This week my daughter graduates from high school. My wife and I move toward the empty nest stage of life. I’ve learned we aren’t really there yet as. college students still live at home when they can.
As I move from one stage to the next, I think it might be helpful if I pass on some things that I’ve learned in raising my children. Here are 5 things we discovered and that worked well for us in raising our children, and 3 things I wish we could have done or exposed them to.
5 things we discovered that worked
1. Smaller is better
When we started our ministry in Pennsylvania, we bought the house that we could afford. We would have loved to upgrade along the way. In a community where the average house size is over 3,000 square feet, our 1,400 square foot townhouse seemed tiny at times. And it was cramped.
It is that crampedness that we now recognize has contributed to one thing that many families don’t experience: we shared our lives together. We were always in the same space. Our girl’s rooms were too small for them to retreat for long periods of time. Although the basement room has attempted to be a play room, and a “man cave”, at different times, it was too dark to be anything in reality. Again, it was a retreat, but it wasn’t a place that invited long stretches of hiding.
Because we were together in our small house, we learned to talk. We learned to disagree. We learned to accommodate one another. We learned to listen to the same music (U2, Switchfoot, and more recently, Mumford and Sons). We learned to watch the same TV shows (Lost was our all-time favorite, and, honestly, I wasn’t good at tolerating Disney Channel shows.)
In part because our house is small, I believe that my children know their parents, and their parents know them, in a way that isn’t common among families.
2. Dinner was essential
In building off of our family’s closeness, dinner was essential. With rare exceptions, we ate together no matter how crazy life got.
I once talked to a man who bragged that his family was so busy that they hadn’t had a meal together at home in weeks. My heart broke. They ate a lot of fast food on the run from soccer to church, and to whatever else they were doing. They never talked as a family. Their dialog was almost always planning the next steps in their day, or giving instructions. “You pick the kids up after Karate. I’ll get them from youth group.” “Johnny, hurry up and grab your water bottle. We’re late for tutoring.”
In our family, we had great conversations. Moriah shares my sense of humor. Elie loves to tell stories. Stefanie is quiet most of the time, but when she jumps into the joking, the whole table comes alive. Caspian (our dog) knows where to go, and that our dinner means his is coming soon.
One of the best parts of having dinner together regularly is the special way we break from the rule. We call those “every sandwich for himself” nights. Somehow those have become just as special and just as relational; often, with everyone standing around the kitchen island.
Dinner was a time where we learned about one another. It was also a time that we could naturally apply Christian instruction. It was at dinner when Stefanie explained to the girls the difference between being truly popular (having friends who care for you) and being infamous (demanding the attention of many). Elie came to call the infamous girls the FTWA (future trophy wives of America).
3. Guiding helps, but let them make their own choices
We didn’t pick our children’s friends. That would have been too hard. We tried at times, but those ended up being the wrong friends to pick. We didn’t pick, but we guided.
We didn’t pick our children’s activities. I thought Elie would have been a great cross country runner. I’d hoped that Moriah would have stuck with Lacrosse into high school. Elie chose to play the oboe in the orchestra. Moriah chose to sing in the choir. Moriah was a leader in her youth group and was often a babysitter for children with special needs. Elie volunteered at the hospital.
Those experiences, and the skills and friends that they made through those experiences will last them for a life time. Stefanie and I learned to love classical music. Moriah developed a sense of empathy, strength as a quiet leader, and joy even when people test her. Elie has a big group of some of the most loving friends. She learned to counsel them through conflict, and to allow others to lead (which isn’t her first inclination).
We didn’t pick their friends or their activities, but we guided them as they chose. I’m glad they chose the friends they did, and what they chose to do.
4. Achievements are best under-celebrated
We are celebrating the achievement of graduating high school this week, but we don’t always celebrate achievement in big ways. Playing hard in a soccer game even when the game was lost was just as valuable as scoring a goal. Moriah once gave up 5 goals in one game as the goalie. We celebrated it because there were almost 20 shots at her that day and she stuck with it. No other girl would play that position because it was too emotionally hard.
We celebrated achievement, but we celebrated in understated ways. Pomp and circumstance never really made one a hero.
5. Experience is undervalued
The experiences we had together were underrated. We never did the same vacation twice. We experienced different places. We took our kids on mission trips so they could see how other people lived and understood religion. I can still remember Moriah’s eyes in the Norte Dame. I remember her different reaction when she and I returned on Good Friday. She understood the irony of the most solemn service in the Catholic calendar happening in the midst of tourists buying all kinds of cheap keepsakes. Priestly chants were overwhelmed by the cha-chinging of the cash registers.
Experiences are underrated, even when they lead to two broken arms. Elie asked as we drove away from the hospital, “Are you sorry we did this [vacation to the dude ranch]?” “No. Experience cannot come without risk. But I’m glad you weren’t hurt worse.” I replied.
We’ve enjoyed seeing our daughters grow into wonderful young women. While we’ve had these successes, we have also made mistakes. In my next post, I’ll share 3 things that we wish we could have done more.