“Train a child in the way they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it.”
The other day I was audience to some mighty parenting. Sitting on the beach looking over Lake Superior just north of Bayfield, Wisconsin, I watched as a mother gave very important and direct instruction to her two children. She was clear. She was consistent. She insisted that their actions had consequences. In my early parenting days, these were all lessons I had been told were important in nurturing and helping a child to become independent and to grow in a healthy way. It was amazing to see this in action.
This parenting I observed was not happening between two children and their parent on the beach. Instead, this clear and instructive behavior was shown to me by a mother merganzer and her two, furry little young ones. I first noticed them swimming along as they rode on her back in the frigid, blue water. The mother’s fancy, furry head looked like a hat worn at the Kentucky derby, all pointed, reddish spikes of feathers sticking out like a crown. The two young ones did not yet have any distinctive markings but instead were just two balls of cuteness going along for the ride.
That is until Mom rose up just enough out of the water, wings wide, to send the two little ones splashing into the water. On their own. She never looked back but kept right on with her measured, slow movement along the water’s surface. One of the little birds hugged the edge of the pier keeping its body as close to something solid as it could. The other one clearly was having none of this independence stuff. It jumped right back onto Mom’s back. She swan just a few inches and then ‘boom’ up she rose again sending the little one back into the water. On its own. For another go at the individuated life.
This parenting dance went on for some time as I looked on. At one point both little birds scooted….that’s the only way to describe it….across the top of the water and landed on their parent’s back once again. I think they thought they were home-free. But within a few minutes, the mother bird had risen up and dumped them back into the water for another go at growing up.
Over on the beach I watched as two human parents played with their children on the beach. The parents were trying to lure their children into the cold waters of the lake. First, the father ran in and submerged himself to his chest as the little girl and boy cheered. Then the mother did the same. Both parents tried to coax the children from the beach. The young girl waded out to get her feet wet but was not charmed by the frigid water. The little boy wanted desperately to try the water, to do what dad had done, but its expanse seemed to frighten him.
This growing up, this parenting is not for the faint of heart. Whether human or animal, being present to the growing up of another is work filled with both the deepest joy and the rawest pain. Some who are new to the world want to hold on to older hands for as long as possible. Others cannot let go soon enough. But the role of parent, or that of soul friend, often means flapping wings and sending the other from the nest so they can become their truest self. It is the way of the world. It is the way of Creation.
School will soon be starting and parents will put children on buses driven by folks they barely know but must trust. Middle schoolers will walk into hallways that seem longer and more intimidating than those they knew last year in their younger selves. High school students will begin to sense a new found independence and the unveiling of future possibilities. Those headed to college will take steps both frightening and full of excitement.
As it all happens, someplace a parent is moving into the shadows knowing their work is done. At least for this leg of the journey.