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Parenting: Leading children through life's jungle

As kids grow up, they begin to navigate life without the help of Mom and Dad.

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My family used to live in a house that had several overgrown lilac bushes running along its north side, bushes that had been there for probably a hundred or so years, their trunks gray and gnarled, their purple blossoms impossibly fragrant as they filled the summer air.

During the spring and summer, those lilac bushes became known as the "jungle" since, to our son Joe's young eyes, they were as green, overgrown, and endless as any plot of land running along the Amazon might be. My husband Mark and I enjoyed the jungle, too, especially since it was conveniently located next to the front steps, where we could sit, drink a cup of coffee, and keep an eye on our little explorer.

Every so often, Mark ventured into the jungle along with Joe. Joe was always thrilled when his dad joined him. "Follow me," he'd suggest, waving a dimpled hand as he led the way to the back of the jungle, where things really got exciting. (He'd hidden a plastic bucket and shovel there.)

One day, Mark and Joe began to build a small, very primitive playhouse in the jungle. Mark let Joe do the planning while he took orders. The two of them rearranged twigs, branches, and leaves until they were both satisfied. Sitting down on a log that doubled as a sofa, Joe stretched his legs out and sighed. "Oh, Daddy," he said. "I so happy."

That was many years ago. We moved away from the house with the conveniently located jungle, and our intrepid explorer is in high school now, discovering new territories, along with a different kind of jungle or two every so often.

To my mind, one of the hardest facts I've been forced to accept about being a parent is that we're no longer completely able to elicit statements like "I so happy" from our children, no matter how much we long to. Somewhere between baby teeth and adolescence the responsibility for finding happiness becomes something people have to do for themselves.

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