What John Mellencamp has to teach parents
Thrills aren’t just for kids.
Little ditty about Jack and Diane. Two American kids growin’ up in the heartland. John Mellencamp’s popular song makes me uneasy. Whenever it comes on the radio as I’m making the bed or driving the kids to school, I stop and listen. And the refrain that comes shortly after that famous beginning always startles me. Makes me swallow hard. Makes me bite my lip and check to see if it is true for me yet.
Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.
Part of me wants to believe there is no truth to the lyric at all—that life gets more exciting the older you get, with the golden years—not the teenage ones—topping out as the best. But another part of me hears the reality in these lines. There is something unequivocally thrilling about being young.
I saw it in my own children when they were little. My son, Liam, at 4, actually started to bounce when he was offered sprinkles on his vanilla ice cream cone, and Jacob, 7, would yowl in delight at the announcement of a family walk to the park. Children’s developmental changes between birth and young adulthood mean that every year they’re doing things they’ve never done before, whether it’s riding a two‑wheeler or catching a football or kissing someone for the first time.
And even if they’ve had ice cream with sprinkles or walks to the park before, they’ve surely not had them hundreds of times. They’re in their first round of these little treats. And that’s why it’s thrilling.
Parents have the privilege of some vicarious thrills. Listening to Jacob read his first book, beginning to end, fell into the “thrilling” category for me, as did being present at his college graduation, 15 years later. Anyone with a toddler knows the oddly victorious feeling that comes from witnessing the first tinkle on the potty. My husband and I rarely miss one of our high school daughters’ volleyball games because every hit and block carries a jolt of excitement.
While experiencing secondhand thrills through my children is undoubtedly one of the sweetest parts of parenting, Mellencamp’s song reminds me I need to be careful not to allow these secondhand thrills to become my only thrills. My husband and I need to have thrills that are ours alone. And in the midst of young adult transitions and teenage angst, it can seem like personal thrills come few and far between.
One reason that childhood and adolescence are arguably more thrilling than adulthood is that children are not allowed to stay in one place for long. First grade is replaced by second and JV becomes varsity. The average adult job does not include a study abroad option. Change is a regular part of the life of a child or teen, and change automatically brings challenge. And thrills.
Adults don’t have the luxury of someone else moving us along. Whether we stay in a job that’s comfortable, but too easy, is our own decision. The ruts we often fall into—cooking the same spaghetti recipe every Monday, sticking with the same hobbies or exercise plan, even praying the same way we’ve always prayed—are ours to keep if we choose. While no one would allow a child to remain in kindergarten a few years because she doesn’t want to replace finger painting with reading and math, few question an adult’s choice of comfort over challenge. But the decision not to change or challenge ourselves is what makes the lyric of this song come true.
When our children were young, we had a magic marker sign, made by Jacob, taped to our pantry door. It said, “Holy Spirit, help us to be brave, strong friends of Jesus.” It’s decorated with three crosses, a couple stars, and yellow zigzags.
That sign became a prayer to me as well as a challenge. It’s also the closest thing I had to a rebuttal to Mellencamp’s refrain. By definition, you couldn’t be either strong or brave if you weren’t doing something difficult. And conquering the difficult is always thrilling.
Jacob’s carefully drawn words of “Help us to be brave, strong friends of Jesus” reminded Bill and me that living as a Christian should be thrilling, because Jesus’ way is different from what is easy and ordinary. The sign taught me, as a young mother, that during those times when I wondered if the thrills were fading, I needed to delve deeper into what bravery and strength meant in terms of Christianity.
I know a couple who, in their early 30s, left stable jobs and took their two young children to Tanzania for a couple years of volunteer work. Another couple I know—with five children—regularly opens their home to women and their children who need a hot meal or a temporary place to stay. The “thrill of living” is certainly not gone for these two families.
Our own decision, made in our early 30s, to become foster parents to the two daughters we eventually adopted was a response to the spirit behind that sign. The years that have followed, with their joys and profound challenges, have required that Bill and I pray for both the courage and the strength that Jacob penned as a second grader. Our daughters’ volleyball games, whether won or lost, are thrilling in part because we understand that the deep normalacy of high school volleyball is not something to be taken for granted. In the next five years, as our girls hopefully move onto college and their own independent lives, Bill and I will need to look at other spirit-led challenges.
Every thrill starts with fear. The thrilling moment comes when we break through that fear—the moment we decide “I’m terrified, but I’m going forward anyway.”
And when this decision to go forward despite fear is applied to following the teachings of Jesus—to loving others, to standing up for justice, to serving the poor—we become both brave and strong. We become people alive with the thrill of gospel living.
This article also appears in the December 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 12, pages 43–44).
Image: Eunice Stahl on Unsplash