Being role models

Just as my eight year old was falling asleep one night, he said, "I guess friends just aren't as important to grown-ups as they are to children." I was taken aback. So far as I could tell, this topic was coming up totally out of the blue. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Whenever we go visit people," he said, "we just visit cousins. We never visit your friends."

Now how is a parent supposed to respond to a comment like that? I wondered if he was thinking about his relationship with his own friends, and how important they are to him. It's true. His friends are his life. He puts time and energy into planning who to be with and what they can do together. He has very little interest in spending time by himself--or even with grown-ups if he has access to peers. And he certainly spends more time with friends, and places a higher value on them, than I did as a child. So I noted how good a friend he is, and said how happy I'd be to spend more time visiting with our friends. He seemed quite content with that response, snuggled in and went to sleep.

My mind, however, was left running in high gear. Was he really talking about his own friends, or was he talking about me? Part of me wanted to defend myself. "Now, wait just a minute. Sure we visit relatives. But remember all the time we've spent with X..., and Y.... What are you complaining about? And if you mean to imply that I don't care enough about my friends, well, it's just not true!" Another part of me was acutely aware of how my childhood of relative isolation, with parents who lacked some of the most rudimentary social skills, has gotten in the way of easily making friends and remembering to spend time with the ones I have.

But my hunch is that the real issue was something else again. I think it may have been a question about growing up. What could he expect for himself as an adult? What would he have to give up? Would it be fun? Would he still have his friends? It's certainly true that we don't spend as much time with friends as he does. Work, parenting, managing a household take up much of our time and attention. Friends get squeezed in, in the odd moments, or as an occasional treat.

It's a good reminder for me. We are their front-line models of the grown-up world. Are we offering them an attractive picture of their future, full of interesting people to love and play with, to visit and learn from? Or are we offering a dull, gray vista of small horizons, responsibility, tedium and hard work?

What do we want to offer? Sometimes we can stretch and decide to do things for our children that we just wouldn't bother to do for ourselves. And the results of those decisions always seem to come back to benefit our own lives. That question about grown-ups and friends, asked by that tired little boy, offered me such a chance. If I want to give my children a model of a grown-up who is not just a self-sacrificing, hardworking and conscientious parent, but the kind of person they would look forward to growing up to be, then I have no choice. I really need to spend more time with my friends, to visit more people, to play more, to enjoy this wonderful gift of life to its fullest.