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It’s too late for my kids.
After all the years spent trying to do whatever I possibly could to make sure they didn’t wind up spending their adult years saying horrible things about me to a therapist, my children are no longer children. Oh, they’re still my kids, and will always be, they’re just not kids anymore. I’ve got one in college, another leaving in the Fall and our youngest — the one we adopted from Ethiopia when he was a 5-year-old who didn’t speak a word of English — now shaves, drives and is taller (and better dressed) than I am. My kids are old.
Did I make mistakes? Oh yeah. Plenty. But, there’s only one I truly regret. (If you want to know what all the other ones were, you’ll have to ask my children.)
My mistake was simple. I should have cared less.
I could, without too much trouble list 10, 20 or 100 things about my kids that I used to worry about. I worried about big things like the fact that I was suddenly giving my son and daughter a 5-year-old brother from Ethiopia, when they were still just 5 and 7 themselves and I worried about little things like the fact that Clay couldn’t read in Kindergarten and whether the princess dresses my daughter Grace wanted to wear in pre-school would cause her to lag behind her male classmates in math and science in years to come.
I should have cared less.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that I worked not to fall into gender stereotypes just as I’m glad my wife and I worked to prepare Clay and Grace for their, then, new brother from Africa.
But I should have cared less.
Seriously, I worried about nap schedules. Has there ever been a doctor, lawyer, or Supreme Court Justice who owes his or her success to having gotten the right amount of nap time as a toddler? Nap schedules? Why did I ever care?
That time they had extra cake and sugar at their friend’s birthday party? Yeah, that was fine. The son who was the last kid in Kindergarten to read is now a Sophomore at Duke, where he regularly tackles books I couldn’t begin to understand. The daughter who wore princess dresses to pre-school has been the president of her High School Student Body 2 years running.
And then there’s Nati.
He came to us at 5 years old from Ethiopia. He didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of his language, Amharic. He wasn’t at all like me. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow it was. He was louder, sillier, and strange as it may sound, more confident than the rest of the family put together.
Every time I worried, I allowed myself to express my love as fear.
Every morning at breakfast he’d literally come downstairs blowing kisses to an audience of thousands that only he could see. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with him. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to raise a child who was a different color. I worried that our decision to adopt would ruin the lives of the 2 sweet, quiet kids we already had.
I should have cared less.
Nati learned English and Clay and Grace learned that the world was bigger than they’d ever imagined. When Clay was 14 he told me that having Nati as a brother had forced him to become more assertive and outgoing. Clay told me he was grateful that we’d adopted Nati, not just because he loved him, but because Nati had helped Clay change, grow and evolve.
Of course, most everything I worried about turned out fine. Take an inventory of the things you’ve lost sleep over, and chances are, most never came to pass. Most people are, simply put, pretty bad at knowing what to worry about. It’s not that bad things don’t happen. They do, of course, but mostly when they do, they take us by surprise. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard not to suspect that worrying doesn’t do us much good at all. The worst of it though is this: every time I worried, I allowed myself to express my love as fear.
Fear is like some kind of magic spell gone horribly wrong. Our love for our kids is so overwhelming that somehow we turn it into panic. And then, presto, just like magic, years have passed and all those moments have disappeared. Suddenly our kids have lives of their own. The time I spent caring about things that didn’t matter, was time wasted. I should have cared and worried less and laughed and loved more.
Looking back now, I realize that most of what I worried about was that my children tended to act like, well, children. Kids are like that. They’re messy, irresponsible, uneducated and have irrational hatred of peas and broccoli. And then, all on their own, they grow out of it.
We worry so much about the childish things our children do, we sometimes forget that parents should treat childhood is a temporary condition to be enjoyed rather than cured. Your kids, like mine, will one day cease to be kids. Take my advice, care less. Love more. After all, in the immortal words of that great philosopher Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Claude Knobler is the author of “More Love (Less Panic) 7 Lessons About Life, Love, and Parenting I Learned After We Adopted Our Son From Ethiopia.”