On my son’s 19th birthday, it rained.
It didn’t just rain. It poured. Which would be no fun in any circumstance, but we were on vacation at the beach—and Zack had just one more day before we had to put him on a plane back to college.
All day, my husband and I offered to do things for him and with him. Did he want to go to the movies? Did he want to go shopping? Did he want to watch Monty Python DVD’s (we are big Monty Python fans)? I came in after a run in the rain and said: hey, Zack, let’s go swimming. I’m wet anyway. It will be fun.
No, he said. It’s cold. I’m going to take a nap.
The rest of us found things to do. I took two of my daughters to the movies. My husband took the other daughter and my other son to the bookstore and then to the southern end of the island to look for seals in the rain. We curled up with books, watched silly TV shows, ate popcorn, played games.
Not Zack. He moped.
And all day, I was left with a nagging feeling that I should have been able to do something to fix it, to make sure he had a good birthday. Even if the only thing that would fix it was stopping the rain. If I were a good mother, I’d figure it out.
Our kids do this to us. We want so desperately for them to be happy, and as parents we spend so much time doing things for them and helping them. When there is an obstacle or problem, we immediately get into solving mode—even when the problem is the weather. Or something else we can’t change, like our child’s height, the shape of her nose, or his basketball ability.
Of course, this doesn’t work. And yet, like I felt on Zack’s birthday, we feel bad. We feel responsible.
But we aren’t responsible for changing the weather or physical attributes. We can’t make our child more popular, either—or secure an acceptance to a particular college. Our responsibility here is different, and sometimes just as hard: we need to teach our children acceptance. Not just acceptance, but how to make the most of what life gives you.
After hours of feeling guilty on Zack’s birthday, I finally realized that feeling guilty was absurd. Enough, Zack, I said. We are all here doing our best to give you a good day. We can’t change the weather. But we will do literally anything else—we’ve made that clear. Whether you have a bad day or good day is up to you.
He had a bad day.
And that, actually, is another of our challenges as parents: letting go and letting our children make decisions we don’t agree with. If it’s dangerous decision, we obviously need to step in. But if it’s not dangerous, and we’ve given our advice and offered our support, we need to step out. Kids learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. And ultimately, our children are who they are, not who we want them to be.
The next day, Zack admitted that he acted badly. “I got into a rut,” he said, and apologized, acknowledging that we’d tried to make him happy. Which made me hopeful that he’d learned the two lessons I wanted him to learn: that ultimately he is in charge of his own happiness, and that whenever he has a rainy birthday moment, we are happy to bring the Monty Python DVD’s and popcorn.
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