Does Parenting Ever End?

Last weekend, I was with a couple of women friends on a retreat – actually it was a slumber party – at a cabin in Northern Minnesota. During conversation that weekend, there were several opportunities to reflect on parenting experiences, current and past. I was reminded of this speech that I delivered in May of 2000, at the time of our daughter, Anna’s graduation from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Dale and I were invited to share comments from a parents’ perspective at the banquet preceding the graduation ceremony. I have decided to share it here, with only slight revision.

Way back in September, 1996, when Anna was a first year student, I participated in a parent’s panel, answering questions and giving my perspective to other first year parents. I theoretically had some knowledge and experience to share because our son, Bryan, was senior that year. I know I didn’t have much wisdom. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I do remember encouraging parents to subscribe to the Manitou Messenger, the school newspaper, so that they would have some idea of what was going on on campus. And I remember telling the assembled audience about a wonderful pamphlet that we received when Bryan was a first year, Distances, Discoveries and Homecomings: Prayers for Parents of College Students. I had found it immeasurably reassuring throughout my college parent career.

The pamphlet kindly reminded me that, “We never stop being parents or bearing parental concerns. The relationship to our daughter or son is permanent, irreversible. The stages of parental concern coincide with the steps of a child’s education. Kindergarten is the first departure from the intimacy of family and the exposure to new influences. A series of graduations advance the level of intellectual challenge and personal responsibility. Finally, college forces a drastically new independence requiring decisions which are associated with many critical life choices. Parental concern escalates through these successive stages even though at each step parental responsibility diminishes.” Wise words.

From childhood through young adulthood, we essentially walk on what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “a tightrope between freedom and limits, trust and distrust, between activity and stillness; between junk and substance; between connection and separation.” We arrive at each new stage together, though not always on the same page. It is a challenging and worthwhile balancing act!

I have heard the college years at St. Olaf described succinctly as 4 years of preparation for life and service. Each student follows a path – prescribed in part by requirements of the college and the majors they have chosen – but uniquely individual because each student is unique. Graduation marks the celebration of the end of the educational foundation of life built from kindergarten through college. However, the word “commencement” means beginning. It is not the end we celebrate, it is the beginning of a new course in life.

A wise man was once asked, “What is the secret to success?” The wise man answered, “Two words, Good Decisions.” “How do you make good decision?’ he was asked. “One word,” he answered, “Experience.” “How do you get the experience?” he was asked. “Two words,” was the answer, “Bad Decisions!”

No matter what the obstacles or challenges, we all aspire to keep building on our foundation. If we have anything valuable to contribute to the world it will come through the expression of our own personality – that single spark of divinity that sets us each off and makes us different from every other living creature.

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