You know that comment? The one you hear from friends who are parents of older children? It sounds something like “Ohhhh, just wait.” or “If you think this stage is hard, just get to the next one.”
I remember being on the receiving end of those comments when I had a newborn who wasn’t sleeping and friends were chasing rambunctious toddlers around the playground or when I had an elementary school aged kid who was learning to read and I was being forewarned by parents of pubescent middle schoolers of what was to come. “Just wait” meant if you think potty training or algebra or monitoring social media is bad, this next stage will blow them all out of the water. A few years ago, when we were looking at high schools for our oldest child, friends warned me, “just wait until the college process starts.” These moments, stepping stones of anticipation (and a little bit of dread), are the drumbeat throughout the parenting process that gives us perspective on the challenge we’re facing in that moment while girding us for the larger challenges yet to come.
This year is one of those “just wait” years in my family. We have one child applying to high schools and one child looking at colleges. We are a household in transition, from one stage of life to another, where our children are literally growing into young adults before our very eyes. They are lifting the burden for who they are becoming out of our hands and starting to carry that heavy weight on their own shoulders. The hardest aspect of this stage is that essentially we as parents have less and less control over the outcome, which can be both deeply frustrating and occasionally painful. In this case, the “just wait” means we are no longer the ones calling the shots and we are more and more of a bystander, a cheerleader, a shoulder to cry on. “Just wait” until we have tried to give them everything we can: love, education, guidance, and then they pack up those things on their backs and walk into a new stage of life.
The most interesting aspect of this long moment of transition is getting to observe our children while they try to figure out who they want to be in relationship to how we have raised them. As our kids walk around potential high schools and colleges learning what those places have to offer, they are constantly weighing the values and norms with which they have grown up against who they want to become. They are performing the ongoing juggling act of accepting or rejecting what we have taught them as parents. This process of choosing colleges (or high schools or summer camps) is truly a journey of self-discovery for us as a family and particularly our kids as individuals.
That self-discovery and stretching for independence away from us doesn’t happen without growing pains and conflicts between us and our children. When people tell me “just wait” about the school application process, they’re referring to the fights over essay deadlines and standardized tests, arguments about grades that fall short or the cost of tutors. And all those experiences will be true of my family just like everyone else’s. But I am determined to find the good in this process and in my teenage kids.
Everyone complains about the bad stuff about teenagers – how they talk back and give you attitude and slam their doors, but there’s so much people don’t tell you. No one talks about how incredibly insightful and reflective and perceptive older kids can be. No one says to you, “Just wait until you get to hear your kid’s insights on whether a school’s mission felt authentic or like B.S.” or “Just wait until you step on a college campus and your breath is taken away when realize your kid looks like he belongs there.” Visiting a school with our kids can actually be like windows into their minds — What spoke to them? What aspects of a school feel important to them? Could they imagine themselves here? Because the answers to all of these questions not only tell us whether they want to attend this school, the answers help us begin to understand our kids’ vision for themselves and their lives. The observations they make while wandering around campuses or on long car rides home don’t just tell us whether they’re adding another school to the list, those observations help paint a picture of who our children want to become. And while the temptation is to tell our kids what we thought of a school, our job is actually to tune in while they tell us what they observed. Because in doing so, they’re not just telling us what they thought, they’re telling us who they think they are.
So here I am, embarking on a major “just wait” moment and I have made a pledge to myself as my family begins this adventure. First, I am going to acknowledge that at times this process will be stressful and frustrating and disappointing and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Second, I am going to recognize that this journey is about my kid and what he wants and not about me and what I want. And finally, I am going to listen to my kid when the perceptions and observations and judgments about schools come tumbling out and in those insights, hear the beauty of what my son is becoming.