Originally published as a column in CFJC Today and Armchair Mayor News on March 27, 2017. 

For two days in a row last week I drove my oldest son to Harper Mountain. He had two ski passes left from a bunch he got for Christmas. I relish the time with each of my sons alone. There is chatting to be had, silence too, there are things I remember and think about long after.

Most of all, there is the reminder that what counts most as children grow up is being present. Going through the moves of parenting teaches you a thing or two about what being present really means; it teaches both humbleness and gratefulness at once. I get reminded often that we stray from both only to return with more of each.

Over the last year I have amassed a solid collection of comments about how challenging life with a teenager must be. And with a budding one coming close behind. They are 14 and 10. Every time I take a moment to ponder but the same answer comes out ‘No, not really. There are occasional bumps but it’s a good ride.’

On our second day on the way to the mountain, the radio was humming in the background, and we were chatting driving along. A story on the radio caught our attention. We both stopped talking and listened instead. A man was telling the heart wrenching story of his growing up.

It involved abuse, addictions and three little boys aged three, four and five, left to fend for themselves for weeks. There was living in foster homes, temporarily living in the grandparents’ home, facing racism because of their Indigenous heritage from their mother’s side, though the three kids were never told the details of their heritage. There was anger and loneliness.

He started using drugs and alcohol as a teenager. The only place where he did not have to face any realities, the place where he did not have to search aimlessly for what he did not seem to be able to find.

My son and I both listened. The man talked about becoming heavily addicted to crack cocaine and how overpowering that was. How overwhelming the high he was after, how misleading, and inescapable and deadly. He became homeless and living on the dark side of life for ten more years, his will only centered around figuring out how to feed his addiction.

The gap that opened closed without swallowing him up though.

Nowadays, Jesse Thistle knows that he is a Metis-Cree from Saskatchewan, and he is pursuing a doctorate at York University. He is the receiver of many an academic accolade. His focus, unsurprisingly, is homelessness, Indigenous history, mainly intergenerational trauma, social work including addiction studies.

My son and I had plenty to talk about once the story was wrapped up. Fentanyl overdoses news abound lately; questions without answers for now. Listening to Jesse’s story shed yet more light on why this is such a tough issue to solve.

We can roll out numbers and outline the dangers for our children, yet as many of us know, curiosity, peer pressure (or both), bullying and abuse of any kind, loneliness and the sad reality of not knowing where to turn for safe space, that can lead many astray. Listening to someone’s life story outlines all of that.

That’s where parents come in, or significant adults that have the privilege to be in children’s lives. There is no script for any of this, which sends us scrambling looking for ideas and solutions. We jump in with both feet and figure out how to stay afloat as we go, after life dunks you a few times for good measure. That is all part of being human and being present as a parent.

Most of all, being there where our children are, listening to them, not judging, and not lecturing but simply doing our best to forge a bond that can withhold challenges ahead… I choose that as my saving parenting grace. Parenting and grace rarely waltz together, but building trust need not call for graciousness but for honesty. If you carry your heart on your sleeve, your children will too. I choose to believe that.

It’s no wonder they call parenting the hardest job in the world. It calls for guts at times when you feel like an empty vessel, save for the butterflies that flutter within. Yet that is where it’s at. The vulnerable space where we have to do our best to listen, share our own fears and stories and encourage our children to grow by listening too, understanding that their worthiness will never come from an outside source. As we have to realize that our children’s choice of positive ways in life will not come from our policing their every move and raising them with fear, but from building trust.

There are many difficult issues parents face today, including drug use, internet-related perils and all that lurks in the space that parents and children most often don’t venture in together. The scary stuff. Yet listening to people telling their stories of getting lost and, if lucky, found, of needing to have a space to find themselves safely in, renews my belief that children today need us more than ever to provide that. If we don’t, someone else may offer but the illusion of shelter as a lure. That is scary.

Yet the chat about the tough stuff does not start when kids turn 14. It starts when they are two and snuggled against you reading their favourite story again and again. It goes on as they turn ten and you find time to snuggle still and read together, making time to talk about all the things you encounter in the books you discover together. There is a lot of life in there.

As it happens, the books they read by themselves later on, and the life stories they come upon, some as real and scary as can be, they will come and reach out to you and share them too. They are often not looking for solutions, but for confirmation that there is a place where they are welcome, where they are heard and listened to.

Parenting is never be about building walls and having surveillance of all kinds in place. It’s about making sure that the big wide world our children trek through will have an oasis here and there when they need it, and enough islands for them to swim to and rest on when the water they find themselves in tosses them every which way. Because it will. Life has it that way. No promises of perfect form, but plenty of opportunities to make the journey worthwhile.