My only Knucklehead, the faithful reader is aware, is away at college. Now midway through the spring semester of his sophomore year, he has applied to spend a semester in Europe in the fall of 2015, and at this point it looks like he’s been accepted. I’m excited for him, and a little jealous, too – I’ve never been to The Continent. Whenever friends ask how he’s doing at school, I usually pass along that bit of news. And when I do, I’m surprised at how often I’m asked:
“Will you go visit him while he’s there?”
And then I get a second surprise when friends are taken aback by my immediate and cheerful response:
* * *
There was a moment in The Knucklehead’s pre-school years that gave me a wonderful lesson in parenting. Though I didn’t heed the lesson as often as I suspect I should have, I could tell at the time it was an important one, and it was never far from my mind as we both grew up.
Knucks and I were out on a road trip one spring day, and after a few hours in the car, pulled over to a public playground to get some energy out. I played with him for a while, pushing him on the swing, spinning the carousel, and so on. Before we were ready to leave I wanted to spend a few minutes with the maps. Knucks was keen to keep playing, so I sat at the side of the playground on a bench while he hit the slides.
As he was playing, a school bus pulled up, and out swarmed a gaggle of elementary school kids – kindergarteners or first graders by the look of them, but still big kids next to my 4-year-old. “Twenty minutes!” I heard a grown-up yell, and the kids wasted no time. Knucks was at the top of a fort next to a platform with a slide watching the invading army make its assault. As the bigger kids breached the defenses, I saw one of them push my Knucklehead to get past him to the slide.
I didn’t like that.
I jumped to my feet, and started a brisk walk toward the slide. In the few seconds it took to get myself within “parenting range” (yelling from where I was seemed a little much), I could do nothing but witness the following:
My Knucklehead looked the bigger kid in the eye (the kid towered over him! a behemoth!), and firmly said “It’s my turn.”
The kid looked down (towered!) over my (sweet! defenseless! SMALLER!) son and said:
And my boy went down the slide, and started playing with the other kids.
It was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had as a father. I was set to intervene, defend, arbitrate, parent, whatever it took. Thank goodness I was as far away as I was, because there was nothing I could have done to make the outcome better than the two boys arranged it. The only thing I could have done, if I’d gotten there seconds earlier, was screw it up. I would have robbed both boys of their chance to settle a dispute like civilized people. I panicked, and in doing so, very nearly spoiled a natural moment.
* * *
As The Knucklehead grew up, parenting became a bewildering struggle between jumping to my kid’s rescue and leaving life to teach its own lessons. I can’t say I always got it right; the truth is, even in hindsight it’s hard to figure out when or how I could have held back more. I think it’s hard for us not to jump in and solve their problems because when we look at our kids we see… kids. We see our children as they are right at that moment, and in all of the younger incarnations that went before. We don’t see them as the adults they will be, only as the sweet children that stand before us. Who wouldn’t want to protect that?
But they push and push and push and push, ever onward and upward and through us if necessary, toward the adults they will eventually become. Where we see where they’ve been, our kids see where they’re going. And where they’re going, they won’t need us. Or at least they won’t need us in front of them, to shield, to intercept. They’ll need us behind them, as counsel. In place of our protection, they’ll want our blessings.
I figured out that it’s not just our job as parents to get our kids ready for the day that is surely coming when they will run with the ball. It’s our job as parents to prepare ourselves to hand it off to them. To do that we need to make sure we’re giving them – and us – trial runs throughout childhood.
* * *
No, when The Knucklehead jets off to Europe for a semester, I’m not going to fly over and join him for a week or two. For one thing, it’s expensive, and I can’t afford it. But Knucks needs this. He needs to have his own adventure. He needs to be on his own for a while without a net. The last thing he needs when he’s abroad is Dad looking over his shoulder. He needs to experience the terrifying/exhilarating bewilderment in being on his own far from home, and then come to the discovery that he can handle it. He needs to do something stupid he wouldn’t do if his parents were around, like hitch a ride to Brussels for a weekend for a soccer (excuse me – football) match. He needs to get himself into a little trouble so that he can dig inside for the resources to handle it. Isn’t this the point of all that worry over whether I was doing the fatherhood thing right?
(And for those who would say, “It would be different if you had a daughter,” I say, “Really? I’m not so sure.” I’ve met plenty of millennial women who are shrewd and strong and tough enough for the independence they crave, and am glad my son counts a few of them as his friends. And if we aren’t raising our daughters to be as strong and independent as our sons, how fair is that to them? How can our children rise to their best if we don’t expect it of them?)
* * *
My boy has never been an ocean away from family, and though neither of us will admit it to the other, the thought of that is pressing on the both of us lately. But I remind myself that he has three things I did not have when I was his age: a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a cell phone, and a solid head on his shoulders. Really, I can’t think of much more he needs as backup. He’s ready for an adventure. We’ve been preparing him for this all his life.
This will be good for him.
This will be good for me.