Teaching True North

By Deane Barker tags: personal

My mother died five years ago. I was 38 when she died, an adult with kids of my own. My oldest was a teenager.

Since then, I’ve watched my son graduate high school and start his second year of college. Watching one of your children leave the house is a sobering experience. You have moments of panic where you wonder if you’ve taught them everything they need to know. Are they ready for the world? I am injecting this adult that I have raised into society – will it better or worse for the experience?

Over the years, I keep coming back to thoughts of Mom and what she must have gone through with me. I was a disaster as a child and worse as a young adult. I couldn’t remember anything. I had no ability to keep my room clean. Personal responsibility was an alien concept. My adolescence was a continual tug of war between Mom and I. I kept trying to regress into complete disorder, and she kept pulling me back to civilization.

Mom nagged me about grades, though I never improved much. Mom kept on me about cleaning up after myself, though I never did. Mom corrected my English, but I still said things like “I want that really bad” to which she would instantly retort “Badly! You want that really badly.” Mom dragged me to church every Sunday morning, even though I continued to drift away. Mom quoted Bible verses to me, even when I tried hard not to listen.

When I finally left Mom’s house at 21, I wondered, “Is she disappointed with me? Does she think she failed because I never managed to get my crap together?” But now, at 43 and with the perspective that goes along with those years, I think I finally understand.

As parents, we have a core responsibility to teach our children how to find “true north.” We owe it to the world to give our children a compass with which they can always orient themselves in the right direction, even if it takes them a while to move that way. They might get lost on the side of the road, wander aimlessly, even occasionally go backwards. This is simply the imperfect process of growing up. But so long as they know where true north is, they can find their way back.

I spent my early 20s wandering in circles. I spent some time in the military, dropped in and out of college, had bad relationships, drank a little too much, and spent money I didn’t have. By all accounts, I was an aimless wreck.

But all throughout, I knew where true north was. Even if I was heading in the wrong direction most of the time, I was at least self-aware, and I knew what I should be doing, even if I couldn’t bring myself to actually do it.

I don’t know what Mom thought during this time. If she was disappointed in me, she never showed it. She loved me relentlessly, and was always available to dispense either support or tough love, depending on the crisis (and there were many). I suspect she simply put faith in her belief that she had taught me true north, and her hope that eventually I’d circle back in the right direction.

And eventually I did. I married a wonderful woman, built a business, and I’m in various stages of raising three amazing children. I even ended up on the Board of Trustees of the seminary where Mom worked for years (she would have been absolutely floored by this, had she lived long enough to see it).

I think I’ve put a life together than Mom would be proud of. It took me a while to get here, but Mom made sure I knew which path would deliver me.

I try to remember this when my girls don’t throw away the little plastic sleeves that the juice box straws come in. I find these all over the kitchen, and no matter how often I point it out, they still end up everywhere. Perhaps one day they’ll learn to throw them away, or perhaps they won’t, but my responsibility as a parent is to make sure they know what the right thing is, even if they leave my house never having done it.

Yes, it’d be wonderful if we could change every undesirable behavior of our children. Lord knows I’ll never stop trying. But even if they head into the world not being able to keep their rooms clean, staying up too late, and eating too much sugar, I promise you that I’ll be the nagging voice in the back of their heads. Call it guilt, call it what you want, but they’ll think of me every time they don’t clean up after themselves or skip church on Sunday morning. They’ll know true north, and they’ll always know how to find their way back to it.

Now that Mom is gone, I see the path she hoped I would follow, more and more every day. She walked me as far down that path as I would let her, then she let me go, watched me get lost, and eventually find my way back again.

Mom is waiting at the end of that path, somewhere over the horizon. One of the driving forces in her life was to make sure I knew how to find the right way to the end of it. When I get there, I hope I’ll be able to tell her that I did the same thing for my own children.

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