“The way home
This is always the way home
So you can rip that map to shreds, my dear.
This is not the love you’ve had before
This is something else.
This is not the same as other days
This is something else.”
-Snow Patrol, Life on Earth
My daughter’s school recently requested baby pictures for the fifth-grade graduation party. I went through the digital photo albums and got lost for a bit—celebrating … remembering … rejoicing … and pausing.
The photo I stopped on the longest was from her preschool graduation.
I can still remember how emotional I became seeing her standing proudly on stage in her pint-size cap and gown. I blamed my tears on the songs the cherubic graduates sang about growing up and going to kindergarten—but the truth is, those were tears of relief. Just months before Avery’s graduation, I’d woken up to the fact that I was missing my life—and with it, a chance to truly know my child.
I cried tears of gratitude that day knowing there was a pretty good chance I would truly know that girl when it came time for her to walk across the stage for her high school graduation.
I’ve spent the last seven years of Avery’s life getting to know her, and God willing, I intend to spend the next seven years doing that and more. Yes, to know your children is to love them, but that love can be taken even further. How we respond when our children show us who they are can help them find their purpose, changing the trajectory of their lives.
Let me explain what I’ve discovered:
About my child, I know …
She likes her privacy when she changes clothes.
I no longer say, “What’s the big deal?” I respect her boundaries.
And when I do, I see peace on her face.
About my child, I know …
She has a very low tolerance to pain.
I no longer say, “Shake it off.” I empathize; I give her time.
And when I do, I see peace on her face.
About my child, I know …
She is hesitant to try new things.
I no longer push her. I offer patience and belief.
And when I do, I see peace.
As I’ve come to know these important details about my eleven-year-old child, I’ve learned what responses empower her, rather than hinder her. Accepting responses to who she is at her core result in peace. I’ve seen it on her face. What I could not see — until just recently — was the peace developing beneath the skin.
317 days ago, Avery became a vegetarian. The decision happened suddenly. One minute she was playing with Ghost crabs at the beach, and the next, she was practically running from an extended family gathering at a restaurant.
As plates of meat were set down around her, the color drained from her face. Avery leaned over and requested I go with her to the restroom. Once we rounded the corner, she grabbed my hand tightly. With pleading eyes, she said, “I want to be a vegetarian, Mom.”
I did not know what to say or what to do, but that didn’t matter.
Avery knew herself.
Over the past 317 days, Avery has been committed to this humane lifestyle and makes choices that feel right in her heart. She patiently answers questions from other kids and is quite content eating alternatives to meat.
Last weekend, Avery called me over the computer. She’d been researching inhuman practices on factory farms. I thought it for was a school project. She explained that someone had belittled her at a birthday party as she ate her chickpea patty from home while the rest of the girls ate chicken nuggets.
“Why do that?” the child had asked flippantly. “The chickens are going to get killed anyway.”
Avery knew in her heart that her choice to abstain from meat was making a difference, but she wanted facts to support that belief.
I hurried to the kitchen to get the little book my older daughter Natalie bought for Avery for Christmas. I’d read Stuff Every Vegetarian Should Know over spring break in an effort to support Avery’s vegetarian lifestyle.
I knew exactly which page Avery needed to hear. I opened to the most powerful page – a page that is shaping my own eating choices since I read the book three weeks ago. It reads:
“One person’s choice to go veg saves more than an animal a day—over 350 animals a year, of which at least 25 will be land animals such as cows pig, goats, and chickens … If you stop eating meat at age 20 and keep at it, you will have saved over 1,000 land animals.” –Katherine MCGuire
As I read the powerful statistics to Avery, I saw that unmistakable look of peace. This information confirmed exactly what she felt in her heart.
I don’t think it was any coincidence that a few hours later, she said, “I think I am ready to get my new hamster.”
It had been over a month of mourning the unexpected death of her hamster Mochi and going into pet stores “just to look.”
Avery’s response to every hamster she saw was the same, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
When she decided she was ready, we went back to one of the first pet stores we had visited. The same cute baby hamsters were still there. Avery had planned on getting a Syrian hamster like Mochi, but these two Teddy Bear hamsters had beautiful coats and sweet faces.
Avery asked the store employee if she could see the brown one. The man hastily got the hamster out and ended up dropping her on the floor.
Judging by the height of the man, I cringed. I knew how dangerous it was for hamsters to fall even a few inches, let alone multiple feet! I looked at Avery’s face and it was colorless, much like the night she decided to become a vegetarian.
The salesperson was flustered and embarrassed; he quickly pointed to another hamster for Avery to consider.
“I will take her,” Avery said pointing to the stunned little brown and white hamster. “I want that one,” she repeated.
The man looked to me questioningly.
“She knows,” I said.
Avery looked up and smiled at me with relief, that distinct look of peace settling on her face.
Unlike her hamster previous hamster, Kukui (named after the Hawaiian nut) is timid and does not like to be picked up (we certainly can’t blame her for that!). Avery spends time talking to her, singing to her, and gently petting her back.
Kukui is the first thing Avery thinks about in the morning and the first thing she cares for when she comes home from school. She takes her job of cleaning, feeding, and nurturing very seriously.
“Will you come and watch Kukui with me?” Avery said the other night.
My answer was yes, knowing such invitations are opportunities to know my daughter more.
“Look Mom,” she said pointing to Kukui’s ear. “See the black fur on her ear? It’s in the shape of a heart.”
“I see the heart!” I said excitedly. That’s when my eyes shifted from the hamster to the girl who advocates for animals, befriends elderly people, and strums her guitar with a voice made to bring healing and hope.
At last, I could see beneath the peace on her face to the peace in her core—and what I saw was purpose.
To know who you are
And why you are on this earth
Can change the trajectory of a person’s life.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, Stanford’s senior associate dean for religious life, describes purpose as an “internal compass” that serves both the self and the larger community. It points a person to the places “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” quoting from theologian Frederick Buechner. (source)
As I watch Avery’s strong sense of self form before my eyes, I think purpose could very well be the antidote for the feelings of anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and unfulfillment that are at crisis levels for today’s youth.
William Damon, Stanford School of Education professor and psychologist, has spent years studying the results of youth being driven beyond healthy limits by the demands they feel from parents, schools, and the college admissions process. In a riveting article in Palo Alto Weekly, he shares this belief: “It is a sense of purpose – intrinsic, sustaining and noble – that is missing in the majority of today’s youth, causing many of them to drift and founder.” Damon believes parents and school administrators should focus more on addressing lack of purpose, and not just its by-product, stress.
“The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness,” states Damon.
Today’s youth are pointed toward a narrow path to success, one that is often defined for them and has little to do with their inclinations and interests. “Working hard for something they didn’t choose themselves, and don’t believe in, is counterproductive to long- term health and fulfillment. It is simply not sustainable. A purposeful life, by contrast, can unleash tremendous energy, creativity, exhilaration and a deep satisfaction with efforts and accomplishments,” Damon states.
Thankfully, everyone is capable of finding purpose. Senior Pastor Dave Howell confirms its availability to all in this three-element definition: “unique gifts each individual has to offer, the responsibility to share those gifts with the world, and the joy to be found in doing that.” (source)
There has been an increasing number of concerned parents approaching me after my speaking events. They’ve noticed the light is fading from their children’s eyes. They say their kids are unmotivated, stressed out, depressed, and some are even engaging in self harm. My first question is: Do they have a place of refuge? A place where they are free to be themselves, doing something that brings them true joy and inner peace?
Now I know.
And you can too.
We can guide our children toward a life of meaning and purpose by getting to know them and responding to what we learn in supportive and accepting ways. It might look or sound like this:
A Parent’s Purpose-Building Pledge:
I know it is demoralizing to try to be someone you are not, therefore this is my pledge to you:
I will not steer you towards my interests, but let you find your own.
I will let you test the waters and try new things.
I will be willing to explore what interests you without judgement or shame.
I will stop evaluating your activities based on how they will look on a resume or college application.
If an activity or new interest is not working out, I will not rush in to fix it; I will simply listen and let you be the problem solver.
I will remember your journey is your own, not a time to live out my unfulfilled dreams through you.
My child, you don’t have to hide who you really are to please me.
I love you for who you are today,
and I will continue to love you as you become who you are meant to be.
Your journey is your own;
I will support you every step of the way.
© Rachel Macy Stafford 2018
My friends, let’s make every effort we can to know our children. And when they show us who they are, let’s lean in.
This is the path to self-acceptance …
So they can hear their calling, even when the world tries to drown it out.
So they are courageous in what they stand for, even when the world tries to push them down.
So they possess an unshakable sense of peace, even when the world is unstable.
“I will know it when I see it,” Avery says because she knows herself.
I can’t help but feel excited about who she’ll be when she walks across the high school graduation stage seven years from now.
I can just picture it—my curly-haired Noticer of Life brightening the whole auditorium with her contagious smile.
I’ll lean over to the person next to me and whisper, “I know her. I know every good, true, and honorable thing about her, and she’s going to leave her mark – in the shape of a heart – on the world.”
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