I had the extreme pleasure of taking my son out to eat yesterday for his birthday. He’d be turning 20 in just a few days, and it had been a long time since we had hung out or even had a long conversation. A very long time for us especially, because we’d always kept in touch and spent time together.
But here we are, sitting across from each other laughing and talking about life, coming of age and the challenges of adulthood. And he’s telling me things that are blowing my mind and making me laugh all at the same time. You’ll understand why later.
Right now though, let’s go back in time about a year or so to another dinner date I had with my son. He was 19 or approaching 19, I think. So he was at that stage I think many teens go through as they reach adulthood. It’s like they suddenly have this “ah-ha moment” when they turn 18 where they realize “hey, I’m legally an adult now! I don’t have to listen to anything you say!!”
My youngest son had always been head-strong and a bit rebellious anyway. So when he started to approach adulthood it was like he literally reached out, grabbed some invisible “volume of life” dial and turned it up to 10.
Suddenly he was doing all kinds of things we’d always taught our children not to do. To see your children stray from the things you’ve always taught them is a pain you can’t understand until you have some of your own. But he was “out there”, and the more we tried to talk to him it seemed the worst things got; and our relationship was growing distant because of it.
So this meal I was about to have with him with him wasn’t all pleasure. I was meeting up with him to really have a father-son conversation with him about things, and frankly I was a bit worried about it. Nothing his mom and I were saying seemed to be reaching him so far.
So I asked God to guide me and give me the right things to say to him. Something that would reach him. Often, for me at least, a prayer is just a thought expressed in my head as I’m going about my day. It’s not usually a big ceremonial “lay prostrate and wail” thing. So honestly, by the time we hooked up for dinner I’d all but forgotten I had even prayed that prayer.
So we’re out having a meal, and I started talking about the issues in his life. I’ve always had a good relationship with my boys as far as communication goes, because I’ve always made it a point to really listen to them. To try to understand and, at least on some level, to validate their side and what they’re feeling. Only then would I seek to offer advice, and even then it was always my desire to offer it from a place of love and wisdom as a parent; not from a place of reprimanding, condescending anger-type stuff.
But honestly, once a teen-ager reaches that “this is my life and you can’t tell me what to do” stage, sometimes the more you “preach at them” (because that’s how they tend to take it no matter how you mean it) the more they rebel and repel away from you.
The conversation kinda went in that direction as we started talking about his mom and I, all the things we were trying to tell him about the things he was doing and how they would adversely affect his life.
He was expressing to me in no uncertain terms how much he hated hearing it all the time. Just listening to his opinion of it all and how it made him feel made me really understand for the first time how differently we as parents see this whole thing vs how teens see it. We see it as giving advice that will help our children avoid making terrible mistakes that could negatively impact their entire lives. They see it as trying to control their lives.
So we’re sitting across the table from each other, now doing more talking and less eating as the conversation got heavier. And I’m looking for some kind of way to help him to see that we’re trying to HELP him, so he doesn’t resent it so much.
During a moment of rather awkward silence I looked at him and said “Let me ask you something. And this is hypothetical, because it really can’t happen in real life. But go along with me.” He agreed.
“Imagine a version of yourself from the future came to visit you. Like, it’s actually you, from 30 years into the future.” Imagine this 50 year old you showed up one day and said he had come here from the future to tell you all the mistakes you’re going to make, how they’re going to impact your life and what you need to do to avoid them.”
I paused for a second so he could think about it. “What would you do?”, I asked. “Would you be angry at your future self for interfering and trying to control your life and keep you from making your own decisions, or would you be on the edge of your seat, listening to everything he said?”
He looked down for a minute and back up to me; “I mean if I could talk to a future version of myself of course I’d listen to him.” I looked him in the eye and told him “That’s exactly what’s happening when your parents give you advice. You have to understand son, when we’re telling you things about life and what you should and shouldn’t do, we’re really giving you advice from the future”, I continued.
“You’re 19 years old right now”, I explained. “But I was 19 thirty years ago man. Now, of course I’m not YOU. And a lot has changed in 30 years. There’s different technology, different music, lots of stuff has changed. But some things never change, and everything you’re going through right now your parents already went through years ago. Maybe not the exact same scenario but very similar situations.”
I went on to give him several examples of things he was feeling and wanting right then that I felt and wanted when I was his age. Things that were popular then among teens and young adults that are still popular now. Things I did when I was young. Advice from my parents that I didn’t follow and later regretted.
“You have to stop seeing everything we say to you as criticism and wanting to control you or run your life. You ARE legally an adult now. But you still don’t really know anything about being one, because you don’t have any experience being one”. I continued, “There are a LOT of really bad mistakes you can make at this age that could alter the path of your life. But you have no idea because you haven’t been there so you really can’t make sound decisions about a lot of stuff because you don’t have the experience yet.”
He continued to listen respectfully. “Up until you’re 18 our job is to make those decisions for you, to protect you. You really have no say in the matter because we’re responsible for your welfare. Once you get a certain age though, the role of your parents changes from being guardians and protectors to advisors.” He listened quietly.
“Everything you’re wanting, thinking, doing, all that; I did 30 years ago. So when your parents try to give you advice about things like this you really do need to see it as advice from the future. It’s meant to help you avoid negative consequences that you can’t see right now, but we already know about because we went through it already. Advice from your parents really is advice from the future”.
We continued talking a while and I listened to him talk about his perception of his life and current state. Everywhere I could though, I gave him examples of very similar situations where I’d felt the same 30 years ago when I was his age.
Looking back on that dinner conversation over a year ago I don’t think I realized that what I said had been God-inspired. I was just glad I thought of something that he seemed to connect to on some level.
But now I’m sitting across another table talking to my son a year later. And now he’s just days away from turning 20 years old. He’s in a much better place now, and really feeling good about it. Things are on track for him and he’s grateful. His perception of his life has changed. His priorities are more in order. He knows it and he’s feeling good.
I’m listening intently to him, and smiling the whole time. Because now he’s telling me about several of his friends who are going through many of the same things he was feeling a year ago and contemplating making many of the decisions he wanted to make back then. Only now he sees it all completely differently. Funny how clearly you can see the fallacy of a position when it’s someone else and not you.
So he’s sitting here going on about the conversations he’s been having with them and how he has been trying to make them see the mistakes they’re making; quoting me almost verbatim at times. I laughed and said to him “Man, everything you’re saying to them is exactly what your mom and I were trying to say to you, and you hated us for it.
“The last time you and I got together for a meal,” I reminded him, “was what, about a year ago? I told you all the same stuff back then that you’re trying to tell your friends now. It’s advice from the future, just like it was when I gave it to you”.