Or, The Lesson My Son Taught Me That No One Else Could
My eldest son, Ryan, is 14 years old. For me, that was an age of growing apart from family. Of buying into all the teenage clichés of resenting parents, rebelling, feeling like I didn’t fit in. As a parent with my first teenager, I am having a different experience so far, touch wood! The experience of being taught a different way to live. It has been a 14 year lesson in what it means to be truly present, truly loving, truly acting with purpose.
As a baby, Ryan and I had an immediate connection. The sort where, if he was crying for reasons unknown, or was unsettled at bedtime, he would be popped into Dad’s arms, where he would almost invariably instantly settle. Or not, but he and I would figure out what was wrong, change that nappy, warm his bottle a little, play or bathe, and he would be calm in no time. In the early days after bringing him home from the hospital, I had him in my arms, gently dancing around the living room, singing him the words to Feelgood Inc by the Gorillaz (as you do). The look on his face was one of amazement and wonder – and I was amazed he liked my singing voice!
From day zero with Ryan, we’ve always had a ‘kindred spirit’ type relationship. He has always been the one that people will say is like me, with an eclectic music taste, the wiry, too spiky hair, skinny physique, and eyebrows that really want to meet… I am so sorry for that one! He has some of my mannerisms and habits – it’s not uncommon for his grandmother to see him at play with the younger siblings or cousins, and he will see her looking at him. He will raise a knowing eyebrow, or maybe he will frown at her, and she will turn to me and say “Oh, he’s so like you at that age!”
Ryan’s generosity is renowned in our family. He was always a generous kid. When they were little I would playfully take the ‘Dad tax’ on treats, whether it be the first bite of an ice cream, first sip of milkshake or a sneaky fry or two from the bowl. Sometimes when I would forget to take a sip/bite, he would offer it to me (or Mum) before he started. Or as he approached the end of his fries, he would happily offer the last one to Mum.
Sometimes his generosity would cost him. One time he had a hot chocolate which had a marshmallow on the side. “Would you like some marshmallow, Dad?” he asked me.
“Sure, thank you” I replied, reached across the table, and popped the marshmallow in my mouth. The look of dismay on his face was palpable. “I said SOME marshmallow, Dad, you took it all!” Clearly we have a different understanding on how portions work. But he was instantly over it, was happy to have made me happy with the marshmallow. You get the picture, he has a big, generous heart. Myself at that age, I doubt I would have offered my parents anything, and if a misunderstanding like that had robbed me of a treat, I would probably have brooded on it for hours! So we certainly aren’t the same, and as parents we often wonder where his generous and gentle nature has come from. It’s truly a gift.
There are plenty of areas like the above where we aren’t that similar, but others where we are very similar. As a young child I was sensitive, and Ryan was the same. Particularly in the early years of school, I hated being told off. An adult yelling at me would make my stomach tense and a feeling of dread would overwhelm me. If there was an injustice involved, like being told off for something someone else did, multiply by ten. So when Ryan would tell me a story like this after his day at school, I could relate, and it was so easy for me to know what he needed to get past those types of moments. Explaining how teachers sometimes don’t know how they make the kids feel when they yell, or they don’t always know who was whispering, and sometimes they like us are just having a bad day. Basically just letting him know that sometimes even adults make mistakes and it doesn’t make them bad for doing so. Getting him to use that empathy he has so much of.
As he approached high school, I became concerned for him. My first day of high school wasn’t great (think shy outsider going to a school where lots of kids already know each other), and while high school life generally wasn’t terrible, I was never consistently in the moment, carrying a low-key dread around with me and never totally feeling at home.
I didn’t really want that type of experience for him, so this did influence our choice of high school for him. Other than that, once he started, I mainly observed him, and how he was going. Was he making good friends? Was he anxious about anything? Bullying?
As the first weeks and months of high school passed, nothing really jumped out at us to be concerned about. He had made some nice friends and was generally happy. He had made friends, and our families had become friends with their families, and there was a whole lot of relief that everything was fine.
But he has come home from school extremely sad on two occasions. The first time, I was worried. Did someone bully him? Was he struggling with a class? No, as it turns out. He was sad and angry about a perceived injustice, or maybe you would not even call it an injustice. More an administrative error, with one of his friends who had been put into the wrong elective class. His friend was upset and frustrated at school and had started skipping classes.
I was amazed and impressed by his maturity – his friend was having a rough time, and he cared enough to carry the issue and associated emotions home with him. A big difference with teenage me who would have found the situation hilarious and probably considered skipping class too! Of course a quick phone call confirmed his friend had not shared it with his parents, and another quick phone call from them to the school resolved the issue.
This demonstration of heart from him and the resulting ease of resolving a troubling situation took my breath away, and I was filled with two strong conflicting emotions. One, a gigantic love and pride that made my chest feel like it was about to explode, and two, a suppressed hysterical internal laughter that made me want to ask him “Who are you?! How did you know to be like this?!” Much like his generosity, it is a little bit of a mystery.
He can also deliver his love with a bit of humour. When he has been chatting with his friends online, he always signs off by saying “Gotta go. Bye. Love you” as if he has been talking to a loved relative on the phone. Without fail they all laugh, and my heart is warmed.
Over time, I have learnt not to be concerned about bullying, or classroom issues. He is loved at school, and won’t put up with injustice.
The other time he came home sad seemed a bit more significant. I asked him what was happening. One of the boys in his year was getting chemotherapy. My heart sank. How close to him are you? Are you friends? Close friends? I just wanted to protect this boy’s giant heart from pain, and loss. His reply again amazed me. He smiled as he told me “We weren’t friends before. I didn’t really know him well last year. But such-and-such knows his family, and so he was a bit sad, and so we all hang out together now and now he’s my friend.”
So together we all wait, and hope. My boy’s giant heart out there looking after other hearts. We watch out for his. You might think his actions here are a simple, standard gesture, and really, they are. I can think of a lot of people in my life who would have behaved the same way – but would I have?
Observing Ryan throughout his life, and in these key moments, has led me to question myself. In the most mindblowing, freeing way. Eventually it led to this question.
If he and I are so alike, why is he how he is, and I am how I am? How Ryan acts, that’s what genuine love and compassion looks like. That’s what being in the moment, acting with purpose looks like.
So what’s the message here? I’m proud of my kids? That definitely.
It’s not the acting with purpose that is the message here. It’s not being generous, or acting with love. It’s the doing of these things instinctively, to share love without expectation of reward.
What I take away from what I have experienced and observed in the examples above and countless others, is not that I’m proud. It’s that sometimes mindsets can be shifted by the most unexpected events, the most unexpected sources. I take from that if my mindset can change, others can change.
Now, thanks to 14 years of lessons, it’s just love. Instinctive, being, love.