A Test of the Emergency Parenting System

EBSLife is full of tests.  Spelling tests, math tests, vocabulary tests; hearing tests, vision tests (which way is the E facing?), tests for scoliosis and lice.  Driving tests, blood tests and pregnancy tests, hold your breath until the results come back HIV tests.  Tests of the Emergency Broadcasting System.  Remember those?  Every now and again, after a high pitched-racoon caught in the garbage disposal sort of squeal, a box of colored rectangles would appear on your television screen.  Sometimes you would be in the car merrily listening to She Bop and the entire AM/FM bandwidth would shrill a tone higher than Kajagoogoo.  After an interminable sixty seconds or so you would hear a message along the lines of:  This was a test, only a test.  If this had been an actual emergency…

Every now and again down in the rabbit hole that is parenting, the universe throws in a test of the Emergency Parenting System.  The parenting powers that be, the same ones who like to screw with you just because, the ones that make sure you have one child going through a phase from hell at any given time, like to sound the alarm as a reminder.  It’s a reminder that you need to be aware, be alert, be on your toes; that in the case of an actual emergency, you’d better have your shit together and ready to find that storm cellar in 100 mph winds and black, white, or hot pink-out conditions.  Sometimes it’s the parent him or herself that face the test (remind me to tell you the story about my husband and pin-worms and a flashlight in the dark), other times it’s your children that will face the challenge.  Sometimes they will pass with flying colors and you will stand illuminated in a halo of pride.  Sometimes they won’t, and you’ll immerse yourself in a self flagellation ritual which involves smarmy parenting books and teacher conferences and nightmares about the cost of psychotherapy.

My eldest son faced a test recently.  By our standards of parenting, he failed.  Faced with a minor ethical decision, he made the wrong choice.  He made the selfish choice.  He made the choice we thought we had been raising him NOT to make.  And then, just to add icing to the insult cake, he lied about it.

EBS color

In the large scheme of life, in the marathon endurance challenge that is raising functional human beings, it wasn’t a huge deal.  No one was hurt, physically or emotionally.  It wasn’t a who would you chose to save on a sinking life boat type of scenario, but it was a litmus test of sorts.  And his alkaline and acid balance was all off.  So admittedly, in terms of severity, this hardly even ranked.  But as he gets older, he will be facing greater and more meaningful challenges.  When to ask a girl (or boy) out, when it’s ok to have sex, should he try that cigarette, that joint?  Should he join in poking fun of someone else, should he go along with someone who’s ideas aren’t so…ethical?  What should he do when his ride home has been drinking or someone comes up with the brilliant idea of stealing a bag of Cheese Doodles from the 24 hour Mobil station?  Should he post that naked picture on Instagram?  All these things are coming his way, bearing down on him like a tsunami, like a tornado, like the kind of storm that swept Dorothy and her house and her little dog too all the way from Kansas to Oz.  It’s important that he has the strength to remain upright  in the winds of teenagerdom and young adult hood.  As parents we need to make sure he is able to solidly plant those feet on terra firma and do the right thing.

That’s our job, it’s what we signed up for.

I  hope we found the right balance this time between making sure that he understood what he did was wrong and letting him know that the benefit of making mistakes is that you can choose to learn from them.  He was upset.  There were tears.  The word disappointment meandered its nefarious way into the conversation.  We didn’t pussyfoot.  We didn’t pander.  We told him he made the wrong choice and outlined the different choices he could have made, should have made.  We talked about times when we had made the wrong choice and what we learned from it.  He got to hear the famous, ‘time I burned down the woods’ story.  He’s hardly alone in his morally ambiguous haze of growing up, peers, temptation and just to mix it up a bit, hormones.

Photo: americablog.com
Photo: americablog.com

Perhaps we were a bit harsh.  He is only nine, but he is not a baby anymore, not a toddler to be redirected or a young child who needs constant reminders.  He is old enough to understand that he is responsible for decisions and that the decisions he makes have repercussions.  Did we want him to feel bad?  Kind of, sort of, yes.  Sometimes remembering how you felt gives you pause to stop and think when a similar situation arises.  This was no tornado, no hurricane; it would barely register as a tempest in a teapot.  It was, however, a preview.  One which has made us realize as parents that we can’t necessarily rely on the fact that he’s a good kid.  And he is a good kid.  He’s going to make mistakes and we would never withdraw love and affection from him for mistakes he’s made or is going to make, but neither will we turn the other way and pretend they didn’t happen.  It’s our job, it’s what we signed up for.

There are going to be so many times in his life when he is going to stand at a crossroads and be faced with choice.  When he will have to play his own poet and chose a path.  Sometimes the decision will be clear, other times murky.  Sometimes there will be two distinct roads to choose from, sometimes 100.  It is our job as as parents to make sure that he’s got the right supplies in his emergency pack to set off down the path of his choice and be ready to weather whatever storm comes.

I used to hate those tests as a kid.  They interrupted The Brady Bunch reruns or Creature Double Feature or your favorite song on the radio.  All that high-pitched siren wailing for no good reason.  As an adult, as a parent, I understand that those siren calls are a warning.  Sometimes you need them to shell shock you making sure you are prepared.  Because one day it may not be a test.  It may be an actual emergency.

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19 thoughts on “A Test of the Emergency Parenting System

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  1. Still trying, and not giving up are some of the signs of great parenting.
    I hope one day, your kid sees the big picture, and it all just clicks into place.
    He might not thank you for it in so many words, but you’ll know he realized it.

    (I realized how serious this post was when you invoked Kajagoogoo.)

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    1. I hope so. It’s hard work this parenting malarky. But Oh, what writing fodder shine through yonder window. Cheese Doodles and Kajagoogo in one post. All we need now is Isaac the bartender and Mr. Rourke to get the party started.

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  2. Actually, I think you passed that test quite well. It is guaranteed that your kids will “fail” at least 50% of the time. Sometimes they do it by accident, sometime on purpose, sometimes just to see if the line has moved or not. It is the nature of kids to test the limits and test them again. And it is the job of us, the parents, to hold steady and be consistent. However, the rewards for doing this are much in the future, oh say a decade or so. In the meantime, it’s a slog, you’re a meanie, and the kids are being denied life experience (yeah, right). You’ll survive. They’ll actually trive. Win-win.

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    1. The speed at which I go from “the meanest mom in the world” to “the second best” (my six year old has conditions for being ‘the best’ 😉 ) is astounding. Sometimes I get exhausted just thinking about the decade that’s coming. But again, it’s what we signed up for. Thanks, once again, for an insightful comment. :-).

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  3. Parenting, the hardest job you will ever do in your life, that you do it with love and understanding will also be the most rewarding!

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  4. Ahhhhhh the pin-worm story is still burned into our brains (and we love it!). Full disclosure: I did actually ask around the parent ‘hood just to make sure that wasn’t some weird Cypriot home remedy and was assured it was not (and oh the stories I heard…)

    Back to your stellar post, I agree that the real proof is a decade or so down the line when you’re not a feature in their daily life, that they will feel confident that they make good decisions and can trust their own judgement. Well written!

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    1. That’s the scary part, DW–hoping that you’ve instilled enough concrete in their foundation that they can withstand the maelstrom (sticking with the storm warning metaphor….there’s got to be a jab about global warming in there somewhere too). Ah, the pin worms. How I do miss Cyprus….

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      1. I wise man once said to me, “It’s better to over-cook it than under-cook it.” I’m kidding. He wasn’t wise. He was actually kind of a jackwagon, but he was right.

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  5. Thanks Dina. This was an apropos article for us this week, as we too encountered a bad choice with one of the boys. It’s hard not to beat yourself up over it; as a mother who works so hard to teach them the right way to act. I just know that we’re doing the best that we can, and they really are good kids. Thank God they have parents that love and care for their well being. 🙂

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  6. This was such an interesting read! I know I would want my son (when he’s older) to understand that actions have consequences. Yes, I would like to guide him along, but I would also like to make sure he knows right from wrong.

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    1. The hard part is knowing that you can’t make those decisions for them and you have to trust that you have laid a solid enough foundation for them to rely on. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you have the skills and the morals to fall back on, hopefully you learn from the ones you make along the way. But it ain’t easy!

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D.E. Haggerty

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