My daughter, Sally, turns 13 this month and I need to buy her a present. It’s no easy task. Thirteen is the beginning of the era in our life we all look back upon with — well, you know.
She’s taken up interest in the guitar lately. Practices 15 or 20 minutes a day on a borrowed acoustic. It’s not her first hobby. Two of my favorite paintings in the world are framed and hanging in my living room. Friends have sipped wine in front of them, amazed that these canvasses were filled by an 11-year-old.
They seemed almost effortless for her. She was visiting my mother, who had taken up painting again. Mom was in her basement one Sunday afternoon. After looking through some magazines, Sally found a landscape she liked. She grabbed a canvas and, in 90 minutes, immortalized a storm at sea. A few weeks later, she drew a different ocean, this one with a heavily wooded shore.
In typical parent fashion, I went out and bought a set of blank canvasses, paints and brushes for her Christmas present. They sat in her closet for months. Not content to let well enough alone, I left room in the trunk for the canvasses when we went to the beach the next summer. They remain untouched to this day.
I learned an important point: a parent can’t force creativity upon a child. Creativity occurs in spontaneous, inspirational moments orchestrated by God, not man.
As I prepare to purchase this gift, should I steer clear of her latest interest for fear of nipping it in the bud? Or should I show my approval of her exploration no matter where it leads?
I remember when I was 13. I took the bus up to Buckhead and told the manager behind the counter at Rhythm City that I was thinking about taking up the guitar. He just happened to have his old steel-string on the rack for $20.
I learned six or seven chords before selling it to a classmate for $20. Something ventured. Nothing gained … except the knowledge that I have very little natural rhythm — at least none I’m confident enough to broadcast.
My parents said nothing about my musical career. If they had, it might have been even shorter than it was. Maybe it was because I chose not to involve them. Perhaps they feared I might turn into Keith Richards.
Parents want adolescence to be a positive experience. We want to be affirming. Mostly, we want our kids back when they come out on the other side. We hope hobbies or sports will serve as lifelines through the teenage years. For parents, there’s a fine line between caring and control. All too often, we cross that boundary.
My friends have younger children than I do. This summer they looked at me and shook their heads empathetically when I told about taking Sally to Lenox to meet a boy for a movie. She and her friends were calling boys late at night. But it seems that stage has passed — at least for now.
Now I have to buy her a present. Something that could occupy her during these years when the teenage demons — those from within and without — come a callin’. Maybe I’m asking too much. After all, this is just another present. And I am just a parent.
Happy birthday, Sally. Enjoy the guitar. I love you.
– November 2, 1995 column