temper: to dilute, qualify, or soften by the addition or influence of something else
~Merriam Webster Dictionary
A few days ago, a blog post caught my eye. The title was "Why I Will Never Let My Daughter Ride Her Bike Alone". Never, as in never ever? Surely, I was mistaken, but no-- reading the article, it was revealed that not only was the author once accosted by a creep when she was a young adult, but that the number of incidents of child abductions by strangers was on the rise in her area. And while I wanted to give the writer the benefit of the doubt that she would eventually allow her now three-and-a-half year old daughter the freedom of independence as she grew older and into her teens, this mother simply couldn't see herself doing that. Not now, when sensibly, her child of course needs adult supervision, but also not later, either. Commenters debated on the state of the mother/writer's mental health, but I felt I couldn't demean her concern. She wants to be present at any time her daughter might be in the teensiest bit of harm's way. That's pretty natural for a caring parent to want that.
I've been there, and know of this overwhelming anxiety to shield and protect. When Kiddo was three, one of our kind, responsible neighbor dads offered to take him to the Washington County Fair; he was taking his own daughter and thought it would be fun if Kiddo came along. This collided headfirst with one of my biggest fears: losing Kiddo on public transit. See, every so often this does happen to some family or another, and then they show the TriMet video of the incident on our local "Fear Everything" FOX news station.
Even with this fear, I realized it would be a great opportunity for Kiddo to get to have an adventure, and decided that the conscientious neighbor-- who had managed to keep his own kid alive for five years--was not likely to lose Kiddo. Win/win. So, the fear was still there, hanging out in the margins, but my hope was that Kiddo would have a really fun afternoon with his friends, which he did.
I know those fears, know them like a taste in my mouth. Think I haven't stayed up late at night, worrying about The Big One, that earthquake that's slated to happen sometime, which is going to (how do I say this nicely?) fuck everything up? (oops. sorry. can't.) Trust me, that fear and I know each other well. But still, I let my child go to school in a building that could, of course, crumble down on his head and kill him. Why? Because wise parents know that there's no point in protecting our children's lives if we don't let them live fully. I want my son to be able to enjoy life to the best of he is able, given the norms of society and the reasonable responsibilities which must be fulfilled.
And here's the thing: it's not my son's responsibility to make me feel safer, more secure. He shouldn't have to be held back from participating in life or experiencing incremental freedoms proportionate to what he can handle just because some things really give me the willies. That's my stuff to deal with, not his. This is where I think too much fear can actually stunt one's emotional growth and color how the child interprets the world. Like so many parents who have had bad experiences of our own, too much of our own fears from the past can cast shadows on how our children perceive the world.
Recently, I have heard more than one parent admit that they were dreading the fall conference with their child's teacher. One mom said she was ready to rumble walking in, just waiting for the first utterance of a criticism about her child. While this Mama Bear is likely sleeping somewhere within most of us mothers, this parent's own experience of school, come to find out, hadn't been initially successful. Sarah Lawrence- Lightfoot's book "The Essential Conversation: What Teachers and Parents Can Learn From Each Other" shines a light on this very common occurrence; when many parents come into a conference with their child's teacher, they may be carrying a lot of baggage from their own experiences of schools and teachers. Is it any wonder that this can be such an emotional undertaking for so many families and teachers?
Recently, I read a very smart line in Kathy Massarie's "Raising our Sons". In it, she suggests making a list of our hopes for our child, and really examining this list closely. So often, she notices, we parent in reaction to our fears and not in accord with our hopes. This idea seems so relevant, especially as we live in the age of self-proclaimed "proud helicopter parents". Unrepentant, this group of parents assert that it is in their child's best interests for the parent to be over-involved. I'm going to challenge this notion a bit by suggesting that we can be both over-involved and still be fundamentally disconnected from our children in respect to understanding their desires and who they want to be AND the good work of responsibility, growth and development the child must undertake to become a happily independent adult. As a nation, and in my own lifetime, we as parents have gone from the idea of advocacy for our children being 'girls should be allowed to play sports too' to "Timmy deserves an A for showing up and trying (whether or not Timmy studied is entirely another story) or he won't get into Yale in 8 years."
The former is advocacy, demanding equality. The latter is, baldly put, expecting privilege to be extended to the child because the parent has big dreams for Timmy's future. (Timmy, by the way, just wants to play Legos and that's why he didn't really study.) Timmy's parents fears are getting in the way of their hope for Timmy to grow into Tim, a young man who has a good work ethic and sense of self-worth.
Don't think for a moment that Timmy feels good about himself, knowing that his parents will go in and bicker with a teacher over grades.
Don't think for a moment that our kids see our fearful restrictions and purported advocacy as anything less than what it is: a real no-confidence vote. The messages are intrinsic to those sorts of actions: The world is a dangerous place; you are never safe; you can never solve your own problems; you will always need mom and dad to handle your conflicts; etc etc etc.
More to the point: have you ever seen a person stand up fully when approaching a helicopter, or near one? They bend down, to shield themselves from the helicopter's blades. Yet, we want our children to go through life standing tall.
Once again: we must give them their freedom in accordance to what they have shown us they can handle.
I still struggle with this at times. The other day when we arrived at school, instead of going indoors to class, Kiddo ran away from me, chasing a friend for a few minutes. While I was steamed that he was being pretty disobedient, a dear friend had another interpretation of it~ he was growing and needed more freedom, more time to go run and play with his buddy. "This is what you want, right? For him to become more interested in his friends and not just you. This is good for him." She is wise; her kids are older and are turning out just fine, she knows from whence she speaks. I admitted that she had a point, and that evening Kiddo and I made a plan so that he could get to school earlier to play with his friend.
So, as I go forward, I keep those words in mind; that with some defiance and disobedience there is an indication that my son is ready for greater independence. It is the way with all living things, isn't it? Either we must be flexible, willing to learn from life, willing to keep an open mind (still using our critical judgment), to bend and grow, or we risk becoming brittle, fragile, unbending and eventually, breaking. I want to be like a tree: permanently rooted in what's real and solid and true and yet supple enough to bend without breaking, to weather the storms and to grow into something grand, both sheltering and fun to climb, too. Allowing small risks, hugging my son when he's close, and letting him grow into his own person in his own time, with the blessing that his independence and maturity will take nothing away from me, but only make our relationship more interesting, give it more depth, make it stronger. Those are my hopes for my son~~ and I will not let my fears run away with them.
*My apologies if this seems a bit derogatory, however, all they show is fear-inducing clips on our "local" news... even if local is loosely interpreted to meaning the old lady getting mugged at her 'local' ATM machine in Baltimore, Maryland. Perhaps the programmers couldn't find enough scary footage of the Portland Metro area? C'mon!