My common response to: when will he sleep over, a question directed at me by everyone from my family to my hairdresser years ago.
I’ve been separated and ultimately divorced for the better part of 12 years now. When my son was a couple of months old, his mom and I had to decide whether to raise him in a family where mom and dad were genial to each other, or in a situation where he can see the full extent of loving adult relationships. I’m glad that we chose the latter. The decision, although unpopular initially among our families, has provided my son with a much more vast life experience, albeit, in a less than popular circumstance.
Back to the burning question. It seems many were quite interested in why my son, at 10 years old back then, had not slept over. The answer, simply, was that he was not emotionally ready. Not that there was a lack of effort. We planned a camping trip, went out to buy camping gear and toys; on the surface, he seemed excited, but at some point, he must have done a gut check and I received a call saying “Daddy, I really wanted to go, but I think I changed my mind.” That was a turning point in my parenting career.
I knew when he first said yes, he was being genuine, but when it came to it, he realized he was not ready to spend night-time away from his mom. I could have responded to this situation in many ways: disappointment (I was disappointed), anger, resentment, yet I chose understanding. I did not want him to have a negative trip experience just to make me feel better. We let it go. This taught me a great deal about him and, in the end, about myself. He and I made a special connection that day, one of trust and support.
I’ve invited him to stay over during Christmas time and his birthday, always with a tone of you know you can stay whenever you like. He has shyly declined; I never made him feel bad about it, never a sore point. Then, a few Christmases ago, after an evening of opening gifts and frivolity, I casually mentioned to him, as I was driving him home, “You know it would have been nice to keep playing and not have to come home early”. He surprised me with his response: “Daddy, I would have stayed over.”
I knew this was a big step for him, so I took care not to seem so surprised or relieved, thereby making the moment awkward. I smiled and let him know we was always welcome. We agreed that next time would be an overnight visit. Since that drive, he has stayed over often. It’s added a special element to our relationship. I am most pleased that it all happened organically and when he was comfortable; it made the experience so much more rewarding for the both of us.
This is a departure from my parents’ generation. I’ve chosen a different style of parenting for my son. When I was a kid, my parents would feel satisfied providing me a home, sustenance and an education. I want to go beyond the basic safety needs for my son.
I believe our children require and deserve more sophisticated parenting today; one that concentrates on emotional intelligence and growth (significant character strengths for the leaders of the future, by the way). I rarely dictate anything to him unequivocally. I often give him a choice and explain the consequences of each choice. For instance, we visit Wal-Mart and I tell him that we have $5 to spend today, how do you choose to spend it? He then chooses and possibly makes a mistake; I am fond of him making mistakes, particularly while I am there to support him. His errors in judgement are then well-earned, thoughtful and can be leveraged in his future decision-making. I shy away from do it because I say so; I will not always be there to say so.
My parents where experts at this particular method, mostly because they were too busy making a life for us, getting us an education, not really checking in to make sure we were okay; that’s why, when they were not around, I would do the exact opposite, most times to my detriment. You see, my goal was always to impress my parents, oftentimes falling short and feeling not great about myself. I did this until finally I found myself rebelling and realizing I could never live up to their expectations.
I grew up with personal hang ups and rarely enjoying my personal victories. I want my son to experience both sides; feel the defeats and enjoy the victories, knowing that he can’t disappoint me and I’ll love him regardless. This will give him the confidence and the tools to succeed in his life.
I teach him that, in life, there is rarely one right way to do things, very seldom are things binary. I want him to think about his actions and not follow conventions blindly. I often ask him why certain things are they way they are, and if he doesn’t know, I challenge him to be creative and think it through; I rarely accept “I dunno” as an answer. It’s this type of critical thinking that will help him better understand his place in the world. It may help him become a leader (not a follower) and make better, more thoughtful decisions during those critical years before he becomes an adult and then after in his career.
All this goes through my head when someone asks me is he sleeping over yet? I feel like saying “That is the least of my thoughts!”
By Mauricio Bonifaz