Parenting: Leading children through life's jungle

As kids grow up, they begin to navigate life without the help of Mom and Dad.

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My family used to live in a house that had several overgrown lilac bushes running along its north side, bushes that had been there for probably a hundred or so years, their trunks gray and gnarled, their purple blossoms impossibly fragrant as they filled the summer air.

During the spring and summer, those lilac bushes became known as the "jungle" since, to our son Joe's young eyes, they were as green, overgrown, and endless as any plot of land running along the Amazon might be. My husband Mark and I enjoyed the jungle, too, especially since it was conveniently located next to the front steps, where we could sit, drink a cup of coffee, and keep an eye on our little explorer.

Every so often, Mark ventured into the jungle along with Joe. Joe was always thrilled when his dad joined him. "Follow me," he'd suggest, waving a dimpled hand as he led the way to the back of the jungle, where things really got exciting. (He'd hidden a plastic bucket and shovel there.)

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One day, Mark and Joe began to build a small, very primitive playhouse in the jungle. Mark let Joe do the planning while he took orders. The two of them rearranged twigs, branches, and leaves until they were both satisfied. Sitting down on a log that doubled as a sofa, Joe stretched his legs out and sighed. "Oh, Daddy," he said. "I so happy."

That was many years ago. We moved away from the house with the conveniently located jungle, and our intrepid explorer is in high school now, discovering new territories, along with a different kind of jungle or two every so often.

To my mind, one of the hardest facts I've been forced to accept about being a parent is that we're no longer completely able to elicit statements like "I so happy" from our children, no matter how much we long to. Somewhere between baby teeth and adolescence the responsibility for finding happiness becomes something people have to do for themselves.

We can try to buy happiness for our children with purchases ranging from toys to video games to flat-screen television sets. We can attempt to cheer them up, make them smile, even coerce a laugh or two. Sometimes we achieve our goal. Many times – especially as they get older – we don't.

Throughout my journey as a mom during the past decade and a half – and especially since our oldest son became a teenager – I've occasionally wondered why parenthood seems to become more difficult with each passing birthday. Not worse, but definitely harder.

At first I wondered if any and all angst in our household might be due to the double whammy of hormones – ours on the decline and the boys' on the increase. But I've come to realize that isn't it.

I believe that if our children's jungles stayed small, close to the house, and easily navigated, they'd never learn how to use a compass on their own. And that's the goal of most parents – to make sure their offspring can figure out how to get out of any jungle they might find themselves in someday.

So we force ourselves to sit back, bite our tongues, and wait as they figure out the difference between north, south, east, and west, as well as which direction they really want to go. We try to be there to help them up if they fall, and we clap more loudly than anyone else when they soar. Most of all, we let them know that we're not going anywhere. We can't lead them through the jungle anymore, but we can always offer the use of our machete.

It's never easy to watch your child struggle as he makes his way through the world. But it's so very rewarding to watch when children do reach a goal, when they get their diplomas, ace an interview, or even handle failures with grace. Such occasions make a mom think to herself, "I so happy, too."

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