We’ve had these talks every week for more than 20 years. But this is our last.
Children who have been topics of both light-hearted and serious discussions are adults now. We made it through potty-training, visits to the doctor’s office, refusal to stay in bed, refusal to eat. Now these children are grown up, and so are we.
When Beverly Mills Gyllenhaal, a college friend from the Journalism School at the University of North Carolina, launched Parent to Parent in newspapers on Mother’s Day 1990, our sons were babies. We were both journalists, married to other journalists, living in south Florida.
I took over the column in 1998 as Beverly pursued writing another column, Desperation Dinners, and three cookbooks. Between the two of us, we researched and wrote more than 1,100 parenting columns over nearly 24 years, boiling down complex topics into 675 words a week. Our mantras: Trust your instincts. Use common sense. You’re not alone in this journey called parenting.
Over the years, the real experts proved to be you. And your children.
Information-gathering in the first decade or so of the column took much more than the click of a mouse. But when there was no email, no Internet, no Facebook and no smartphones, readers actually communicated more deeply. They hand-wrote or typed letters and mailed them to us. They also called in and recorded comments on an answering machine. We dutifully listened and scrawled down the questions, answers and tips from all over the U.S. and Canada, then sought professional expertise with legal pads and pens in hand.
“Excellent parenting involves availing yourself of information and advice that others have, then using what you know about your child,” said one of my favorite child-development experts, Cheryl Wolfe – a lecturer for the Gesell Institute of Human Development – at a workshop years ago. “Let these little ones unfold the way they are meant to unfold. Through perseverance, patience and love, we begin to discover who they really are.”
What worries me now: We’re going too fast to discover much of anything. Too much chatter, but not much listening. Tone of voice, facial expression and common sense are lost in the instant-information shuffle. Comments online elicit an alarming level of rage, even on seemingly innocuous topics. There are no filters. The advice “think before you speak” is out of date. Now, it’s “think before you photograph yourself in your underwear and send it out on Instagram.”
On the brighter side, a great joy was hearing that my column was clipped out and posted on fridges and school bulletin boards, or passed along by a mom hoping her “son and daughter-in-law would get the message.” A happy moment: One of my preschoolers in Davidson recognized my face in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and shouted about it at circle time.
“The wisdom of preschoolers” has always been my favorite topic. Through the eyes of a child, every leaf, every acorn, every rock is a discovery. There are no weeds, only flowers. Some of my favorite bits of preschool wisdom: Some parents take showers together “even when they are not in a hurry.” “Money grows inside ATM machines.” “If you’re alone in the woods, call 911.” A caterpillar turns into a “raccoon,” goes to “sweep,” then becomes a butterfly.
And a Christmastime discovery from my then 4-year-old son, who is now 24 and a software programmer: “Mary gets to be Mary in the Christmas pageant. Isn’t that great? She doesn’t have to change her name.”
The last call into my “toll-free hotline” was from a man in California, who said a holiday column of mine earlier this month helped him remember making peanut-butter fudge with his grandmother. “Thank you for that memory,” he told my voicemail. I thought, for the last time as a parenting columnist, “You’re welcome, and thanks for calling.”
Keep talking amongst yourselves, face to face. I’ll still be listening.