In Defense of Parents
Parenting is hard. Trust me, I have been a parent for 24 years. I have three children, and I am always worried about at least one of them. I imagine that my 85-year-old parents still worry about me.
I would like to start my talk today with a story about a student who attended school in 1904 when this campus was a boarding school for boys called Morristown School. It is a story about a student named Christopher McConnell and a difficult parenting decision made by his father, who was the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue and Sixty-Sixth Street in Manhattan, where the family lived.
The story unfolds as follows:
After recess at Morristown School for Boys, eleven-year-old Christopher McConnell, who was not even three feet tall, wandered away from Whippany Road and disappeared. Since he had been homesick, the other students figured that he had gone on a solitary exploring expedition. They didn't realize he was missing until roll call at dinner that night.
Morristown School Headmaster Woodman sent out search parties comprised of older boys and local farmers who knew the countryside. They searched all night through the woods and farmland that surrounded this campus in 1904, but Christopher McConnell was nowhere to be found.
The next morning they sent out new search parties, and this time they went to nearby towns and villages to get a clue about Christopher's whereabouts. Nothing.
When Dr. McConnell, the boy's father, was later interviewed, he said: "I knew it would be all right. I supposed he had started home." And Dr. McConnell was right.
Christopher had decided he would walk home to Madison Avenue and Sixty-sixth Street in Manhattan. He walked through Summit, Short Hills, and Orange and over the Jersey Meadows to Hoboken. It took him all night, but he got there by mid morning.
When asked why he ran away, Christopher explained:
"I just didn't like to stay there, so yesterday I thought it was about time to come home again, where everybody loves me. I went walkin' with some of the boys yesterday afternoon, and I thought that was a good time, so I went into the woods and walked all the way home. I walked along the line of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, and the trains looked pretty.
"Some of the boys were talkin' about a bear yesterday, but I wasn't afraid. I just got sleepy and my feet got soar. I only had five cents, and I invested in a loaf of bread. I got pretty hungry. The thing that worried me the most was how to get across the river.
"I reached Hoboken when the sun was coming up, and I walked right through the station and got onto the boat. That may have been dishonest, but I did not steal any rides on any freight trains."
When asked whether or not he would take his son back to school, Dr. McConnell seemed surprised: "Of course I am," he replied. "He will probably go back tomorrow. I will talk with him for a little while, and then maybe he'll feel more like going back. Oh, I won't say a great deal to him. I'll just talk to him and try to show him where he is in the wrong."
I find this story fascinating on many levels. Clearly the fact that this happened over 100 years ago changes the narrative considerably. Today, we would have had search parties out, and with our ability to communicate, his picture would have been sent through the cyber world – texted and tweeted to every police department in the area.
The landscape has also changed considerably. As I drove to Jersey City two weeks ago to hop on the ferry that would take us across to the Freedom Tower, it was hard to imagine a boy walking that distance alone. I don't think that any of you would consider walking as your mode of transportation to NYC.
But what really struck me was that, although the times have changed, the sentiments of the child and the challenges of the parent have not. Christopher was homesick and decided to go "where he was loved." The father's reaction, which could not have been easy, was to do what he felt was best for his son, which was to send him back to school.
So today I want to get you to think a bit about what your parents do for you, how hard they try to give you the knowledge, the experiences, and the training to know how to navigate this complex world.
We parents have no crystal ball to know for sure how our parenting choices, decisions and guidelines will shape your adult lives. One thing that I know for sure, though, is that the choices your parents make for you are always with your best interest in mind. It may not always feel that way to you. It is natural for you to push back against us, that is a process you must go through to discover who you are and what you think. It is part of what it means to become an adult, but your push back can be...wearing, and I hope you can balance the push back with moments where you acknowledge to your parents their effort to make your lives the best they can be.
Recently I was speaking with some seniors in college, who in a few weeks will be graduating. I asked them what they appreciate most about what their parents did for them in middle school or high school in terms of making them do things they did not want to do or not letting them do things they wanted to do.
Interestingly, a startling number of college students reported that the thing they were made to do that infuriated them the most is now the skill or experience or ability that they take the most pride in.
One girl described how her parents always made her go to church every weekend. They would never ever skip. During college, this girl had the option not to attend church, but she never misses church. She finds it a grounding way to begin her week. A boy described his parents as ruling with an iron fist in the way they enforced manners. He said they were probably strictest with his little sister, and, interestingly, now she has become the family enforcer of proper etiquette. Another girl said that as soon as she could get working papers at the age of 14, her parents required her to get a job. In retrospect, this girl greatly values the skills and work ethic she developed through these jobs even though originally she had resisted the idea.
So as we head into the summer I hope that you will reflect for a moment on the role that your parents play in your lives. Seniors, as you leave home and embark on your college careers, don't forget your parents even if the advice that they can't resist giving you may be annoying. Allow them to participate, in some way, in your college experience. One sign of growing up is the ability and willingness to consider a given situation from a different perspective. The next time a parent makes a decision that angers you, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. I promise you that their decision, as difficult as it may be, is made because they love you even more deeply than you can possibly imagine.