The best advice I was ever given about raising teenagers came from a friend of mine who got it from her father; both of them having successfully shepherded 11 children between them into adulthood. It was simple: when the water gets rough, DON’T TIP THE BOAT.
Imagine, if you will, that raising a child is like piloting a canoe down a twisting river. Some of us will be steering the canoe with a partner beside us, and others will be paddling all on our own. We can look up and down the river, to the right and left, and spot family members and friends in other canoes traveling down the same waterway. Sometimes those canoes are close enough to touch, close enough to hang on to, really, if you needed to. For others they are farther away, or not there at all. For all of us, the canoe will travel through flat water and rough, straight stretches and curves, sunny sailing and stormy weather. And no matter how much you yearn for it, you can never go back up river.
Everyone begins this journey differently, whether it was planned or not. Your way is no less valuable than another’s. But here you are, ready to jump in feet first. You have to – you can’t really practice guiding a canoe on dry land, even if you’ve done some guiding in other people’s canoes. But oh boy, do you make sure everything is ready first. You research umpteen canoe brands – maybe you like all the bells and whistles, or maybe you like a simple sturdy craft – and you settle on one that’s right for you. Maybe your friends and family got together and – surprise! – went in on the paddles and life jackets for you. You’re ready: GO!
The first part of the journey is so new. Your precious cargo reclines in the canoe as you clumsily begin figuring out how to steer and paddle with a passenger. Paddling is a bigger deal now than it used to be. You really, really want to do it right. Sometimes the water gets rough and the canoe gets tippy, and you panic, a little, but it settles and the journey carries on. It goes by so fast! One minute you’re fearfully navigating new swells and unexpected corners, and in the blink of an eye you feel like you’ve got this thing under control.
Then all of a sudden your child decides that they want to learn to paddle too. More work for you but that’s OK. You give them their own tiny paddle, and you let them try even though you’re doing all the work (a pat on the back for you because they don’t realize it!). You let them choose each day, blue paddle or red paddle? — but you always make sure their life jacket is on. You let them stop when they’re tired after 5 minutes. You let them explore the canoe, the lapping water, the river banks (carefully). You see the beauty on the river around you with the brand-new innocence of a child’s eyes. When the water gets rough, you take over, easily, and although you bemoan the storm that follows, you know that it’ll be over quickly and a rainbow will soon be shining on the horizon. My goodness, you’re busy these days and oh, so tired.
It seems like no time at all until your child is ready to try learning how to use a big paddle and begin the process of learning how to canoe independently. Their first attempts at a j-stroke are so wobbly and cute! For some children, learning how to paddle comes quickly and easily and naturally. For others, it is a slow and difficult process. You might have to show them how to do that j-stroke over and over again. There might be tears, frustration, anger but you persevere because you know how important it is. You refuse to let them give up. You know they have to learn, take responsibility for mistakes, fail and try again.
But when your canoe hits the rapids, the cloudy days, the storms (and it will), you’ve got their back. When they’re tired and need a break, you’ve got their back. You’ll steer that canoe through hell and high water for them. It’s all SO worth it when they master a stroke, navigate around a rock, shoot the rapids and come through the other side with a yahoo! You’re paddling with them and cheering all the way. Did you know that your heart could ever feel so close to bursting?
It feels like forever and a flash all at once. One day you look over at your child and there is a new person where your baby used to be. Soft cheeks, hair that smells like summer, freckles and scabs and dimples are replaced with the harder lines of cheekbones, muscle, new curves. But the twinkle in the eye is still there! That smile! It’s still your baby, really, underneath the angst. They’re getting really good at paddling now. All that hard work has paid off and you couldn’t be prouder.
The problem is that they want to do it alone. They think they are so ready to steer the canoe without your help. They may even try to wrestle your paddle away from you by force. Or they’ll sneak it away when they think you aren’t looking. But it’s deceiving. You’re not fooled. You can’t let go now! The storms and rapids await… the water is getting rougher now. This is the most technical part of the river, and you’ll need all of the skills you’ve learned along the journey so far.
You look around. The family and friends that may have been on the river with you might look far away. They’re wrapped up in navigating this tricky stretch too. It might look sunny over there, while storm clouds roil above you, but you know that storms can’t always be seen from afar. You know you’re not alone, even though it feels that way sometimes.
Onward you venture. The canoe is going to rock, a lot, in the heavy rapids that you’re traveling. It’s going to feel like it could capsize at any moment. You hold on to one sage bit of wisdom: DON’T TIP THE BOAT. If the boat tips, your child will be thrown in to the rapids to paddle alone. They’re probably not even wearing their life jacket because they refused to put it on that morning. If you let it tip, they may never be able to get back into your canoe.
So, instead of wrestling for paddles in your unstable canoe, you let your child steer, sometimes, even if it isn’t in the direction you had envisioned. You compromise. You stop lecturing and start listening. You let them show you that there is beautiful music along the river that you’d never noticed before, music that used to be unimportant to you. When the moment arises, you still teach – it’s oh so important to keep teaching – but with your ears and your heart, not your tongue.
You let them weather the storms and get pummeled by the wind, but you let them know you’re always there to block some of the gale, even when they don’t want you to. You’ve still got their back, though they’ll rarely admit that they need it. You trust that all the time you spent teaching them to paddle safely will guide them now. “Hey Mama,” they say. “You take a break. I got this.” You smile, you cherish these moments of independence… but you never let go of your own paddle.
Before you know it, it is time to let your child get into a canoe of their own. NOW they’re ready. You think. Maybe. With trepidation, you allow them to sail onto the next stretch of the river, without you. Your tears flow from your heart’s joy… and your heartache. They’ll go around corners and out of sight. But you know that you’ll be floating along behind them, catching glimpses here and there. Some days, they’ll pull their canoe alongside yours, maybe even lash it to yours (but not for long because you’ll cut that rope pretty fast if you need to), and you’ll savor the moment, and the warmth of the visit will fill your heart until the next time. Good job, Mama!