Give Your Child the Gift of DistancePosted: November 26, 2011
He was 13 when I first met him, a boy suffering from both shyness and acne. I tried to draw him out in conversation. He was polite, but not forthcoming. After we’d met a few times, he became friendly in his own quiet, understated way. As he opened up, I found out that his entire social circle consisted of his parents.
I was a teenager myself, and knew many introverts; but I failed to understand how a person’s only friends could be his parents.
“Someone at school you get on with? A friend who comes over for your birthday? Someone you play with – like tennis or video games or something? Someone you meet for lunch or dinner or the occasional movie? Someone you chat with on the phone?…” I persisted, trying to find out who else he was friendly with.
“Well, there’s you guys,” he said. I think I succeeded in hiding my surprise. He’d met me and my sister not even half a dozen times, when his parents had come over home with him, and we were the only friends he could think of, aside from his parents? Didn’t he need any distance from them? If he hung around with them all the time, he would only be ‘their son’. How would he know who he was when he was on his own? How would he know who he was when he was with a friend? (Of course, he had to have a friend in the first place before he could know this, which brings me right back to where I started!)
His mother sat there, beaming at us. When he’d gone to another room to look at some books, she confided in me. “You know, we had him after almost 20 years of marriage. We had almost given up on ever having a child, and then we were blessed with him. I can’t thank god enough. Such a wonderful boy! He’s so caring! He won’t eat lunch without me. When he gets home from school, if I’m not home for some reason (though I try my best to be there), he’ll wait till I get back so we can eat together. As a result, we sometimes end up having lunch at 4pm! With a son like him, I feel I have the best of both worlds – the joys of having both a son, and a daughter who is close to me. God bless him!”
Over various meetings, the parents echoed their fervent love for and delight with the boy. He too, seemed perfectly happy – at peace with his studies, his interest in music and movies (which he indulged by attending performances and shows with his parents) – enjoying life with his parents.
They didn’t force him to do anything against his will. They didn’t manipulate him. It just seemed that his wishes and theirs naturally coincided, so there was no conflict whatsoever. It was quite amazing to see, and a lesson in loving people, I used to think.
As the years went by, we continued to meet them. Every now and then, I would try and tell the boy he should cultivate some friends outside the family circle. He said he didn’t feel the need for it. I even told his mother that she should encourage him to have some friends – she said they had suggested it every now and then, but he negated the idea. All of them were content.
The day came when he left school and went to college in a city that was a significant distance away. They were all apprehensive about his moving. In the weeks before he moved, he spent even more time with them, and concentrated on reassuring them that he would manage fine without them, as would they without him. Distance would make the heart grow fonder, he assured them.
Many years passed, during which I married and moved away. I met the parents 10 years later. They happened to drop in. Quite obviously, I asked after their son. A curious restraint seemed to come over both husband and wife. Since I had asked the question of the gentleman, I was looking at him. He seemed uncomfortable, but replied that the son was doing very well. He was happy and settled in a great job.
Before I could continue the conversation, someone else said something, and the topic was dropped. I had two children (a toddler and a dog) to take care of, so I was in and out of the conversation, and then they left.
Later that evening, I asked my father what I’d done wrong by asking after their son. He said, “I forgot to tell you – they haven’t had any contact with him for a few years now. The lady is terribly upset about it –they both are, but she can’t bear to be reminded of it. I was supposed to warn everyone at home to stay off the topic. But you came unexpectedly, and what with the children and everything, it completely slipped my mind to tell you.”
I was shocked. How could this be? Apparently, when the boy moved to another city, he got to know other people his age. He was plunged into the world of young people with their normal friendships, hobbies, pursuits, interests, loves and hates. He discovered he liked hanging out with people his own age, gossiping about people movies books teachers crushes boyfriends girlfriends ideas over innumerable cups of tea and coffee, a few sodas or a pitcher of beer.
As he was drawn to people his own age, he contrasted it with his own life at home till then – a life he had consciously chosen. He blamed his parents for not letting him have any ‘fun’ while he lived with them, for keeping him tied to their apron-strings, for not letting him lead his own life, for “wasting my teenage years – which should be the most fun years of a person’s life”. (?!)
He decided to ‘punish’ his parents by expunging them from his life. They took some time to understand the situation. Initially, he stopped writing to them (email was still nascent in India) or calling them. When his parents went to visit him, he was always ‘busy’ and couldn’t spend time with them. His mother he avoided meeting altogether.
On one visit, the father pleaded with him, trying to explain the parents’ position. The son was unmoved. “You didn’t let me live my life,” he accused. “Now, you have to pay the price. I hate the thought of you both – I hate to think of how you took over my life for almost 2 decades. I can’t forgive you – either of you. As for Mom, she is my mother – how could she do this to me? I never want to see her or hear from her again. In fact, I might as well tell you – I have no intentions of ever again meeting you either. This is our last meeting.”
The father came away broken-hearted.
I learnt all this from my father. Some months after this evening, I met the gentleman. I didn’t mention their son at all. He broached the topic himself. I apologized for my gaffe at our previous meeting, and he was gracious enough to accept my apology. “You obviously didn’t know,” he said.
“Any news of him?” I ventured.
“No. None at all. After he stopped speaking to us, we managed to get some news of him through friends of his whose phone numbers we had. But he found out. He didn’t want us to know anything about him or his life, so he dropped those friends, moved jobs, moved house, changed his phone number … We don’t know anything about him – where he is, what he’s doing.” His eyes filled with tears, and I looked away.
“Do you know he turned so virulently against us that after the first year of college, he actually approached a friend’s father for a loan to cover tuition fees and living expenses? All the checks I sent him went uncashed… It’s killing my wife – any reference to him puts her in depression for weeks. We’ve almost stopped meeting people, and everyone we meet, I tell them in advance not to mention our son.”
I apologized once again for having done so. He waved it aside. “I wonder how he is. Wherever he is, I just hope he’s happy, healthy, safe, at peace. It’s a relief talking to you – I can’t talk to anyone else; definitely not my wife. People keep asking for details, keep asking if they should try and locate him – it feels like they’re gouging out my heart…”
What a terrible, terrible waste! And it came from nowhere, for no reason.
Wait – I believe there was a reason. Perfect amity is unnatural – you have to be god-like to always get along equally well with everyone. The regular individual will always feel the stresses and strains of her interactions with people, even loved ones. Make that ‘especially with loved ones’. 🙂
In the wildest of my dreams I wouldn’t have predicted such a future scenario for the happy self-contained family, but the parents should have encouraged him to go out and mix with people his age. They encouraged him, but it was more like making mild suggestions, which he shot down every time.
They could have sent him to camp during the holidays. They could have enrolled him in music classes or workshops. Sure he’d have rebelled. He might even have said something like, “How can you say you love me if you send me away?” (Yes, you know this – kids have a peculiar penchant for turning everything around to suit their own point of view. But then, so do adults! 🙂 )
But that little ‘hurt’ of sending him away would have faded in the light of his experiences. He would have gotten to know people his own age, he would have enjoyed (or not, and that is fine too!) varied experiences with them. He would eventually have got over the ‘pain’ of his parents forcing him to do his own thing. He would have become a more balanced person, able to build and sustain relationships with people other than his parents – a skill absolutely vital for a happy life.
If your child is to grow into a fully functioning worthwhile adult, make sure you have some difference of opinion with her. Give her many opportunities to experience different slices of life, different kinds of people, different activities, different ways of being; because love needs distance to be real, to be felt. Justlikeyouneedspacesandpunctuationbetweenwordssothatyoucanmakesenseofthemenjoythem. 🙂
‘Force’ her, if you need to. (Take this last with a pinch of salt – no point sending your low-energy arty child to a heavy-duty trek.) Choose appropriate activities, and some not-so-appropriate ones. Too shy? Maybe drama class will jolt him out of it. Too dependent? You might want to pick a summer camp where she stays away from home for a few days and learns to rely on herself.
Your child is her own person and needs to live her own life, distinct from yours. The sooner the both of you realize this, the happier you’ll be.
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂