A Letter to a Generation of Parents (On the Eve of Back-to-School)

To Every Parent on the Brink,

This week my second child will start kindergarten. I think I know how this is going to go.

I’m going to stand on the curb while he funnels through the school doors, swallowed by the chattering horde, a couple of skinny legs topped by a too-big backpack and a head with God knows what swirling around inside of it.

My life won’t flash before my eyes, but almost six years of it will:

I’ll remember all the times I got it right—those first dark-of-the-night rocking chair moments, bedtime book reading rituals, soccer balls in the yard, and the laughter, oh my, the laughter. And I’ll remember every mindless moment I got it wrong—sometimes really wrong, but most of the time just mindlessly wrong.

The haunting strains of a Kate Bush song will shiver right up my spine: “Give me these moments back. Give them back to me.”

Yet, as we engage in this rite of passage, this sending, I don’t think the clenching in our collective parental gut is about the moments behind—I think it’s really about the moments ahead. It’s about handing over our kids to the world and to life. It’s about standing on the curb in the sudden silence after our beloved children have disappeared into the bowels of the school, scanning the empty playground for danger, and feeling completely powerless to protect them.

But, dear Parents, we are not powerless.

Because the wise young people in my therapy office tell me the dangers faced by this rising generation have less to do with the bullies of the playground, and far more to do with the bullies of the heart.

The honest ones tell me they check their texts twenty times in a session because, although they are more connected than ever, they have never felt more alone.

Although they are in more constant contact than ever, a sense of belonging remains more elusive than ever. And they know exactly what’s happening. They know how unseen they feel. They know how desperate they are for an attentive eye. They know how deeply they yearn to be vulnerable and to be truly known.

They are looking for someone—anyone—to look at them. Someone who is willing to look past all the cocksure, iPhone-wielding bravado. Someone who is willing to look upon all their insecurity and awkwardness.

They are looking to us. They are looking at us. They are hoping we will be a mirror for all the beauty they are becoming. And in the absence of our attentive gaze, they will look for counterfeit belonging anywhere they can get it.

The honest ones tell me their generation is addicted to the LCD screen because it’s the only place they can find a compelling story.

They are numb to the story-less monotony of progress—get good grades, find a decent job, advance in your field, put away a bunch of money, and retire as early as possible.

Our kids think we’re missing the whole point of this one-chance life. They think we’ve traded in inspiration for accumulation. They think we’re going to lie on our deathbeds and wish we had earned less and yearned more. They watch a good movie in which the hero resists the siren song of comfort and chooses conflict and faces down his demons and emerges redeemed and purposeful, and they aren’t willing to settle for an apathetic life.

They are waiting.

They are waiting for us to replace the safe-boring stories we are living with stories that mean something. They are waiting for us to risk and to take chances and to become a more beautiful version of ourselves. They are waiting for us to invite them along for the ride.

And, finally, the honest ones tell me they feel like they have been split in two—they have a deep awareness of their humanity and a bottomless sense of their spirituality, and they feel born into a world where the two have been unnaturally divorced.

They are openly acknowledging and wrestling with the gritty reality of what it means to be fully human, messy creatures. They look around at the “carnival of pain,” as my nine year old son calls it, and they are keenly aware of the horror of which humanity is capable.

And yet.

They are also keenly aware of the potential for beauty within themselves, and they are humble enough to acknowledge, “If there’s beauty in me, it must be in everyone else as well.” They have a startling faith in something transcendent. They feel called to something bigger and better and they don’t hesitate to call it all spiritual.

And yet.

They feel like spiritual language has been reserved for pristine things and restricted to certain buildings. They feel like the language of their souls has been hijacked by an obsession with rules and membership and small things rather than big things.

Our kids want us to talk to them about their humanity—all the sweat and blood and tears and weakness and resilience and wounds and healing and scars and everything in between. But they want us to speak in the language of their souls—heart and spirit and grace and redemption and shame and sin and dark and light and love unconditional.

The kids in my therapy office tell me that we parents have an eternal influence over these crises of the heart.

This week, my second child will return from his first day of kindergarten.

And the first thing I’m going to do with him is play—I’m going to taste of the moment with him and we will feed upon it together.

And then I’m going to tell him he belongs,

that he has a place to return to in this world,

that he has a role to play in our little community of family,

that whenever he chooses to make himself visible we will do our broken best to behold him in every bit of his worthiness,

that he is a part of our story,

and that our story is going to be less about accumulating beautiful things and more about becoming beautiful people.

And I will try to listen to the tongue of his heart. I will try to join him in his becoming—both the gritty humanity of it and the budding of his brilliant soul.

With trepidation and anticipation,

A Dad

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.