My poor, poor parents. Sometimes I look back at my earlier years and just shake my head. Despite having three older sisters and one serious troublemaker of an older brother, I (the youngest of the crew) still made all the same mistakes they did. It seems, no matter how many examples you have of the right things to do, there are some lessons you just have to learn for yourself.
Now a parent myself, I know my mom and dad have an occasional chuckle when my son puts me through the same wringer I put them through. As much as it pains parents to admit it, we can’t—nor should we—protect our kids from everything. Kids learn by making mistakes. Still, I can’t help but wish my son could learn a few lessons without actually living them.
Lesson 1: Teachers Can See Right Through You
Plaid skirts and red sweaters were the uniform of my youth. I went to a small private school and good grades weren’t just expected, they were practically mandatory. Ruler-wielding nuns kept rule-breakers in line and we all marched single file to church every Wednesday. Timid by nature, I never pushed the boundaries at school much. Still, I vividly remember one day in third grade when I told a fib to my teacher.
My third grade teacher was wonderful. Each day, we’d all sit around on a carpet and listen as she’d read another chapter of James and the Giant Peach or Charlotte’s Web. She expected a lot of her students, but she was kind and understanding. So it pains me to remember the day I lied to her. I hadn’t completed an assignment, but instead of owning up to it, I lied. I told her that I had turned it in and she must have lost it. A seasoned teacher, she saw right through the lie. I still remember the disappointment in her eyes.
Though my son has already tried to fool his teachers on more than one occasion, I wish he would realize that his teachers are on his side. All those dog-ate-my-homework excuses just don’t fly with them. The truth (even if—like his mother before him—he didn’t do an assignment) is always better.
Lesson 2: You Have Plenty to Do ... Stop Whining
When summer was approaching, I’d daydream about all the things I was going to do ... baseball games in the empty lot, fishing down on the river’s edge, swimming in the neighbor’s pool, and bike rides around the neighborhood. But after a few days of freedom, my wide world of choices seemed to narrow and I’d inevitably start to whine “There’s nothing to doooo.” Once, I think I saw my mother’s ears start to bleed from the screeching pitch of my whine.
How I wish my son appreciated the beauty of his free time. Though he loves summer, he too whines about being bored. And no matter how many activities I suggest, it’s inevitably not good enough. One day, he’ll be working nine to five, paying bills, cutting the grass, and wishing he could recapture the freedom of his youth.
Lesson 3: You’re Not Made of Steel
I spent much of my childhood riding horses. Just walking into the stables put a smile on my face. The smell of dust, leather, and hay mingled together and the horses would whinny their hellos. Tina, my favorite horse, and I were a perfect pair. She hated to jump for most riders, but for me she’d sail over any barrier. We’d wind around barrels and sometimes we’d just race like the wind. But then, as skilled of a rider as I was, I got over confident.
One day, I decided to try standing on Tina’s back. I kept her at a slow walk, and got into a kneeling position. Tina startled, but I managed to keep my balance. Once I calmed her, I tried to stand. I put one foot on her back, and pushed up. Tina panicked and reared and I went flying. I slammed into the fence and hit the ground hard. Shaking and scared, I stood up to make sure my horse was fine. She and I were equally wild-eyed, but neither of us was worse for the wear. I remember the gravity of knowing how badly I could have been hurt. And I remember feeling so grateful ... that both Tina and I were fine and that the stable owner (who would have been furious) didn’t see me try that.
Patching up scrapes and cuts and bruises is a regular routine for my son and me. Like I apparently did, he thinks he’s made of steel. No dirt path is too rocky for his bike and no jump is too big for his skateboard. I wish I could instill just the right amount of caution into his adventurous soul ... enough to keep his bones intact and minimize the scars, but not so much that I stifle his outgoing nature.
Lesson 4: She’s Just Not Worth It
The summer before eighth grade, I went away to camp. Swimming, sports, and crafts made up the bulk of our day, but as a pre-teen, the highlight for me was really the boys. Well, one boy in particular, really. He was a skinny little thing with blond hair and big, brown eyes. I had such a crush on him that my cheeks would immediately blush whenever he was around. A friend of mine, infinitely bolder than I, asked him if he would sit by me at the bonfire that night. To my surprise, he said yes. And not only did he sit by me, he also put his arm around my shoulders. Later that night, we walked back to my cabin hand-in-hand. We stood at the door, listening to the wind rustle through the trees and the occasional call from a loon on the lake, and then he kissed me. My first kiss. I was officially over the moon.
After camp ended, I visited a friend who lived in the same neighborhood as my crush. We went to visit him and he all but ignored me. He said cruel things and made fun of me. But my heart wouldn’t give up. After that, I called him and even sent him a letter. Such drama at such a young age.
I hope when he’s a bit older, my son has sweet moments like that kiss near the lake. But I hope he keeps his dignity while falling for girls. Love is wonderful, but it can make us do foolish things. And, in retrospect, very few of the boyfriends I had at a young age were worth all the foolishness.
Learning Lessons the Hard Way
I know that protecting my son from the mistakes, misunderstandings, hurts, and heartbreaks of youth is just a pipe dream. I can no more keep him from life’s fall-down moments than I can stop the rain from falling. But I can be there when he falls. And I’ll take his hand, help him stand up and brush himself off, and help him start over again.