Back when E, my youngest son, was much younger, there was one song that was guaranteed to make him cry, anytime. It was Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle.
He didn’t like it at all, because,
“The dad and his son never got together, Mommy. That’s so sad.”
Awww. Poor dear.
The song, however, does the opposite for me.
Every time I hear it, I stop short and think about my boys, and how fast they’re growing. And while the hours seem to pass by so slowly, the years feel like they’re flying by, and the song gives me an excuse to pause and indulge in a bit of a cry.
I have heard some people say quality time is the best thing a parent can give a child.
Sometimes I don’t know if that’s true.
I agree quality can be more desirable than quantity, but can quality stand alone?
My family loves to talk about past trips we’ve taken together.
Sometimes I scroll down my social media accounts to look at old pictures, and then I use those as conversation starters.
Niagara Falls, 2011. Our first trip to Canada, and we laugh about that lion that won’t get off the road at the African Lion Safari in Ontario. Or that emu that kept peering into the car, wanting a bite of E’s crackers.
Sometimes something random reminds one of the boys of a special moment.
We’re eating sushi. Flashback to Prince Edward Island, 2013. One son would remember going fishing for mackerel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And then the other will remind us of how cold the water was when they went clamming.
We see water. Flashback to Outer Banks, in North Carolina, during any one of the many trips we’ve taken there. Shrimping, crabbing, ice cream after the beach, kayaking, and climbing up the dunes.
E sees a box of ice cream cones. Flashback to Nashville, 2013. He reminds his father of the time his dad took a bite out of the boy’s ice cream cone, and it fell on the ground.
My ankle hurts. Flashback to our first camping trip, in Baltimore, and how I twisted my ankle while rushing to get the perfect shot of a fly fisherman against a calm river.
It’s a hot day. Flashback to any one of our trips to the Philippines. Getting spoiled rotten, coconut juice, Purefoods hotdogs, the beach, the mall, pet dogs, Jungle Juice, and hours spent playing with their cousins. And then there was that time there was a blackout, and E was alone on the third floor of their grandparents’ house with C, their cousin. And although it was pitch-black, C guided E down the stairs safely.
Those conversations always lead to our next trip, our next activity, or our next big moment. And we talk about what we’d like to do, take a vote on places we must visit, and new food we need to try.
We save up, we plan and we anticipate.
Or we decide, spur of the moment, to go on a hike, or try out a new restaurant we’ve heard about, or drive a bit further and stay overnight somewhere.
Or we wake up late, the boys jump in our bed and we stay there all morning playing card games and watching movies. We have pizza delivered and then the boys go down to the basement to play video games while their parents nap.
We’re big on quality time, and we have the stories and pictures to prove it.
In parenting, however, I sometimes wonder if we’re short-changing our children, and ourselves, when we put too much emphasis on quality time and not enough on ordinary time.
The way I see it, parents are supposed to prepare their children for the road ahead. This means imparting enough knowledge and wisdom, which can only be done by spending enough time together to allow the lessons to sink in, at least halfway through.
The truth is, there are just some things you can only learn about a person if you spend enough time together. So, if my sons only get to experience me with my best foot forward, how will they ever learn to deal with life past vacation time?
Making use of ordinary time.
Telling E he can’t wear velcro shoes forever, and then sitting down and teaching him how to make bunny ears with his shoelaces and then tie them together.
Teaching J, our oldest son, the letter A, what it looks and sounds like, and how to write it on a piece of paper. And then doing it twenty-five more times, with the rest of the alphabet.
Hanging around my boys as they play together, close enough so they can easily include me in their conversations if they want to.
The hubby and J rearranging the furniture, arguing the whole time and yet ganging up on me when I tell them I don’t like the changes.
The hubby sitting on E’s bed and watching him clean up his room, supervising when the boy hates being supervised.
The hubby teaching J how to do the laundry, and pointing out spots the boy missed while vacuuming.
[I suppose one can say working together is still quality time. But if one or the other isn’t enjoying it, I’m pretty sure they won’t consider it as such. I know I don’t.]
Maybe making time to do life together is just as important as quality time. The good times make memories we treasure, and the more mundane ones shape our character and our future.
I’m a better mother because of all the time I spent teaching, and learning from, my charges. And I think our sons will be better human beings than us, just because they have seen their parents in all sorts of situations, good and bad, and have learned from us what works, and what never to do.
Like, they know it’s always better to stop for directions, because their dad sometimes won’t, and we’ve gotten lost. A lot.
They know what seems to be a bad thing—like getting lost, can turn out to be fun, when someone changes the mood with a joke and ends with a song.
They learned it’s okay to laugh at yourself, because we do it all the time.
They know they can’t trust everyone, because we tell them the truth and won’t sugarcoat things.
They know they better eat what’s on their plate, because I don’t care that it doesn’t taste like anything. I’ll just pass them the fish sauce.
They know friends can be like family, because we have friends that are like family.
They know having too much of a good thing is never a good thing, because they hear us whine about gaining weight and watch us struggle on the elliptical.
They know doing things they don’t like can be necessary, because I drive them where they need to go even when I don’t want to.
They know they will have to work hard for their own families, because they see their dad do it, and they know they can do it too.
They know our faith isn’t a set of rules, but a relationship, because they see us struggle with God, and they can tell when we’re faking it and when we’re being real.
Again, quality time is awesome. We all live for them. But, if I’m really honest, real quality time is also pretty rare, compared to how many hours there are in a day. Real quality time is special, but the minutes in between can be long and tiresome.
And, while we always aim for quality time, it doesn’t always happen.
Life, however, goes on.
The hours come, expecting to be filled. But not for always.
So quality or mundane, maybe all we’re asked to do is to make full use of the time we’re given, whether we’re on a beach somewhere and everyone is having a good time, or we’re seated around the breakfast table, arguing over how to solve a Math equation that looks more like some secret code from outer space.