When your kids are your teachers

I’ve had many great teachers in my life. You could say it’s where I’ve been most fortunate. Mr. Coleman, my English teacher when I was fourteen, saw the writer in me, and his confidence bore fruit. H.W.L. Poonja, a retired army officer I met in India, pointed me back to my essence with a ferocity that could not be denied. It shaped the rest of my life. My wife, Chameli, trusts deeply in my capacity to love, and she brings it forth.

My greatest teacher in the last weeks has been my fifteen year old son, whose wisdom far outshines anything I’ve been able to give him. He’s in his first year at high school.

Everything seemed to be going fairly well till a couple of months ago. I had given him a fairly loose rein… until I discovered that he was behind on homework, was close to failing a couple of classes, and had started consuming things that I’d say he’s not ready for. He started to bring friends home who struck me as prime examples of “not the right influence.” He had an accident, caused more by foolishness than bad luck,  and ended up in the hospital with a broken bone.

When all of this came to light, the field marshall arose from out of my psyche. “You’re grounded,” I announced. “You go to school, you come home, you do your homework, and that’s it. No more parties. No more hanging out in town. No more going over to friend’s houses.  Not for quite a while.” With the litany of chaos he knew he’d created, he wasn’t  in the mood to argue. “Ok,” he said limply, and went back to his room.

After a few weeks, his hand was healing up, his grades were not great, but certainly improving, and his attitude was, well, pretty good. His was emptying the dishwasher, cooking dinner, and seeking out ways to be helpful.

“Dad,” he said one day. “Can I go to a friend’s house now and stay the night?” I asked who it was, and sure enough, they were on my “not a good influence” list.

“No,” I said, “You need to get your life fully back on track before you can do that.”

He looked at me, not with anger or resentment, but with a clarity that I couldn’t really deny. “I’ve really been working hard on starting new,” he said. “I’ve been doing my homework, staying focused.  But you have to see me with fresh eyes, Dad. If you’re always going to see me through the filter of what I did wrong in the past, you’ll never give me a chance to start over.”

He had a point. I knew he was right. And darn it, he knew that I knew he was right. “Ok,” I said. “We’ll give it a try.”

He messed up one more time after that, in a small way, but he came clean about it right away. “It takes time to change all your habits,” he said. “You have to be patient.”

Again I knew he was right. And he knew that I knew he was right.

Then came the big test. A close friend of his was having a birthday party. The parents had gone out of town and left her the house. Go figure.  “EVERYBODY is going,” he told me. I guessed that all kinds of illegal temptations would be available. “I want you to trust me, Dad. I want you to give me a chance and trust me to make good chooses.”

The field marshal was in a firm no. I knew it was a gamble, and perhaps a foolish one, but finally I said ok. He wanted to spend the night, but I told him that was just going too far.

We picked up a bunch of his friends (yes, all in the “not a good influence” category) and I dropped them off at the party around eight.

When I picked them up at midnight, the entire neighborhood was throbbing with music. There must have been a hundred and fifty kids spilling out of every door and window. The entire area smelled of illegality. Shuba and his friends were waiting at the top of the driveway for me. As they piled in, I could the bloodshot eyes in the rear mirror, and I could hear the slurred speech. Except for Shuba, who sat up front with me. He looked across and grinned. His eyes and his speech were clear. “Ok Dad?” he said. The subscript was loud and clear. “You see? You can trust me.”

After we dropped his friends off, I asked him, “So, did you drink anything?”

“Nope!” he said in a “I told you so” sort of way.

“Did you smoke any weed?”

“Nope!” he said again.

Since that day, Shuba’s taken consistent pride in proving me wrong. He’s been delivering his homework, he got a job, and now he’s chosen to take two weeks of summer school to retake one of the classes he failed.

I’ve been studying Chi Kung since I was in my twenties.  It’s a Chinese system for circulating energy through the body, done through a series of standing exercises. One of the things I learned is how you can work with a partner to make them strong or weak. Ask your partner to roll their tongue back to the roof of their mouth, for example, and they become stronger using a simple muscle test. Shift the posture so it’s aligned with gravity, and strength increases. But I also learned that you can cause another person to become strong or weak simply by the way you look at them. If you feel your partner as weak, and test their muscle strength, they become weak. See your partner as strong, trustworthy, and reliable, and their muscle strength increases.

So this the story of how my fifteen year old son has become my teacher. If you want your teenager to do well at school, keep off drugs, and develop good habits, I’ve learned  a few things.  Get heavy and inflict punishment, and you create resistance and lying.  If you can see your kid as trustworthy, even when the evidence is to the contrary, they will prove you right.

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