This fall marks my 22nd year of parental participation in the great American tradition we call “back-to-school shopping.” Twenty-two years of buying mustard-orange pencils, blue-lined paper and slick 3-ringed notebooks. Twenty-two years of assessing and filling in wardrobe gaps – most likely to include new tennis shoes and a larger version of last year’s jeans. Twenty-two years of witnessing the transition from the fading simplicity of summer into the hopeful, shiny beginnings of fall.
This will be the first of our twenty-two years of marriage without a child in elementary school. The baby has graduated into middle school. If the math is confusing, it may be helpful to explain that my husband was a single dad of two when we married. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life as a parent. Two decades of back-to-school shopping lists and new backpacks and meticulously mapped schedules that rival (in complexity and velocity) those of the New York City subway system.
In addition to the expected trips to Staples and forms to fill out, we have an added degree of complication this fall. We’re kicking the school year off by taking a much anticipated, ten day field trip. So we’ve added obtaining passports and finalizing travel details to our already lengthy list of August “to-dos.” As we began to chip away at the rocky boulder standing between summer and a smooth start to September, I was struck with ambivalence. I’m grateful for the fullness and richness of our life. Every task to be completed represents a good and precious gift. Every permission slip promises experience. Every notebook filled with paper nods to new discoveries.
We are grateful.
Yet we are busy.
And all too easily, busy eclipses grateful. Activity overrides relationship. As I plan and purchase and plot out carpools, I can miss the very hearts of the growing persons who’ve been entrusted to my care.
So this year, I paused. I recalibrated. I dared to trade in efficiency for quality. Rather than running the school-shopping gauntlet with all three children, I had an individual planning/shopping date with each. In the midst of one of the most chaotic weeks of the year, we experienced the great (and unexpected) gift of presence. I gave them mine. They eagerly reciprocated.
Over lunch, we chatted about new classes and upcoming basketball tournaments. We made shopping lists of school supplies. We took care of the business at hand. But at some point during our meal, the conversation shifted from doing to dreaming. A few of the questions I asked each of them were:
“What are your goals to help you stay healthy and grow strong?”
“How can you get to know God better? What will help make that happen?”
“What’s one thing you’d like to learn to do or make this year?”
Answers included choosing (and training for) an 8K race, keeping a journal for daily personal quiet time and having family devotionals once a week, and entering the Food Network kids’ baking contest.
My kids surprised me. Which is a confession of sorts from me. Too often, I underestimate the value of their opinions and ideas. Not on purpose, of course. In theory, I agree with the dignity of a child’s unique personhood. Yet despite my good intentions, the well-executed chorus of plans and goals I orchestrate for my children leaves little for me to hear their voices. The same voices that whisper hints and guesses of the persons they were created to be. Persons with unique gifting for eternal purpose. Persons who were named and known and loved since the beginning of time.
Too often, the conversations I have with my children focus on doing rather than discovering. And I miss the best part of parenting.
As we chewed on the last bites of fajitas and the waiter delivered the check, I asked my son, “So what can I do to help you this year?” He looked at me with a bit of surprise. Then without hesitation, he responded, “Do more of this.”
And so we shall.
“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” Charlotte Mason
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If your kids have already started school, consider planning a “two-weeks-into-school-check-in” date. Or institute a quarterly lunch date. Or an annual birthday date. (Grandparents – this could be a fabulous time with your grandkids as well.) Turn off your phone. Defer running your own errands. Have a list of open-ended questions to ask them – about their own goals and dreams. Think in categories of mind, body, spirit, and adventure. Take detailed notes and save them. Ask questions without, in turn, giving advice.