My Advice to My Thirty-Something Self

December 21, 2018

I remember calling my dad for advice one spring afternoon when my kids were little.

I felt my son was being under-utilized on a sports team. I asked Dad if he thought I should respectfully ask the coach to rotate the kids’ positions occasionally.

My dad paused before chuckling knowingly. “Honey, when I was a kid,” he said, “I don’t remember my parents ever even attending one of my ballgames, let alone knowing or caring what position I was playing.”

Well, gee. That’s not the answer I was looking for. I was expecting Dad to validate my instinct, not stomp it into oblivion. And why the heck were my grandparents such slackers, by the way?

The upshot is that the advice made enough of an impression for me to vividly recall it two decades later. Now, I’m the one chuckling knowingly at the memory . . . and thanking my lucky stars I had such wise counsel, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time.

My parents had many great qualities when I was growing up, and one of the strongest, in my estimation, was declining to over-react — or perhaps to even react at all — in the face of their children’s age-appropriate challenges and disappointments. They expected and trusted us to handle them largely on our own. Ah, what a gift.

Thanks to their example, I think I brought a fair share of this pragmatism into my own parenting journey. But, ooohhh, I wish I’d brought a lion’s share. When I think about the things I worried about, or ruminated on, or lost sleep over, when my children were young, I want to place an urgent call to my thirty-something-year-old self. Here’s how the conversation might go:

Present-Day Me: “Hi, younger me. Why’d it take you so long to answer the phone?”

Thirty-Something Me: “I was upstairs folding laundry. It took me a while to get to the kitchen.”

Present Day Me: “Ah, right. You’ve only got a landline. Duh.”

Thirty-Something Me: “What’s a landline?”

Present-Day Me: “No matter. Pretty soon, you’re gonna spend way too much time playing word games on your apps, so enjoy that nifty handset while you can.”

Thirty-Something Me: “What’s an app?”

Present-Day Me: “Focus, will ya? I called to tell you that you’re stressing about all the wrong things with our kids.”

Thirty-Something Me: “‘Our?’”

Present-Day Me: “Darn right, ‘our.’ I come by all this gray hair honestly. Now, listen up: That science project you’ve been stressing about the past two weeks? Forget about it.”

Thirty-Something Me: “How can I forget about it? It’s due in two days and ‘our’ son hasn’t even submitted his topic to the teacher yet. That hypothesis isn’t gonna write itself, you know!”

Present-Day Me: “Yeah, well, neither are you. It’s his project. Back off.”

Thirty-Something Me: “But what if it doesn’t get done?”

Present-Day Me: “He’ll make an F, then know better next time.”

Thirty-Something Me: “An F?!? Then he’ll get kicked out of his honors classes, then he won’t get into a good college, then he’ll spend his adulthood wandering the streets begging for spare change, then—”

Present-Day Me: “Stop obsessing about the future. Concentrate on the here and now. What do you want for your kids right now, this very minute?”

Thirty-Something Me: “Other than a hypothesis on an approved science-project topic?”

Present-Day Me: “Yeah. What do you want for your kids? Quit hyperventilating, and answer the question from your heart.”

Thirty-Something Me (hyperventilating in spite of myself): “Okay, um . . . Well, I want them to be kind. And curious. And joyful.”

Present-Day Me: “Good answers.”

Thirty-Something Me: “But I also want them to be responsible!”

Present-Day Me: “Then quit taking responsibility for their stuff.”

Thirty-Something Me: “But I need to prepare them for adulthood! I want to make sure opportunities are available that will ensure a good future.”

Present-Day Me: “Sad news, buttercup: You can’t ensure jack squat. But if you’re intent on trying, your best bet at a good future is to raise kind, curious and joyful kids.”

Thirty-Something Me: “But I want kind, curious and joyful kids who win medals at science fairs! Is that so much to ask?”

Present-Day Me: “Yes. They’re unlikely to remember a medal twenty years from now — especially if their mother ‘helped’ them more than she should have — but they’ll definitely remember having a calm, easy-going mom who trusted them to handle their own stuff.”

Thirty-Something Me: “But we can’t just have fun all the time! The stakes are too high! Their futures are at risk!”

Present-Day Me: “You’re annoying me. And why is your voice so shrill when you’re hyperventilating?”

Thirty-Something Me: “Okay then, know-it-all: Tell me what to do as the hours tick away toward the science project deadline.”

Present-Day Me: “Go read a book.”

Thirty-Something Me: “You mean a book about how to motivate kids?”

Present-Day Me: “No. Read — I dunno — a good mystery maybe. You like mysteries, right?”

Thirty-Something Me: “What are you talking about? How will I help my kids by reading a novel?”

Present-Day Me: “They’ll see that you have your own life, one that doesn’t always revolve around them. And they’ll see you have your own priorities, which you’re perfectly entitled to.”

Thirty-Something Me: “You’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition.”

Present-Day Me: “Oh, aren’t you a smarty-pants. But we’re making progress. At least you’ve stopped hyperventilating. And you know what else your kids will see? They’ll see their mom reading a book for pleasure, with no agenda or expectations. If you want your kids to be lifelong readers, that’s the ticket. And very few things enhance one’s life more than a lifelong love of reading.”

Thirty-Something Me: “Yeah, well, that science project still isn’t getting done.”

Present-Day Me: “Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. You can’t control everything. Stop trying.”

Thirty-Something Me: “But this is a competitive world we live in!”

Present-Day Me: “Then arm your kids with the most competitive edges known to man: Kindness. Curiosity. Joyfulness.”

Thirty-Something Me: “. . . and age-appropriate self-reliance?”

Present-Day Me, sighing: “Well, I wouldn’t have put it quite so clinically. . .”

Thirty-Something Me: “You sure are smug for a gray-haired old lady. But maybe you’re on to something.”

Present-Day Me: “Darn tootin’. Now, go put on some sunscreen before you head for the patio to read your novel. Trust me, you’ll thank me some day.”

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© 2020 Christine Hurley Deriso