06/08/2010 11:58 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Live Like Your Kids Are Watching

My son and I are in the Goleta gas station an hour and a half into our drive to San Francisco to look at colleges, and the car decides not to start. I try it again, and it apparently still thinks it's a good idea to pretend it has a dead battery or some such thing. We wait a few minutes and it resolutely holds its ground: not starting.

So here we are, one of those parenting moments where I get to either act worried and upset ("It's already late--I'm too tired to fold this drama into the end of a long day!") or roll with it and handle the unexpected in a way that yet again shows my son a saner path to take when plans go awry.

We try and try--the car almost turns over and then announces (via electronics) that there's a key prevent issue and to try again. Trying again does nothing, a jump start does nothing, a friendly guy who messes with fuses does nothing, and basically nothing does nothing. We sit. We call a towing company. We call friends who rally with advice and offers to come get us. We make jokes. We eat. Most importantly, we just roll with it and remember that life is good, even if we have to get towed and drive home and miss our trip.

It's in these real-life moments that I most fully understand how it is our children learn about dealing with life's inevitable challenges. All of us find it easy to espouse wise counsel when things are going well; it's much harder when we get thrown a curve ball in real space and time. But the truth is, the way we handle the curve balls matters most. Because the truth is, we aren't raising children; we're raising adults.

I want my son to have a fantastic life. And as much as a good education and a wide repertoire of life and people skills are important, as I sat in the car for two and a half hours with my just-turned-18-year old boy, I saw yet again that what may count the most is his ability to enjoy each moment of life, even when it doesn't look the way he thought it was supposed to.

We sat, we snacked, we listened to music, and of course periodically tried to start the car, which continue to adamantly believe it should stay right there. Finally, the tow truck driver arrived. He squatted beside me as I sat in the driver's seat to show him what the car was doing. I turned the key and...the car started.


Having discovered there was a Volvo dealer down the street from our destination, we hit the road, a little like Bonnie and Clyde--determined to drive straight through without turning off the car, with the wind in our hair and a new spring in our step (figuratively). We had fantastic conversation in the wee hours of the night, listening to interesting things on the radio, playing each other music, talking, and being quietly alone with our thoughts. We had a blast, spurred by our gratitude that we could make the trip after all, and the new-found awareness of how cool that was--where just hours earlier we'd taken it all for granted.

Who knows the mysteries of these things. My left brain understands that it was an intermittent problem with the ignition antenna that Volvo fixed the next day. The rest of me believes it was a gift--a chance to have a little adventure with my son, and to yet again do my best to show him that it's not the events outside of us that determine our happiness, but what we do with them.

We both agreed that this was one of the best trips we'd taken, and I think that had a lot to do with the two and a half hours in that gas station.

Another reminder to live like our kids are watching. Because they are.