CNN | 9/18/2019 | Listen

Do we owe our children our presence more than presents?

Updated 7:24 PM ET, Mon May 27, 2019

Editor's Note: LZ Granderson is a journalist and political analyst. He was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University. He is the sports and culture columnist for the Los Angeles Times and co-host of ESPN LA 710's "Mornings With Keyshawn, LZ and Travis." Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @lzgranderson. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - The hardest decision I ever made as a father was leaving the city where my then-5-year-old son lived with his mother (my ex-wife) so I could take a better-paying job. I did so with one singular goal in mind: to be in a better position to pay for his college tuition.

For five years, we lived apart as my career took me from Atlanta to New York. We talked on the phone, I visited him as often as I could, and he spent parts of his summer vacations with me. Eventually I got to the point professionally where I could live anywhere in the country, so I moved back, bought a house around the corner from my son, and tried to make up for lost time.

This week, my son graduated from New York University. As I sat in Yankee Stadium next to my ex-wife during commencement, I thought about what I missed in those five years: the birthdays, those first days of school, and the games I couldn't attend. Of course I showered him with gifts every chance I could, and certainly graduating from college debt-free is a gift not only for him but for generations to come.

My great-grandmother was a sharecropper. My grandmother also worked the fields. My mother did not graduate from high school. I became a college graduate with significant student loan debt. And now, through generations of hard work, sacrifice and above all, God's grace, my son has graduated college debt-free. While I am so thankful, I would be lying if I said I didn't question whether it was worth it. Not the money spent for his education, but rather what I gave up to earn it.

"Presence over presents" is what my favorite cousin Ingrid used to say during family get-togethers. Her wise words began as a whisper in my head the morning of my son's graduation, and grew progressively louder over the course of the ceremony. By the time we were celebrating at Sylvia's, the historic soul food restaurant nestled in the belly of Harlem, Ingrid's words reverberated in my spirit.

In American culture, when we speak of wanting our children to have a better life than we had, it is usually understood through a lens of materialism. Rarely does our notion of a better life translate into "smaller house, more family time." And as I watched my son laughing with his siblings, smiling at his grandparents and aunt who made the journey from California, Oklahoma and Michigan to celebrate his achievement, tears escaped my eyes as I fixated on him. Was I afraid of the inevitable changes in both our lives because I had built my world around him? Or was I second-guessing the strategy with which I accomplished my mission?

I am not so arrogant as to think I am in a position to tell new parents what to do simply because my son is now a college graduate. But I've spent a significant portion of my career sharing my truth, and I believe this particular lesson may be beneficial for those who find themselves at a similar crossroads. While I do not regret my decision to forgo time with my son in order to pay for his education, I didn't understand the weight of that decision until this week. It was only when I watched my son start a new chapter in his life that I was reminded of the chapters I missed, and the chapters I will never get to read.

As parents we want to do everything we can to help our children. My greatest struggle as a father has been trying to decipher the perfect ratio between presence and presents. My cousin Ingrid never told me the answer before she passed away ... perhaps because there isn't one.

A previous version of this article inaccurately stated the city in which his son lived.

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