There’s this intersection where I grew up, not far from my parents’ house, which gives me pause every time I drive through it.
Years ago, right after I got my license, I got into a car accident at that intersection. As I was turning left under the light, I somehow missed one car that hadn’t yet cleared the way. I walked away dazed but unscathed, my mother’s beloved Maxima crumpled up behind me.
When I visit my hometown, I inevitably find myself back at the scene of the crime. It’s impossible to go anywhere worthwhile (i.e., the package store, the bar, the restaurant with all the beer) without crossing that intersection. And every time I drive past it, I recall – if not relive – that accident. And I wonder what I could have done differently. Which isn’t entirely healthy.
It reminds me of being a parent.
Don’t panic. I’m relatively certain I won’t be one of those dads who attempts to live vicariously through his kids. I’m not some high-school-hero desperate to relive my youth, and I have no desire to rob my son of his by placing undue burdens on him to achieve where I failed.
I know I’ll be proud of Detective Munch no matter what he accomplishes, just as I know I’ll be bitter and resentful of him when he’s inevitably more successful than me the little jerk. But I don’t want to be him. He gets his own life. I’m just happy to watch.
And I will be watching the detective, because while I’m not worried about being jealous, I am worried about the kid repeating my mistakes.
I haven’t made many. I switched to contact lenses too late. I anxietied away an opportunity to study abroad. I’m a Dolphins fan. And I got in that car accident. Other than that, I’ve done just about everything right. (Please no one contact me to list my other mistakes. I’m far too fragile.)
Obviously I’m not concerned with my son getting in a car accident at that same intersection – by the time he can drive, cars will be steering themselves. But when his personality is already so closely aligned with mine, it’s easy to envision plenty of situations in which he follows in my footsteps. For better or worse.
So how do you prevent your kids from making the same mistakes you made? I don’t think you can. And I’m not sure you should.
I’ve written before about the ways parents reflect their parents, both in behavior and in genetics, and I’ve already witnessed my son’s precocious appropriation of my sarcasm and super-hotness. Some things are simply inevitable. But some things aren’t, and that’s where parenting comes in. Right?
We really only have a few years during which we rule the roost as our kids’ primary influences. Once they hit elementary school their friends start weighing in. As they get older, the media they consume starts changing their views, and, in some cases, teachers and other mentors gain some control. Then they become teenagers, and they stop listening to you just for kicks. If you haven’t laid the groundwork early, and if you don’t stay involved no matter how ferociously they fight for independence, you’re not going to have a chance to relay your own experiences. No matter how relevant they may or may not be.
That’s what makes being a parent so hard. It’s not a part-time gig; you have to stay involved ALL THE TIME. 24/7/365/However-long-you-live. Because kids notice those times you aren’t involved more than the others; it’s the lapses that stick with them. A few too many and they’ll close themselves off from whatever wisdom you may have to offer and you’ll lose your influence for good.
Despite the natural urge to always want to protect your kids, parenting isn’t about swooping in to prevent them from making a mistake. It’s about being there by their side, always, even when they don’t want you there, especially when they doesn’t want you there. Especially when you don’t want you there! You need to be as constant as the sun, as reliable as taxes. That way they know they can come to you, that way maybe they actually will at those critical moments.
You can’t stop him from doing something, but you can offer up your own experiences as guideposts, along with your knowledge of who he is, who you were, and the implications and potential consequences of all of that. And let him make up his own mind. You have to let him go, and then you have to be there later, in the aftermath, whether they’ve taken whatever advice you’ve offered or not.
Growing up is all about making mistakes. It’s not the easy wins that shape who we become, it’s the missteps and failures. Mistakes are what make us; expending energy trying to avoid them is a waste of time, and often a missed opportunity. I’m a perfect example.
Sure, if I’d switched to contacts before college instead of after, I’d probably be married to Emily Blunt and sleeping on stacks of money right now. But I wouldn’t have Detective Munch, either. And he is worth much more than a great prom photo, and a still drive-able Nissan Maxima.