I have a girlfriend who has a lake house just over an hour away. It’s in a small town that has a local Mexican restaurant with a fun, easy-going staff that feels like they have to be family. There have been times over the last few years that something about that casual, bright restaurant with its rowdy waiters and surprisingly outstanding, cheap food makes me feel so content. The small lake town is not that far from home, but it feels far enough away to be unavailable to my responsibilities and have a tiny piece of that vacation vibe (without the anxiety that comes from missed work, coordinating kids’ schedules, airports, and financial stress).
The loud conversations just start flowing. The catching up, the teasing, the inside jokes, and eventually the sharing get real. I value those escapes, and we all have places and friends or family members that bring that feeling.
It’s in those moments we find perspective—we realize our problems are not actually as insurmountable as they feel and that many of us are fighting the same or similar challenges and difficulties. In those moments of connection, we can laugh about the same things that when alone, especially in the dark of night, keep us awake with racing heartbeats and feelings of dread. It’s incredible what those moments do for our minds, our faith, our hearts, and our outlook on reality. It’s as if the distractions that plague us are clarified as we talk, laugh, and relate.
As parents, we are bombarded with stories about a mounting mental health crisis among our children. We hear and read the numbers of rising suicides and suicide attempts, depression, unparalleled anxiety, and hear the alarms of social workers, counselors, and therapists desperate for answers. What happened? Is it social media? Is it the phones? Perhaps, but I have another thought to add.
We are told as parents to model the behavior we want to see from our children. So we work hard. We follow rules. We budget our money. We keep our homes and yards clean. We eat healthy and try to work out. However, if the frequently cited antidote for depression and mental health issues is not as much about living a success-oriented, organized, and good life but more about connections, community, and relationships—are we perhaps demonstrating values where we prioritize clean cars and impressive careers over nights at Mexican restaurants laughing with our friends?
Do our children understand, by our modeled behaviors, that going for a walk with someone you love, meeting your brother to watch a game, or volunteering your time with your neighbors for whatever the cause may be absolutely must be prioritized over–God forbid–cleaning your room? Or can we take it a step further and say finishing that history paper? Can we encourage them to prioritize being there for a friend who needs them over getting the lawn they promised to mow taken care of or finishing that last email? And therein is the question: Do we?
Or, are many of us setting a daily example of a constant stream of distractions—be it immersing ourselves in a quest for perfectionism in our homes, endlessly listening to rage-filled news pundits telling us what to think, falling into the trap of constant comparisons to our peers, obsessing over our youth and appearance or demanding success at all costs—instead of engaging in real life, real people, real relationships, and the greater, broader world around us?
Responsibility is an important value to instill in a child. We need to raise children who work to get their assignments in, contribute to their households, and strive toward their goals. But as so many of us have become trapped in the cycle of work, success, keeping up, managing our homes, maintaining perfectly decorated bathrooms, skincare routines, Excel spreadsheets, accessorizing our whole lives, meal planning, and buying into the notion we have to do all the things and do them well that we may have forgotten to show our children that actually, none of that really matters if you’re barely hanging on, alone and so anxious your stomach hurts. Or perhaps turning to alcohol, mindless TikTok or YouTube reels, or finding other toxic ways to hide from pain or self-medicate or otherwise distract and rob ourselves of the opportunity to work through insecurities and fears. And work through them with the people we care about. And connect to something, someone, and be a part of a world beyond ourselves and our own heads. The question I can’t stop asking is are we doing the same things we’re being told our children are doing, dangerously?
So I’m telling my kids about ditching my responsibilities, sometimes saying “forget about it,” and focusing on that connection with my friends, loved ones, community, and most of all . . . them.
Because I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t the key we, as parents and as role models are missing. We’re so focused on success, our supposed responsibilities (dictated by whom?), and a constant barrage of angry news, unattainable lifestyles, and arbitrary demands distracting us that we aren’t paying attention to the values we are instilling in a generation that is crying out for a relaxed evening in a Mexican restaurant swapping stories with their friends and the opportunity to step outside of their own heads and their own lives.