an exploration of who he is as a young man—not as a boy or as my child, but to see him interacting in new cities, with new people as he will once he’s gone. I saw the fruits of our labor over the last 18 years: the firm handshake, the eye contact, the comfort in talking to adults, the confidence on inner-city public transportation, the good manners shown to hosts.
As any parent knows, those are hard-won victories. I’m sure my son feels I’ve ridden him hard with the spurs of expectations. His requests that I occasionally “cut him some slack” prove my point. But, I’ve always hoped that one day my kids would see me not as their parent, but just as a guy—bumbling along as best as I can, pursuing my life, gladly with them in tow, but with no real idea of what I’m doing—much as they’ll one day be. I have frequently reminded my oldest son that every day I parent him is the first day I’ve ever parented a kid his age so maybe he ought to cut ME a little slack.
Young children—toddlers–do what’s called “parallel play.” They are together in the same room, but they are not playing together. Each is isolated in his own thoughts and activities but is side-by-side with his friend. The frenetic pace of parenting today’s teenager is very similar. We share a house and have occasion to interact, but all too often we are living parallel lives.
Touring colleges with your teenager may seem like a perpetuation of your frenetic pace—wake up early Saturday, drive to campus, tour quickly, drive home late, church on Sunday, back to work, another campus next week. But geography forced us to slow down—in planes, trains and automobiles. This month we’ve spent more than 5000 non-tax-deductible dollars on these campus visits—a huge burden for any working family. But what we got wasn’t a thumb-drive full of dorm pictures and IHOP napkins filled with pros and cons. What we got for our money was one last chance to learn about our son. We each got glimpses of the fun times had, the dreams still held and the heart and head of man we’re proud to call our son.
Beyond those glimpses, though, we simply talked, sometimes to the dismay of the New York transit authority and their oddly placed toll lanes. Trapped in adjacent plane seats fighting for the armrest, the tuba in its own seat by the window (encourage the flute, is all I’ll say), we were able to finally just talk to one another without competing against the self-imposed hourglass of the suburban lifestyle. No rushing out the door to see his friends. No frantic dinners before his brother’s hockey game or sister’s soccer practice.
For my kids I made a frame stuffed with the evidence of joyful abandon and carefree days their young minds might one day forget. I need no such reminder. My mind was ready to acknowledge the importance of these moments the minute I lived them. His teenage years have not made me look forward to his departure, but they did prepare me to welcome and appreciate the last few months of his time in our home.
Time. I had five days of it. One hundred and twenty hours. Time enough to not care if we wasted some of it reading books or staring out the window. Time enough to not feel compelled to teach another life lesson. Time enough to get off his back and on his bandwagon.