Dear Matt,

You are my oldest child. You have always been the "smart" one (not that your brothers and sisters aren't equally as smart). You are kind and truthful (almost to a fault). You have a big heart and a hard head. You are 17 and on your own now. And I have to thank you for making me a better parent.

When you were 12, we moved away from our home in Wisconsin and all of your friends to go live on my family's farm in a small town in Vermont. You hated your father and I for it. I thought it would be great fun. You thought it was a prison. Of course, you did well in school and played sports — and appeared to be having a good time with your new friends. But you were secretly plotting. You sought out friends who felt equally as trapped and did things at the age of 13 that I didn't even think of.

I caught you with beer for the first time at 13. I found out when you were 15 that you had been smoking pot since you were 13. I had never even seen pot until I was 29... That rich best friend of yours with the big house and the parents that were so "over-involved"? I had no idea that his older brothers were supplying you guys. It never occurred to me.

You started to get really angry by the time you were 14. We fought constantly. About stupid stuff — wearing a nice shirt to a school concert; whether or not you could go out with your friends; why didn't you call me; why didn't you come home when you said you would. At 14 you had your first run-in with the police. You and a friend got in trouble for bullying another kid — who was in on the joke, but whose mother didn't think it was funny. That was the first time you got sent to the court diversion program. I still have the paperwork.

That was also the year we decided you should homeschool for good. At least that way I wouldn't get so many phone calls from the school about your "attitude."

You were also 14 when you decided to go on vacation. You left us a note ("I just need a vacation, Mom"), took some money (but left us your bank account number so we could get it back) and rode a bike out of town. I was freaking out. I had everyone I knew looking for you. I was scared to death — shaking with fear. Finally, with some divine intervention, I found you myself. You were cool and we agreed that you were too young to go on "vacation."

It wouldn't be the last time you would take off. Meanwhile, your brothers and sister (you had just one then) would go to school, play sports, play with friends and promise me that they would never be like you.

I have sobbed my eyes out, kicked doors, smoked cigarettes and screamed more than I care to remember through your teenage years. My friends who have teens who are just starting to act out a bit, tell me their stories and I nod my head. Yes, I tell them, Matt did that too.

I tried putting my foot down; grounding; screaming; counselors and even considered a teen boot camp. But you my dear Matthew were not a spoiled child who thought he was entitled to everything. You never cared about the cable TV or the Internet access. You never once asked me for a cell phone. You just wanted to be free. To do what you wanted.

When I finally let you go at 16 to go and work on a farm, you started to become a "person" again. When I let you go at 17 to travel with friends, you became an adult. And I admire you. I wish I had had the courage to do what you do at your age — or at any age. And you inspire me to live my life to the fullest. I hope I have taught you as well.

I sit here and write this with baby number 7 — most likely my last baby (but never say never) sleeping on my chest. I wonder what challenges he will present. I now have two more teens and an almost teen in my midst. They don't drink or smoke the way you did. They do well in school on purpose! Maybe they learned from you. Perhaps they got tired of the yelling and don't want it directed at them.

Either way, even if they did, I don't think I'd handle it the same way. I used to curse you and all the crap you put your father and I through. We used to say to each other, "Please, can we just not talk about Matt for a little while?" I realize now, though, just how much you have taught us. And when I'm sitting in a playgroup with a young mom who complains about her two year old and tells me how she demands respect, I try hard not to laugh.

Enjoy this age, I tell her. You have no idea what you're in for. As far as demanding respect is concerned, if I've learned anything it's that you don't get the respect of your children until you act respectful of them.

If I could say anything to parents of young children, it would be to choose your battles wisely. Some stuff just doesn't matter. I let my four-year-old run and scream at the park, without embarrassment. I laugh when my two-year-old throws a tantrum in the store. I no longer feel the role of frantic mother of young children because I know that these are the best of times.

If I can thank you, Matt, for anything it's for teaching me how to enjoy all of my children and their various stages, much more.

I love you more than anything. I miss you and hope you'll be home for Thanksgiving.