Parenting decisions today, a relationship with grown children tomorrow

There was an enjoyable essay in The Times this weekend about a mother taking a cross-country train trip with her two twenty-something sons. I agree with the observation the author, Dominique Browning, makes at the outset: “As parents, we are inundated with child-rearing books, but none of them explain how we should behave when children become adults.”

Over the course of the week-long trip from New York to San Francisco Browning distilled several lessons for how to have a good relationship with your children once they’ve grown up. They include:

  • Don’t say everything that pops into your brain
  • No more corrections of any sort
  • Do interesting things together. Do anything together.
  • Listen and do nothing. Or, do nothing and just listen.
  • They will never be 8 years old again. Nor do you want them to be. Not really. Just a bit.

James’  turned two just last week, so it’s not quite time to worry about how I’ll handle things the first time we have a beer together. In her essay Browning says that one of the keys to the success of the trip was that she let her twenty-six-year-old son Alex plan the itinerary as a way to show that she considered him an adult. This morning I let James plan the walk to daycare and it was a disaster. It took 20 minutes to walk two blocks and the experiment ended with him screaming in my arms, “I wanna touch it,” as I hauled him away from a pile of dog poop.

Even though we’re a few years away from traveling together as equals, I still think about how the relationship James and I have now will translate once he’s an adult. The first two years of his life have passed in what feels like almost not time at all; I imagine the next 16 will, too. Given that James will have no choice but about spending time with for only a relatively small percentage of the years we have together, I want to make sure that the relationship we form while he’s young sets the stage for the relationship I hope we’ll have when he’s older.

I don’t have any particularly keen insights for how to accomplish that. As parents we probably have less to do with that process than I think. (Maybe one-third of a child’s eventual happiness owes to his parents, with the rest just alchemy?) But in the day-in-day-out sometimes slog of parenting I find that thinking about the relationship I’ll have with James when he’s older is a useful way to remind myself of a larger point: that Caroline and I are raising a child whose life is ultimately his own.


James, who’s afraid of shaving cream

Last week my son James had a funny reaction to seeing my face covered in shaving cream. It prompted me to think about the things James has been afraid of during his first 16 months, and to consider how the reasons he fears compare to the reasons I fear. I talk about those in an essay appearing this morning at The Millions:

These are the things my son James has been afraid of in the 16-months that he’s been alive: The grinding blender, the roaring vacuum, disembodied voices on the speaker phone, the time I pantomimed a broken leg, being put to bed alone in his crib. Most recently he ran in fright from shaving cream.

Reflections on Fear, Freedom and Growing Up

I’ve got an essay up at The Millions today. It was inspired by some similarities I’ve observed reading my brother Ryan’s emails from abroad and watching my one-year-old son James cruise around the living room. I tie the two of them into my life, noting that these days I dont explore as widely as I used to:

Recently two people who wouldn’t seem to have much in common—my 26-year-old brother and my one-year-old son—have both had me thinking about wonder and fear, and how their experiences of those two things are similar to each other’s, and different from my own.

great passage from War and Peace

“The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor-idleness- was a
condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man
has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not
only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but
because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at
ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If
man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was
fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of
man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and
irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military.
The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will
consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.”

It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write
about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he
were observing a rock in his front yard. In this case, his
description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness captures one of
the pleasures of being a parent: even something as lazy as a late-
morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a
sleeping child.