Walk With Me (#43): Let Him Fly

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do

Dear Asha,

My son is about to graduate from high school (God willing). He is an amazing and unusual kid in many ways. He’s had to grow up faster than most, living in two homes since he was two when his dad and I split. He’s also had to navigate the waters of having a mother with complex and severe, debilitating diseases. I missed much of his middle school and early high school years bc I was physically stuck in bed.

My son did an internship this year at a local Toyota dealership working as a mechanic. He LOVES it. He hates school. If he doesn’t get a C or higher in math, he won’t even graduate.

Assuming he can jump that hurdle (graduating), I’m very excited for him. He’s always been very interested in cars, from a young age. His interest in auto mechanics has been growing for years.

He has decided not to go to college and instead to work full time at Toyota and work his way around and up the ladder there. They offer free online courses to their employees and he can continue learning. He’s a great team player and is well-liked by his colleagues of all ages. The older guys take him under their wing and teach him cool stuff. He’s clearly where he’s meant to be (at least for now).

Here’s my question: how can I best support my son on this different but great path? For me, I had so many transformative experiences at college that defined me. Traveling to Nicaragua and Kenya, doing a month-long backpacking trip out West. And not to mention all the other adventures I had that didn’t require leaving the country (getting 20 people to go sky diving our senior year!).

I know this is vague. I just want to make sure that I help my son find “growth experiences” despite the fact that in college it’s mostly hand-fed to you.

I welcome your valuable insight.

RK

Dear RK,

First, let’s just take a moment and send up a prayer for C-or-higher in math leading straight on to graduation. Skimming the hurdle unintentionally is not cause for disqualification, God, so if he needs to skim, let him skim. Just help him get over, please. AMEN.

Then he can move onto his post-high school life, which will be rich with learning, experience, and adventures, none of which will look anything like what you were expecting. For me, so little of my parenting experience was what I expected, but it was not until my oldest crossed over into high school that I really hit the “we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto” feeling.

All the terrain until then was at least vaguely familiar. I could reach into my own experience and find some recognizable reference point that resonated on some level, even if I’d never walked another person through their first day of school, or their first crush, or their first break-up with a friend, or the first time they lost a beloved pet. I’d never walked anyone else through those things, but I’d been through them myself and I could puzzle through what I would have wanted from a parent in those moments.

This approach worked fairly well, overall. I was pretty confident that I was on top of this whole parenting thing.

Then my oldest entered high school and started talking about being non-binary, wishing he didn’t have breasts, and we officially were in the wilds without a map, Toto. I could not relate to what he was saying on any emotional level. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it for a long time. Referencing my own experience was a non-starter. There was no there there.

I had to learn, slowly and painfully, one of the hardest lessons of my parenting life: our children are people, as separate from us and mysterious as all other people. At a certain point, they will move beyond us — beyond our experience and our comprehension. That’s their job. Our job is just to love them, madly and with complete detachment. It’s a stunning paradox.

Maybe your son has truly found his calling, and will live in the world of cars and engines for all his life. Maybe he’ll move on to other things that are related, or maybe he’ll head off in a completely different direction. Maybe he’ll have the kinds of adventures that you did, and maybe his adventures will look completely different.

I think the important thing is that he’s taken the initiative to head in a direction that doesn’t involve being hand-fed experience, as you so aptly put it, by a college experience, or, wonderful mama, by you. He’s using his own hands to grasp onto the life that he wants, and you can’t hold his hand while he does that. They’re busy.

Life, if it is lived with deep attention and gusto, is an adventure all by itself. Encourage him to pay attention — not simply to what he’s learning, but to the people around him, and to anyone he forms relationships with. Teach him to pay deep attention to himself and what lights him up — makes his brain tingle and his heart beat faster. Model for him the process of deep reflection, and help him to find faith in what that reflection teaches him about himself and the world.

Cheer him on when he follows the trail that attention leads him on, even if it ends up being a dead-end or a stunning failure. We learn more, if we don’t bury the learning under shame or regret, from our mistakes and failures than we ever do from our successes. And sometimes what looks like an utter disaster ends up being the best thing that’s ever happened to us.

If he had gone to college he would have been embracing a more protracted adolescence, and you would have had a more standard role as an active parent for a few more years. That’s not what he chose, though. He’s chosen to dive directly into the deep end of the adulting pool, and your job is going to, by necessity, become a less active one.

Make sure he knows how to balance a checkbook, pay bills on time, and cook for himself. If he lives at home, make sure he starts paying you some rent, so he learns how to account for that reality. If he wants to find his own place, help him figure out how he’s going to cover everything.

And then let him fly, Mama. He will, I promise. Over terrain you never imagined.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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