It was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You have to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was.” Today we honor and celebrate our youth coming of age, which can also mean parents coming of age. Parents struggling and letting go of the “helicopter” instinct to hover—parents renegotiating, once again, their relationship with their children…..
And it’s hard. Listen to this poem by Sharon Olds, called “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb.” Listen between the lines to the pride but also grief of the speaker, who is a mom, or a dad:
Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two
Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
That’s the poem. “Whatever is / stored in his heart, he can use, now. / Whatever he has laid up in his mind / he can call on. What he does not have / he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller…”
But is it true that “there is nothing more that we can do for him?” Children grow away from parents and into deeper relationship with peers and mentors, teachers and confidants. This is as it should be. But that’s not all there is to their growing. In adolescence, people flicker between maturity and immaturity in the blink of an eye, and so, what is always possible for parents to do is setting reasonable and healthy boundaries, providing a container with which to continue shaping and reinforcing growth into maturity. This as well: in the midst of all the ups and downs, highs and lows of adolescence, parents can be generous with their encouragement and acceptance, no matter what. Be a true home to their children’s hearts and souls.
One day, the bus leaves. It gets smaller and smaller. But, there is a connection between child and parent that can never be severed, no matter what the relationship might have been like. Even if you move across the country, never speak, change your name. Some of us discover this only after our parents are gone, even when we ourselves have been parents for many years. We learn, with Alden Nowlan, what it means to grow up. He says, “The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.”