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My son is a captive in the back seat as we speed to the Ottawa airport to make his flight to Halifax on time. He’s leaving home to enter his first year of political science at Dalhousie University.
Strapped into his seatbelt, he’s travelling at a speed that inhibits his urge to open the door and jump out as I launch into a final anxiety-induced “self preservation” checklist.
Heaven forbid I should forget one item before we pull up to that place from which my little boy, now a young man, will begin to navigate his own journey without captains Mom and Dad.
“Don’t forget to floss your teeth, remember to practise safe sex, make sure you learn how to do footnotes properly ... blah, blah, blah.”
Is it possible to do an overview of 18 years of parental advice in a 25-minute drive? Can I take 40 litres of sap and boil it down to one litre of the essential divine elements?
One of the great frustrations of life is our inability to pass our wisdom in neat little packages to our offspring. More often than not, they don’t want to receive them. Yet after all the trial-and-error we’ve endured to gain the nuggets of truth that form the key elements of our internal compass, what greater gift can we pass on?
I should know better than to get started, but I’d be no kind of parent if I didn’t share the fallout of my screw-ups with my child.
“Pulling an all-night last-minute essay writing session with endless coffee and arrowroot cookies by your side doesn’t work well.”
“Don’t drive to Florida for a long weekend instead of studying for the exam on Tuesday.”
“Avoid relationships with bad-boy, bad-girl types who have massive sex and fun appeal but little in the way of honourable intentions.”
“Predrink if you must; nurse a single beer at the pub all night; buy large bags of brown rice and lentils for a cheap meal source; carry small bags of nuts with you to avoid impulsive fast-food binges.”
“Why are you texting while I’m talking to you?”
Parents naturally feel that their experientially based values and lifestyle choices have been the key to whatever measure of contentment they have achieved. We know what our own lifelines have been, and we want to throw them to our children to prevent them drowning in a turbulent sea of confusion and meaninglessness.
But our lifelines can’t rescue them. Our kids will need, like spiders, to produce their own lines with which to build unique life-sustaining webs.
The realization slowly dawns on parents that what we’ve said, how much we’ve worried, all the times we’ve thought of solutions for our children have had little impact on them really, so we may as well just knock it off and get a life.
We need no longer be part of their drama.
This can be incredibly liberating, but also scary. We, too, must jump from the nest – this time not as providers travelling familiar routes to find nourishment for our young, but as middle-aged birds exploring new territories.
The sooner we can learn to give our children space to discover their world, the sooner we can begin to have fun experiencing the unexpected.
I remember years ago taking two of my children to a gift shop in Prince Edward Island after being immersed in the magic of the Anne of Green Gables story. I told them they could each pick one souvenir before we headed home. I pointed out the lovely Anne dolls, the Anne colouring books and various Maritime keepsakes.
After painstakingly scoping out the store, my son chose a whoopee cushion (a farting bag). My daughter also chose ... a whoopee cushion. Awkwardly, I paid for these items at the cash and quickly exited the store.
They had incredible fun using their recent purchases in the car, making noises I hope no human could ever recreate, all the long 1,339 kilometres back to Ottawa. In a strange way it is an endearing and humorous memory.
We are informed early on that our kids have their own ideas and agendas. What never ceases to amaze me is the magic that can happen when we loosen up the control and let things just evolve.
Does that mean our hard-gained wisdom has gone to waste? No. With any luck it has made us healthier, which can’t help but have a positive impact on our loved ones.
Wisdom includes the humility to know we will continue to bump up against life and make new discoveries. As we move ahead with our own lives, using what we know as a guide, we are a living example.
Instead of offering neat little packages of solid truth, perhaps we could open a window to the process of our own new lives.
If we are willing to learn from our young adults, acknowledging that all voices refine understanding, they may choose to walk beside us periodically as fellow human beings in this mystery called life.
Shirley Stanton lives in Val des Monts, Que.