This post has absolutely nothing to do with writing.
My oldest son turned fifteen today. Not entirely sure how that happened. I just took him to his first day of kindergarten last week, I swear. Despite the obvious fast-forwarding problem that my life seems to be having, I wanted to stop and think about this new development. In one year, he’ll be able to drive. In three years, he’ll be able to vote. We’ve already started discussing universities. I am in no way prepared for these milestones, but that’s not important. What I really need to worry about is whether he’s ready.
Never having been a teenage boy, I’m not sure what words of wisdom he needs most now to guide him. So far, my advice to him has consisted of 1) personal hygiene is critical, 2) all teenage girls are insane, and 3) if he blows off school, it’s his own future that he’s screwing up, not mine. I am well aware that I am lucky he’s such a good kid. He attempts to be a good big brother. He doesn’t really mouth off much. He’s naturally brilliant. He has never shown a lot of concern over whether he is accepted by his peers. He helps out around the house with minimal resistance. He’s kind to animals. Most shocking of all, he still talks to me about his ideas and feelings and problems and aspirations. He still wants my approval.
Since he’s on the autism spectrum, the special considerations that brings up for him tend to eclipse a lot of other typical teenage issues. We’ve been hyper-focused on helping him adjust to what society expects of him since he was three years old. Emotions had to be explained to him like a foreign language. This may be why we’re still able to communicate. I spent so many years learning his language – learning which words to use to reach him – that I still understand a lot of the unspoken information that comes with his questions and stories about his day. Or maybe he still talks to me just because I’m listening.
So much of what I said to adults during my teen years was ignored – just because I was a teenager. I think that this is a profound mistake to make as a parent or educator. If no one listens to you, what does that do to your self-esteem? What motivation to succeed, to learn, to grow can you find if the world around you gives you the clear message that nothing you say is of value? Even teenagers are capable of insight, compassion, innovation, and excellence. When I tell my son that I see that potential within him, I can see his own belief in himself grow before my eyes.
So what words of wisdom can I give my son now that he’s hovering on the verge of adulthood? What lessons have I taught him?
He’s seen me choose my children’s well-being over financial success, so he knows that he’s more important to me than money and he knows what it means as a child to be that important to a parent. Not a bad lesson.
He knows that being true to himself is more important than trying to live up to other people’s expectations. I told him that he can become a Wal-mart greeter if he likes, but only if it’s what he really wants. I push him, but it’s always in a direction that meshes with his own aspirations. He understands that he needs to work hard for the things that are important to him and that he is the only person who can say what those things should be.
He knows that he’s going to make mistakes and that we’ll love him anyway.
He understands that the qualities that make him different do not make him “wrong.” Those differences make him unique, and he can use them to help make the world a better place. He’s had to become both self-aware and self-accepting, and those are two attributes that can only serve to help him through the tumultuous teen years.
I’m ridiculously proud of him.
I don’t think there are any magic words that will ensure that his transition to adulthood is a smooth one. I know he’ll encounter pain and heartache and frustration and self-doubt. I know he’ll do incredibly stupid things that I may not ever find out about. I have to trust that we’ve given him the best tools we could as his parents, and I have to let him walk his own path. Perhaps the most important thing I can give him is my willingness to listen and my belief that he can overcome any challenge that confronts him along the way.
No matter what, I don’t think there are any words of wisdom that will help me be ready to let go of my little boy. All I can do is not make a fuss about it in front of his friends.
I may let him start dating in… oh… twenty more years?