Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Lessons learned from 18 years of parenting

Nicole Villalpando
Ben Villalpando visits Tulane in April to make his final decision about where he will be going to college. [Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman]

We are counting down the days in my house — no longer the years or even months. On Aug. 19, the boy that we brought home from the hospital 18 years ago will hop into a car full of his stuff and head to college.

The days were long, but the years, they definitely were short.

Last year, as Ben entered into his senior year of high school, I wrote about the things I still had left to teach him.

In my top 10 were:

1. How to drive

2. How to manage money

3. How to advocate for his medical care

4. How to feed himself

5. How to clothe himself

6. How to read a map and navigate public transportation

7. How to have a conversation

8. How to advocate for himself to get something fixed

9. How to manage his time

10. How to access resources

And we definitely worked on all of those. Is he a master of any of them? No, it’s definitely a work in progress.

RELATED: Sending your kid to college, helicopter parent? Now's the time to land and let your kid take off

This year, as he heads off to college, there is this panic about all the things I think I forgot to tell him or teach him, and the acknowledgment that the frontal lobe (that part of the brain that helps with executive functioning) isn’t fully matured yet.

I also find myself thinking about all the things he’s taught us. Here are 10 of them:

1. Every kid is different. Ben and his sister have some similarities in the way their brains work, but their interests, their personalities, that’s what makes them interesting. That’s also what keeps us on our toes. What worked for him didn’t work for his sister, and what worked for her definitely didn’t work for him.

2. When not to panic. Parents who check their kids' grades every day, listen up: It will make you crazy. Often Ben had a handle on why it looked like he was making a 5 percent in a class a week before grades were finalized and why that wasn’t going to be his final grade. And, sure enough, he was always right. The little things we worried about were never worth the worry. He did learn to use the bathroom, to talk in complete sentences, to cut with scissors, to read, to clothe and bathe himself, to graduate high school, to get a summer job.

3. When to panic. We had some dark times, times that, looking back, I can see clearly what was going on, but at the time he became distant, suddenly quiet, outside of his normal introverted self. We didn’t fully understand what was going on. That’s when you rely on your network — your clergy, teachers, parents of friends — to give you the heads-up that something more might be happening that you don't understand. If you’re privileged to have a group of kids around you and you notice something is different about one of them, please tell their parents. They might not be ready to receive that information initially, but they and their child will be better for hearing your concern.

4. How to just enjoy your kid. Ben is very different from me. It’s the male/female, introvert/extrovert thing, true, but it’s also just who he is and who I am. Rather than trying to shape him in my image, I’ve had to just embrace all of his crazy humor, his nerdy obsessions, his need to be an individual. And we’ve learned a lot through him, about science and "Star Trek," philosophy and the magic of Queen.

RELATED: How to parent your teen and live to laugh about it

5. When to back off. Parenting is this wonderful dance of shifting responsibility from parent to child. When your child is a baby, you do everything for them, from feeding to clothing to cleaning. When your child is about to go off to college, you do very little for them physically. Instead, you’re just this wise (or not-so-wise) guide, happy to offer advice, but only when asked. The last four years have really been about seeing this dance come to completion. In so many ways, we have handed over the reins. And in so many other ways, we are still trying to throw the reins at him, and he’s just not ready to catch them — yet. We will get there.

6. How to see the wonder of the world again. Kids help you see everything from a new perspective. “Space Balls” is suddenly much funnier when you watch it with a middle-school boy. A lizard on the side of the house is fascinating when a toddler sees it for the first time. A rescue turtle that now lives in his room is an amazing creature and apparently a perfect pet for a teenage boy. We get so busy managing the day-to-day, but kids make us stop and observe the magic.

7. How to work as a team. More than any company management program, parenting taught me to listen, to act as a partner, to include others in the work, to consult outside experts, to communicate rather than dictate. It also taught me to trust another person with this precious gift and know that you might not always agree, but you both have that child’s best interest at heart. And if Dad doesn’t do everything the way you would have done it, that’s OK. Often, the results are the same, if not better, and when they are not, everyone has a new appreciation of Mom.

8. How to partner with a school. On the surface, Ben’s school life looked easy. Good schools, good grades! Hooray! But it was a struggle. Schools and his parents missed what was really going on. Why was he more comfortable sitting under the desk than in it in some classrooms? Why did he hate keeping a journal in sixth grade? Why did he tear up that math assignment in second grade? And then in ninth grade came a diagnosis that suddenly made sense because a new school could see things that others missed or just didn’t understand: autism.

For four years, we had the best partners. We had a special education teacher who walked Ben through how to talk to his teachers and advocate for himself, who could take the few words Ben would use to describe what he was feeling about a situation and help him find a solution. His parents were co-captains, but Ben was in the pilot's seat.

The best example was graduation day. Ben didn't want to do it. The idea of going into the Erwin Center, the noise and the overstimulation, felt like too much. He panicked like we hadn't seen in recent years at graduation rehearsal. As a parent, I had to wrestle with the idea that my kid might not attend the pinnacle of everything he had worked toward.

His special education teacher found a way. She gave him options, which empowered him. She pressed him to go a bit outside of his comfort zone but gave him an out if he needed it. She helped him be a part of the ceremony in a way that was comfortable for him.

On May 29, he walked with his class alongside his teacher into the very loud Erwin Center, wearing earplugs that no one could see. And he sat in a quieter section with his teacher. He walked across the stage, received his diploma and walked back to his seat. Then he exited the Erwin Center away from the crowds.

That's how high school was for him. A push and pull toward finding a solution that worked for him and that challenged him. It was a loving place that acknowledged who he is and found a way to help him be the best Ben he could be.

RELATED: What do teachers really want from parents?

9. How not to sweat the small stuff. Sure, I'd love for his room to be a place humans could inhabit without stepping on food wrappers or dirty clothes. That's not going to happen right now. And if that's our biggest argument, he's doing pretty amazing.

10. The would-haves, should-haves, could-haves will kill you. I could list hundreds of things I did as a parent or said as a parent that I now understand weren't the best — things I could have done or said better. In the end, those aren't the things my kid holds dearest in his heart. It's the experiences we had together, the sweet things he did for me and I did for him — that's what he will remember fondly of his childhood. And if he still has some things he wished were better or cringes at the thought of his parents doing, well, one day he'll have his own children and find this perspective: We did the best we could, and we loved him. That's what being a parent is really about.