In seven short months, my oldest son, Ethan, will leave for college at Rutgers University here in New Jersey. As all you parents out there know, these eighteen years have been a wild ride and I am filled with all sorts of mixed emotions when I think of this next stage which brings the concept of “independent” to a whole new level. We are now miles and miles away from the other little independent milestones like cups without lids, big boy underpants and being home alone without a baby sitter. It is easy to be nostalgic about a past gone by but I am also so excited for his future and am fascinated by all the ideas he is creating about who he wants to become. Sometimes it’s hard to believe this person came right out of my own body.
One of the things that young people, in particular, experience is the shoulds. Adults around them have been serving them shoulds for as long as they can remember… You should say excuse me, you should sit down and be quiet, you should make your handwriting neater, you should get better grades, you should be nicer to your brother, you should do more around the house, you should get a job, you should, you should, you should. Should comes into play when we want to affect the behaviors of those around us. A lot of this is just how a civilized society is created and, with parenting, ensures that your kids don’t go out into the world acting as if they were raised by wolves. Sometimes it’s about making others more like us, but often it is just about trying to make others more like we want them–and, perhaps us– to be.
And, then there are the other shoulds. These are really in the realm of giving unsolicited advice… you should audition for that show, you should get a haircut before that interview, you should read this book, you should look at college x,y,z, you should be a science major, blah, blah, blah. I’ve actually come to believe that giving advice is probably just part of human nature. In my own life, I have often found it annoying and, as an artist, because I put myself out there rather publicly all the time, I tend to get a lot of unsolicited advice from people about what they feel I should do with my work. It’s easy to be put off and jaded about this when it’s happening and to think, yeah, like they know what I should be doing with my work! Ironically, however, it was after several years of hearing people say you should illustrate a children’s book that I did just that. And, well, that’s kind of one of the things that I do now! So, while it can often feel annoying receiving unsolicited advice from people who don’t know diddly squat about who we are, sometimes these shoulds can deliver powerful insights into the parts of us that maybe we can’t always see for ourselves.
But, I think there is a bad reputation that comes from being someone who gives advice and to tell you the truth, I’m not actually sure how often I do it but I’ve tried to become more aware of it over the last few years, especially with my children. I do know that I am often asked for advice–from them and from other people– but I’ve found that being asked for advice changes the dynamic of the should… often turning it to a could. Being asked makes me more thoughtful, makes me ask more questions about the other and their situation. Sometimes being asked for advice makes me not really want to give it and, instead, encourages me to put it back onto the other person who can likely find the answer through more self-introspection. Could you find an alternative? Could you think about how to relax? Could you believe that things might be going in just the right direction?
Yesterday afternoon, Ethan and I skied together at Shawnee Mountain in the Poconos. As we rode one of the lifts up, we had one of those poignant, short, little conversations that spring up between us and our children from time to time.
It was cold and quiet and snowing and we were just sitting there floating up the mountain and he said, “You know, maybe I should have studied more. Maybe if I had, I would have gotten into a better school. But, you know, I wouldn’t trade what I did. Because I had a good time and I ended up right where I want to be.”
And, there it is. Eighteen years. Just like that.
TRY THIS WEEK: Notice the shoulds in your life.