I was recently talking about my (adult) kids to a near stranger, “They are amazing people. I am so proud of who they are. I love hanging out with them”. She was amazed and said that it was great to hear a parent say such nice things about their kids. It struck me odd that this should be unique – even given that my kids are in the very difficult period of finding their balance between childhood and responsibility as they enter/leave college. They are both deeply spiritual, compassionate people who do the best they can in often challenging situations – we don’t always see eye to eye, but even if they weren’t mine, they would still be my favorite people.
Later I was talking about a management position I held where nearly all of my staff were my kids age – and how much I loved working with them even though it was often challenging. Again, this was received with amazement. I don’t understand why; who wouldn’t want to work with kids who see the humor in a customer named Longe Dong (SERIOUSLY!), or who required a chalkboard in the bathroom so they could leave doodles for each other? The joy far outweighed the extra work, and the effort of giving them the opportunity to succeed will remain with them their whole lives.
Yet, despite our own efforts, some young people’s lives are easier than others. A friend of mine recently celebrated her magical daughter with a terrific blog post, while another friend has retreated into silence as her adult son is incarcerated for a series of bad choices. Both are amazing, loving parents, who do everything they can to give their kids the resources and support they needed on their difficult paths to growing up. The outcome of their efforts will likely be vastly different.
Being young is hard. Loving young people through it all is challenging. They are our future – and as such deserve our best efforts.
I have not been the parent I wanted to be – we were poor and they witnessed more bad situations than I wanted them to know existed. We were homeless. We were sometimes hungry and often did without things their friends had. They have known the pain of racism and classism. They have suffered irretrievable losses from a father who is challenged by his role as a parent. I grieve deeply for all I wished for them that I could not provide or fix. And yet, they not only survived – but thrived.
I often wonder how they are so wonderful despite all that I did wrong according to psychologists and talk show hosts. Though there is much they could discuss in therapy, I did much right because the most important things aren’t dependent on money, resources or material goods. Then and now, I fiercely support and defend their right to carve their own path in the world. They know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I have their back, AND that I will kick their ass thoroughly if they are being stupid! They know I love them no matter who they are or the difficulties they face. I require them to have integrity, to be honest and compassionate and to remember that the person they are dealing with could be them. They are free to have whatever hair, tattoos, clothing, music or political tastes hit them in the moment although I do take photos for blackmail later! I do not judge who they love as long as they are treated well. We talk about important and trivial things – nearly every day. My son and I go out for lunch together often to catch up. We have deep and profound connection and respect for one another. I have always thought they have as much to teach ME as I have to teach them.
I have also had the good fortune to mentor many young people over the years – some of whom had trouble as they fumbled their way through the world. Many of them suffered abuse, taunting and ostracism from their peers and family for all the ways they were different. Some of them just needed the big love and strong shoulder of a person who held them to being their best self. I held them all to the same standards I held my own children to, and I was gifted back enduring love and respect. A hyperactive kid who needed his first job was a handful, but he made me laugh and someday he will have my job. Another young man was quiet and shy, but as I gave him opportunities he gained confidence. He became the one everyone looks up to – the big brother everyone wanted to impress and be like. But another young man took his life when he could not measure up to the standards set for him by others. I will never be free of the anguish of finding out that he didn’t come home because my love could not erase the pain of a box he couldn’t fit into .
We have gotten too involved in thinking that “things” are what make us good parents/adults. We worry that if we get a divorce, make a bad decision or fail to provide them with the right opportunities, tools or toys, that we will harm our children. Or, we pay for expensive schools and buy expensive dinners thinking that is what matters. Too frequently we neglect the very things that would make a difference for them – to simply show up and listen, respecting who they are.
Young people look to us for leadership and watch how we deal with our own experiences (good or bad) to learn how to be adults. They don’t have a lot of tolerance for cover-up games from their role models – they will just find new ones . Who do you want them to learn from? They are smart, they see our mistakes and call bullshit when we expect things out of them that we neglect in ourselves. Perhaps that is what scares us as adults – they see us for who we are, despite who we project.
Our youth deserve the same attention to relationship that we would give a spouse – just because they are kids does not diminish the level of care we should take in our interactions. They are magic – the younger they are the closer they are to God, and the older they are the more they can see through our thinly veiled façade. They are our future…what do we want it to look like?
We can make a lot of mistakes as parents and mentors without losing their love and respect. Being a “good parent” is simply a matter of showing up and being real. Our youth don’t need the “right” anything – they need us. They need us to be honest, to communicate and to support their best selves no matter what. It might not save them all – each of us comes into this world with karma that often is counter to all other influences – but we can make a difference by making the effort.