So it was a little over five years ago, when my oldest daughter was only fifteen, that we ran our first 10K road race together. It was the Tufts 10K race in Boston and even though we’d been running together for years, that race was a biggie. Not only was it the furthest she’d ever run up to that point, but, with over seven thousand people running, it was also the largest and most intimidating race she had ever run. And it was also the day when it finally dawned on me that running may just be the perfect metaphor for parenting.
We ran for one hour and six minutes together, just the two of us (minus the 7,000+ runners running with us). And the whole time, from start to finish, I couldn’t help but notice that running with our kids is so symbolic of how we parent our kids.
Just like everyday life, I found myself reminding her to do the simple things I knew she already knew but didn’t want her to forget. “Did you remember to tie your shoes?” “Double knots, right?” “How about the bathroom…did you go?” “Lemme help you with that timing chip.”
“Remember, pinch the Dixie Cup closed at the water stop.” And also just like the average day-to-day, I was encouraging her to get out there and give her best effort in school or in sports or at work, but I was still one step removed from doing it myself. It was all on her.
That day, I helped Riley pick out what to wear, prepped her on the route, told her when to pull back, and helped her keep her pace. I ran alongside her for 6.2 miles, from Back Bay to Cambridge and back. I screamed with her under the Longfellow Bridge with the thousands of other women runners and pointed out the elites when they ran by us at the turnaround on Memorial Drive. But I couldn’t take one single step for her. With her, yes. For her, no.
And that’s what’s so symbolic about our life as parents. We give our kids a lifetime of training, but on race day it’s all them. We’re coaches and trainers, tutors and mentors, but what our job is really about is just getting them to the start. After that, our real job is mostly being a cheerleader.
I guess we all evolve into pit crews at some point. We watch every race; we show them where the hazards are; and then we fix the broken chassis when they run off course. But once our kids are old enough to do things like go off to school on their own or drive or take a part-time job, they’re the ones who need to be doing all the work.
We all watch our kids on the soccer field or the basketball court or the track, but we’re on the sidelines. We’re onlookers, spectators. And it’s tough for any of us to feel that feeling they get when they’re achieving something first hand. But I came as close as any parent could to feeling it while we ran that day. I got a glimpse.
I felt her pride and sense of accomplishment and determination. And I saw that we can take our kids only so far before we have to (and we really do have to) let them take the wheel. It doesn’t mean we have to get out of the car; it just means we have to move over and let them drive.
I’ve got a pretty active family, so we’ve done a lot together over the years. Typical stuff like bike, ski, snowboard, hike. But few of the things we’ve done together has left a mark on me as much as running that race together. That day was epic. And I feel grateful we had that moment together. She knew I was there if she needed me. But she didn’t, which is secretly what we all really want. Or, I think, what we should want.
We do our best as parents to give our kids the skills to survive and thrive on their own, but at the end of the day, it’s on them.
For us, the endgame is for them to follow in our footsteps in the beginning and then veer off on their own path. That’s when the new goal becomes having them pace us.