August 23, 2007 | Commentary on Family and Marriage
My husband and I held each other and cried more than I think we have in nearly 22 years of marriage.
We left our son Nick alone in his dorm room far from home after nurturing and loving him for 18 years. Our little boy is now a tall, responsible young man facing life on his own. Yes, it's what good parents everywhere dream of and want for their kids -- to become independent adults who fly from our arms into a world where they can make their own mark. But still, the tears come -- for me, mainly because I now know from painful personal experience that there is a certain brevity to childhood. Those wild and wonderful days have vanished forever.
I thank God for the five years we home-schooled, for the opportunity I had to work from a home office, and for the fact that my husband has always put family ahead of work. I'm grateful for the nights I said prayers with Nick and tucked him into bed, for the hours spent helping with homework, listening to teenage rants, attending endless track meets and for watching him learn from his mistakes. Basically, I'm thankful for every second I spent with my boy. It's still difficult to see him go.
It doesn't help a bit that we went through this just one year ago when we left our first son, Drew, at college. In fact, this time is worse -- there are now two empty beds and two sons whose laughter I won't hear around the house anymore. Nick and Drew's childish antics and boyhood ways are gone. What remains are the memories and one precious 15-year-old daughter who is probably a bit nervous about all the attention she will be getting. (It's kind of funny, in a sad sort of way.) I've promised myself that I will continue to give her the gradually increasing amount of freedom teens need -- but I've also vowed anew that I won't let modern society dictate what that means.
It's all too easy to let the modern culture blind us to the importance of spending time with our children. But it's crucial that we make that time -- not merely so we can fashion some pleasant memories, but so we can raise our kids to soar above the toxic culture that I detail in my book, Home Invasion, and to become the men and women God intends for them to be.
Most parents work hard to provide their children with the necessities and plenty of other "things." My goodness, the average American child has more gadgets, toys and disposal income than any generation in history. But it's critical that you stop and reflect on what might be missing in their lives -- the most important physical "thing" to their development: you.
This isn't mere sentiment talking. It's a matter of social science. Study after study, many of which are published in peer-reviewed journals and catalogued on familyfacts.org, show why parental time makes a huge difference in the lives of our sons and daughters.
Take something as simple as the family dinner. Sure, it's nice, but who on Earth has time? The bottom line is, if you want to help your children avoid a host of problems, you will make time. In our household, even when three teenagers were living at home, we would designate nights when we would eat together and tell our kids, "Your friends are welcome to join us." This firm but inclusive directive made for many now treasured evenings when we bonded with our children and their friends. I know in my mother's heart that the time, laughs and discussions had a powerful impact on all of them. And the data supports my hunch: One study from the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found a connection between "frequent family dinners" and lower rates of teen smoking, drinking and drug use. Specifically:
"Compared with teens who frequently had dinner with their families, (five nights or more per week) those who had dinner with their families only two nights per week or less were twice as likely to be involved in substance abuse. They were 2.5 times as likely to smoke cigarettes, more than 1.5 times as likely to drink alcohol, and nearly three times as likely to try marijuana."
Just your "being there" also helps your children. A comprehensive study, drawing on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, notes that "teenagers were less likely to experience emotional distress if their parents were in the home when they awoke, when they came home from school, at dinnertime, and when they went to bed, if they engaged in activities with their parents, and if their parents had high expectations regarding their academic performance."
It makes sense when you think about it. After all, if you are available for and nearby your children, even if you don't "do" anything in the conventional sense of the word, your presence sends the undeniable message: "I care about you enough to be here."
Another study, published in the journal Family Relations, certainly caught my maternal eye. It noted that children who succeed in school tend to have mothers "who frequently talk and listen to them." Fathers, too, make quite a difference. Here's how familyfacts.org sums up a study on the impact of dads that ran in the Journal of Marriage and the Family: "Compared to peers with less paternal attention, children whose fathers spent leisure time, shared meals, helped with homework or reading, and engaged in other home activities with them have significantly higher levels of academic performance."
Mom and Dad, you are vital. The culture won't tell you that, but the facts, your gut and your kids' lives testify to your power. Your opportunity to enjoy the little munchkins and to shape the gangly teens will disappear before your eyes. Take it from a mom who knows.