published Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Kennedy: Note to parents: Put yourselves in time out

On a weeklong family vacation earlier this month, I put myself in time-out.

Normally, my family lives in the suburban spin cycle. We work, eat, play and sleep in a continuous loop. Daily life becomes a blur.

While on vacation, I purposely walked more slowly, talked more softly and watched my children more closely. For my wife and me, today completes our first decade as a parents. It seems like a good time to pay attention.

Both of our sons have October birthdays: Our younger son turned 5 years old last week, and our older son turns 10 years old Halloween day. I sense that important, irreversible changes are happening in both boys, and I can begin to see the contours of their true personalities.

You experienced parents know what I mean.

My younger son is going through a fear phase. Whenever we used a public restroom on our vacation, he would plant himself in the main doorway, creating chaos with other people trying to get in and out.

"He's afraid the doors will lock behind him," my wife finally explained to me.

At the risk of overthinking this, it seems clear to me that the "door locking" phobia is a projection of a 5-year-old's fear of entering middle-childhood and facing the sweet mysteries of kindergarten. As the time draws closer, he must feel like his escape routes are being blocked.

Evolution and neuroscience, two ingredients of common sense, are telling our 5-year-old to follow his older brother's lead, which he does with energy. He won't choose vanilla or chocolate ice cream, for instance, until his brother weighs in.

Meanwhile, my older son, who's turning 10, is beginning to enter that scary tunnel called the "tween years." As much as his little brother wants to attach to him, my older son needs more space, more independence.

I watched with fascination on vacation as my older son immersed himself in shopping, first for native crafts in the Bahamas and later for trinkets at Disney World.

In Nassau, he bought a carved mask and model ship, narrowing down thousands of choices in a backstreet marketplace to the two items that pleased him most. He also looked at jewelry, a sure sign he is becoming more aware of his appearance. He bought a watch, a leather ID bracelet and a stainless-steel necklace.

Tellingly, he also shopped for a friend for the first time; dutifully keeping her tastes in mind while picking out a beaded bracelet. Then, he sweetly asked his mother for advice on how to deliver the gift. (At this point, I think his Mom melted.)

My favorite moment in the eight-day vacation, though, was when my older son put his head on my shoulder and whispered, "Daddy, thanks for taking us on this vacation."

Ah, gratitude. If I could wish one trait for my boys, that would be it. A child with a grateful heart has unwittingly taken the first baby-step toward someday becoming a loving parent.

When I watch my two boys, my heart feels positively weightless.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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