Being There

Although young children need us in ways that are all-too-obvious, it can be a challenge to respond to the very differently-presented needs of teenagers.

I always had the idea that there was a direct correlation between children growing older and the job of parenting getting easier.

Of course there are ways in which this is true. My children are no longer totally dependent on me. Nor are they constantly calling for my attention, asking for my help. There are more and more things that they can do for themselves and on their own. (Some of this blessed independence, of course. is a little frightening, like exploration of the boundaries of the internet or the public transit system.)

And there are things that are actually harder. In the old days, when I had something I needed to do in the evening or on the weekend, I would just make a childcare arrangement, pack them off, and do what I needed to do. Now their wishes have to be part of the equation. They are old enough to know what they want to be doing and who they want to be doing it with. What’s most convenient for me cannot always carry the day.

Or I find myself assuming that a parenting role will be required on a weekend when my husband is out of town, and limiting my personal planning so I can be available to the boys. Then they make their own arrangements to be with their friends and I’m left with time on my hands that I hadn’t planned for. For someone who’s trying to take this job of parenting seriously, I can end up feeling pretty inconsequential and useless.

But then there are the times when my oldest comes home from school and asks if I’m going to be around for the whole evening. His clear satisfaction in hearing that I am gives me a clue. It’s not that he wants my attention or my company all evening. He definitely doesn’t. He just wants to know that I’m going to be available if he should need me.

I think this is my lesson for this stage of parenting. I am no longer indispensable for the tasks of daily survival. But I am still needed. They want me there. And if I can remember that just being there is important, I get some wonderful gifts.

My oldest, for example, rarely answers questions about his day or his thoughts or his hopes with more than a monosyllable. But if I stop asking, and just hang out--in the car, at the kitchen table, over late-night weekend TV--he starts volunteering information. I get to hear the funny stories from school, the new plan around saving and spending money, thoughts about friends, the latest science fiction or invention concept.

Paradoxically, the less I seem invested in good communication while hanging out, the more I get. I remember coming home from a long Saturday of physical labor and plopping down on the couch, not interested in doing anything myself, not even able to care about what he should be doing. He found this total lack of agenda on my part very attractive, and settled right in for some good joking and chatting and general quality time.

Being there in this way for our older children certainly doesn’t seem as vital as spooning baby food or tying shoes or reading aloud. It’s less immediately gratifying than snuggling at bed-time or being the one who can soothe a hurting child. But they are counting on us for it.