Life 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.
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.
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.