How I Time-Travel to Parent My Adult Son

Once a year I record a brutally honest conversation for my little boy. Here’s why that’s psychologically healthy for both of us.,


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A couple of months ago, as I do every year, I had an hourlong conversation with my 20-something son. Which might seem strange, since the kid is currently only 5.

Did I invent a time machine? Tap into a micro-wormhole of some kind? Nope, I used an audio recorder. It’s something I started doing a few years back after the morbid realization that if I was hit by a bus or fell off a cliff, my son would have only the dimmest memories of his dad.

And even if I do live to see my boy become a man, I won’t be the same me anymore. This current, slightly panicked version of me will certainly die. It has also become clear that I get progressively less interesting as I age. In my youth I climbed mountains and hitchhiked in Southeast Asia. These days I work at a desk and worry about how much the plumber will cost.

So, every year around his birthday, I talk to the 22-year-old version of my son for about an hour. And I am honest — brutally honest — which is the only way this works. I tell him my fears, my prejudices and my hopes for him. I just talk like he’s a buddy. I laugh, gush and tell weird stories.

Aside from being a little free therapy for myself, it turns out this odd tradition might also be good for my son. It may be that when I’m ready to give him these recordings in, say, 15 years or so, they will provide comfort during a tricky stage in his development.

“This is such a beautiful way to preserve the integrity of memories and reflections and lock them in time,” said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “When that child is older, and they’re reflecting on who they are, they’re developing their core identity.” It’s a time to fight off their own fear and insecurity, “and wonder, ‘Man, did my parents feel this way?'”

Dr. Chaudhary suggested I someday listen to these recordings alongside my son, so that we can discuss them and grow closer as a result. This terrifies me, since I’m quite sure that I sound like a half-drunk Muppet in many of them.

There aren’t any formal experiments involving children and audio time capsules, but Dr. Victor Carrion, a psychiatrist specializing in adolescents, said my little tradition of sharing my hopes and fears fits with what we know about how young adults’ brains work. A child’s brain reaches maturity in his mid-20s, gaining not just processing power but also empathy for others and a sense of self.

“It’s a period of exploration, it’s the period of figuring out who you really are,” said Dr. Carrion, who directs the Stanford Early Life Stress Resilience Program. “You’ve been asking the ‘Who am I’ question now for a while, but at 20 you’re starting to feel like, ‘I need to have an answer.'”

So not only are you searching for your identity, but you are also able to empathize with others, even your parents. You are stepping out from the nest and looking for the trade winds that will throw you around for the next 60 years. And the people who can best help you, the ones who coaxed you through the first 20 years, probably don’t remember what it was like to be floundering on a fickle breeze. Or their memories have been altered by time, Dr. Chaudhary said.

When I look back to my 20s, I see a linear path to where I am today. Things happened for a reason, preparing me for the life I would lead. But that’s just my brain trying to create a narrative out of chaos, something brains excel at.

But if I were to rev up a time machine and return to the chaos of my 20s, Dr. Carrion pointed out that I would mostly see anxiety and confusion (punctuated by a lot of deep-dish pizza). Because I was living in a soup of chaos and impulse control.

“One of the reasons why you don’t have complete control of impulsivity is because you’re supposed to make mistakes,” Dr. Carrion said. “This is the time to make mistakes and take chances and take risks and get burned.”

He believes that if young people try to skip their impulsive years, they may be forced to experience them later in life. But in the moment, mistakes in your 20s aren’t much fun, and there is value in young people seeing that their parents also made mistakes. I want my son to see that his dad actually wasn’t effortlessly gliding on the wind but, in fact, mostly was flying backward with one wing wrapped around his leg and the other one covering his eyes.

Perri Chinalai, a director at an organization called StoryCorps, which aims to preserve regular people’s stories, has been collecting audio messages like mine for 12 years, as well as those of people who are about to die or whose memories are failing. She said the key to this type of storytelling is to find a balance between chronology — simply listing off events — and reflecting on those events.

“It’s not just that I lived through this, or this happened, it’s: ‘This is the way it changed me. This is the way that it changed the way I view the world,'” Ms. Chinalai said.

She tells people who are planning to pass along an audio diary to their children to start with how much they love their kids and are proud of them. Saying it to a machine can also become practice. “Once you can say it on tape, you can say it in person,” she said.

But the most important thing is that you say something. So many people, she said, don’t think their stories are worth telling and years later their families would give anything to just hear them talking about the weather. She said a year like this one, when the world seems turned upside down, is a perfect time to start.

Dr. Chaudhary said an honest monologue will help my son understand where he came from and how he might fit into society when he needs it most. For some young people, that means understanding their heritage or the trauma wrought on their ancestors. The renowned psychologist Selma Fraiberg called these histories the “ghosts in the nursery” that later define our own behavioral norms. But the ghosts that shape us don’t have to be trauma; they can also be a mom’s weird sense of humor or a dad’s way of maintaining order.

“We’re always passing something down as parents to the next generation,” Dr. Chaudhary said. “Being able to dig into the family of origin, in a way where we’re eliminating the biases of time, might be really fruitful and really helpful.”

My message to my son this year was not overflowing with help or hope. Mostly it was griping about lockdowns and the fear of watching hundreds of thousands of my countrymen die from disease. But the young man who hears it will probably see the pandemic with a more intimate viewpoint than he’ll find in history class.

Maybe my present chaos will seem quaint to him compared to his own struggles finding his identity and purpose. Maybe some version of me will be there to guide him, maybe not. But as I sit down every year to talk to that young man, at least I know this version, with less wisdom but a clearer view of today, will be there to help him through.

Erik Vance is an editor on the Well desk.

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