The other lifetime appointment

by Mick Rhodes |

Like most parents, I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what it means to do the right thing. World and national events are dividing many of us along political, ethnic, and religious lines. It’s become an unavoidable conversation.

Though modeling good behavior can mean different things to different people, I think we can all agree not hurting people, caring for your family, and helping out in your community would be a reasonable baseline.

I tell my kids to stand up to bullies, that doing what’s right is often not the easy thing, and that speaking up when something is wrong is not only okay, it’s a requirement. I’ve also told them that when things do go wrong to be sure to look in the mirror before lashing out, that we have to own up to our own shortcomings before we look outward.

I haven’t always followed my advice. I’ve a list of parenting regrets a mile long. This disconnect — otherwise known as “Do as I say, not as I do” — was something I heard a lot growing up. I always despised it. But I get it now; it’s complicated, this adulting.

And yet somehow so many of us found someone to put up with our weirdness, hangups, and obsessions, and before we knew it, we were parents. And unbelievable as it may seem, unlike other major responsibilities in life — such as driving a car or going fishing — at press time there is still no license required for reproduction. Anyone can do it! The Wild West of procreation means even the most conspicuously unqualified among us are immediately expected to be capable, reliable guideposts for their new little humans.

It’s absurd.

Parenting is a lot for the most capable among us. Feeling strong? It’ll defeat you. And there’s no letting up, ever. It’s like the Supreme Court: the only way out is death.

I kid. But there’s some truth in there too. Parenting is a great privilege, and of course a great responsibility.

Our words and actions carry much gravity with our young children. So much so an entire industry — psychiatry — was created to deal with the fallout. This built in trapdoor has always been alarming to us parents. Got a call from your kid’s preschool that he used the F word on the playground? Kids are listening. Play date went sideways when your daughter’s friend said her doll “looks like a prostitute”? Kids are listening. They know what’s what. They’re watching … always watching, even when we’re not paying attention. They see how we treat people, and especially what we say and do when nobody is looking. For better or worse, we show them how to navigate conflict, what our beliefs are, and where the true north of our moral compass lies.

With so much conflict here and abroad, this unchecked parental power is especially precarious today. Our kids are watching us for cues. It’s extra important we be intentional about our words and actions.

All this to say it’s a particularly thorny time to be a parent.

Thankfully all this worrying and pontificating grinds to a halt the moment our kids reach that all-knowing, terrifying status of teen human. Our ideas? Dinosaur stuff. Outmoded. We go from North Star to embarrassing anachronism, seemingly overnight. The firmament of our children’s character better be solid by this time, otherwise we’re in for a very rough ride. Not all teenagers are judgmental a-holes, but let’s be honest, a lot of ‘em are. They’re adorable though, aren’t they? Awkward, gangly, self-assured yet riddled with insecurity. Oof. What a time.

Lately I’ve taken to biting my tongue when my teens are riffing on matters both trivial and substantial. It’s the least I can do after all those lectures. I’ve had robust discussions, and a couple of arguments, with my youngest daughter, now 18. I love her strident altruism, and don’t relish bumming her out from time to time with stats and facts when she’s off on a flight of idealistic fancy. (If not to dash their dreams, what are dads for?) Her zeal for knowledge and righteous anger at injustice is intoxicating. I too was an idealistic teenager at one point during the last millennium, so it’s oddly gratifying for me to sit with her while she vents passionately about politics, war, civil rights, human rights, etc.

It all reminds me of how so many great works of art were created during those burning days of late adolescence/early adulthood. Mozart, Michealangelo, Mary Shelley anyone?

Much to the relief of my offspring, my lectures have abated somewhat as they have grown. But all this current tumult has set me to thinking on those early conversations, and the happenstance occasions when those aforementioned principles were put to the test. My kids have long outgrown my programming efforts. They’ve turned out to be kind, empathetic humans. Even the teens. I’m proud of them.

Parenthood has humbled me in ways I could have never imagined way back when. Every day is a new lesson. Here’s to hoping school is ever in session, at least until my lifetime appointment is up.


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