Every generation thinks the buck stopped there; thinks the generation that follows is going to be the end of civilization, the downfall of polite society, the scourge of the world. Every generation thinks they were tougher, made of sterner stuff. Every generation thinks they are the last of the true survivors.
“We survived walking uphill to school, both ways! Mothers who smoked! Net-less trampolines and cars with no seat belts! We are better people because we played dodge ball and had to carefully pick our way through the minefield of playground hierarchy. We didn’t have X! Or Y! Or even Z! We had to make do, use our imaginations, we had to play!”
Every now and again social media fairly drowns in nostalgia posts: Remember when we went home when the streetlights went on? When you rolled around in the way back? Remember when you hung out in the woods with cigarettes stolen from your mother’s purse? (Okay, maybe that was just me). It’s like one generation poking the next one in the chest and calling “Wuss.” I get sucked into the nostalgia from time to time, pumping my fist along with the rest of Gen X. Even my ‘book’ is peppered with glimpses of growing up in the 70s and 80s: unchaperoned, unbothered, unmanaged.
Here’s the thing though: something went kind of horribly wrong between then and now. Somewhere between rolling around in the way back and latchkey kids, between ABC Afterschool Specials and Everyone’s A Winner, between casual little league and Organized (with a capital, bold and Helvetica O) Sports, something went awry. Somewhere between us being kids and us being parents, we rolled around one too many times in the way, way back and missed our stop. We stopped being just parents and started being extreme parents. We stopped being a parental lighthouse in the storm and a guidepost along the way and instead became—well, everything. We are walking spread sheets, pack mules, absorbers of emotion, defenders of behavior. We have gone from suggestion and leading by example to micromanaging every aspect of our kids lives.
I speak as someone who does this. Slight correction: I write this as someone who has recently decided that knowing exactly what my kids are up to every moment of every day is not healthy. Not for them, and certainly not for me. Somewhere along the way, the idea of spending time with our kids and knowing what they’re up to got inflated. It got super sized and blown way out of proportion. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about knowing if your kids are going to a party where there will be alcohol–or parents–or kids who graduated a dozen years ago looking to reclaim their youth. I’m not talking about being up to date with what is going on in their lives, taking an interest. That is being a parent, and a good one. I’m talking about controlling every aspect of their lives. I’m talking about taking so much responsiblity for them, their relationships, their academics and every other nuance of their behavior that they become stunted; dwarfed into some never-ending limbo of childhood with an unhealthy reliance upon their parents.
Many of us have become so blindsided by the bad, by the dangers that our children face, that we are suffocating them in bubble wrap. Yes, there are dangers. Yes, there is frightening stuff out there on the internet that makes me cringe. And yes, our children need to be aware of these very real things. But if we stand over their shoulder at every opportunity, telling them where to go and what to do and what to say, they are never going to learn how to think for themselves.
I’m not sure which straw it was that broke this particular camel’s back for me. Perhaps it was not only accepting the blame for forgetting a school bag, but actually believing that it was my fault. Perhaps it was the fact that my nine year-old’s behavior was increasingly bratty and challenging, perhaps it was the sight of him standing there in front of the pantry asking if he could have a cookie. I had a sudden thought that it was entirely possible that my son could end up calling me up from college asking if it was okay to have another cookie….because I have never let him make the decision himself.
It’s a fine line. There must be rules, there must be limitations. But there also must be freedom. Freedom to experience, freedom to make mistakes, freedom to screw up, freedom to learn. If we are there, directing each movement like Scorsese, managing each fork full of food and every relationship, managing time and words and thoughts, we are not protecting them, we are preventing them: from growing up, from independence, from life.
No one likes to be told what to do all the time. If you are directing a constant barrage of instructions at your child’s head, even if they are well-meaning and worded in the most polite way possible, eventually they are going to balk. It makes sense that my son’s behavior was a reaction to this. He was arguing with me over the color of the sky because we had basically given him so little control over his own life that this was the only way he could exert it.
So I’m backing off, giving my children the breathing space they need to actually grow up. We have our rules, and because they are fewer, they are broken less. Even in the few short weeks that I have stepped back and encouraged my older son to do more by himself, for himself, I’ve noticed the changes. He is more reasonable, the arguing has lessened. Given the chance, without me reminding him, making sure he’s got this and that and has done x,y, and z, he remembers most of the time. He’s more polite. He’s more helpful. As a mother, I am less tired, less harassed. The best part? I feel like my son and I like each other again. At least for now.
There are going to be times to clamp down of course, times when my kids get too big for their britches, too cocky. When those times call for it, I will clamp down. But I’ve got to let them choose their own britches, even if the ones they choose make them look like Kazak wrestlers.
Children need to be able to stretch and exercise their own judgement. Though it may make my heart clench, the only way they are going to limber up enough to make the right choices is if I stop making their choices for them. If I back the hell off and let them grow up.