I love irony. As I sit down to write this, A Time Magazine cover story is giving the message to stop overparenting. HA!
One of the points I previously made is that parents feel powerless − not just with their children, but also in this belief they have that the world is “different” and “more dangerous” than it was in the past. Really? Westchester in 2009 is less safe than Brooklyn was in the ’70s and ’80s for me? Hello? Son of Sam? Highest crime rates ever? Useless seat belts? No air bags? No bicycle helmets? Lenient drunk driving rules? NO drunk driving rules? No, we are not any less safe now; it’s just that now we know where the pedophiles live. Thirty years ago my parents had to figure out who the predators were and what was safe. So the quiet guy with the pony tail and 35mm camera who was always taking pictures of us and sharing the prints − was he just an amateur photographer or was he some weirdo? I’ll never know, but he gave me pictures he had taken of me riding my bike and walking the neighbor’s dog. Today the police would be called. Then our parents just used common sense and caution and figured there was no reason to be scared of our local shutterbug unless he gave us a reason to be.
When your kids are little they need to skin their knees once in awhile. They need to have the experience of dusting themselves off and starting again. They need to meet strangers so they develop the sense of what feels safe and what doesn’t. Don’t give them power tools to play with, but don’t freak out if they want to climb on the furniture a little. I am pretty sure no one ever died from a tapestry burn. I think all kids should hang around barns for a little while. Get in the dirt, pick up germs, develop positive titers against a million different things. Equestrians have to be tough. Once you realize that falling off a horse, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, leads to nothing worse than a bruise, or that a thousand pounds can step on your foot and you’ll walk away, you start to worry less about a kid falling off the arm of the sofa.
But since there is the impression that kids are unsafe, parents have become wardens, even without realizing it. Admit it, parents, you are sitting there saying, “Not me, I trust my kids, I give them freedom, they have responsibilities.” Many parents even feel that they are “cool” and “permissive,” but most are only permissive because of the cell phone umbilical cord; they aren’t really permissive. If you trust your kid so much, send him out without his cell phone. Tell him what time to come home and see if he listens. Wait up to see if your daughter smells like beer and, if she does, give her a consequence so that she learns that breaking the law has its drawbacks. Because we are so constantly connected, we can now be more permissive; we control what we can because we feel that there is so much we can’t, and we are teaching kids that the outside world is dangerous but controlled rule-breaking is mother-approved. Letting your teenager have sex or drink in the house is not teaching him to do it responsibly; it’s teaching him that there are no boundaries to be respected. I understand the idea behind saying that you’d rather your kid does it under your roof than outside and, of course, we all got into our share of childhood mischief, complete with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but we also learned respect, decorum, and boundaries. Allowing kids to break the law doesn’t make you a cool parent; it makes you an accomplice. Would you encourage your child to cheat on his taxes or rob a store? I accept that my teenage patients break the law, and I may even believe that some of the laws are questionable, but I certainly wouldn’t encourage them to do so, tell them where to score the best weed, or ignore it if I caught them, beer in hand, in Douglas Park. Doing so would send the message that rules were made to be broken and that they are not accountable for their actions, which is one of the things the colleges are talking about — it doesn’t matter if I do the work or not, there will be no consequence, and I will still get a good grade. It doesn’t matter if I break the rules of campus housing, my parents will get me out of trouble. Wrong. This is the real world now. Parents shouldn’t be calling professors to dispute a grade, but they do. Nor should they be sanctioning rule-breaking, but they do that, too.
Since we have the technology now to be in constant contact, learning opportunities are lost every day. If your teenager didn’t have a cell phone to call you at the first sign of trouble, she would have to work out the problem herself, seeking help only when necessary. When most of my exhaust system hit the pavement of the Staten Island Expressway at 2 a.m., of course I called my father to bail me out. But without a cell phone, in the ten or fifteen minutes it took me to call home, I had a learning experience. I had to think about what I had learned in Driver’s Ed — hazard lights on, find the next exit, drive slowly, look for lights, find a phone. I had to deal with the worry and stress. I had to suck it up until Daddy could come and save me with a wire hanger. Don’t doubt that on that night I learned that I could avert a crisis, be resourceful in finding a place to make a call, remain aware enough to give my father directions to find me, choose a place that appeared safe so I could wait for him without much risk, the list goes on. Simply being of a generation that bought our own cars, usually older ones with quirks and problems, as well as rear-wheel drive and no anti-lock brakes or airbags, helped us become better drivers. I learned how to use a pencil to open the choke and start my engine so it wouldn’t flood. I learned the patience of waiting for a car to warm up before driving away. I learned what to do when I developed a gas leak and the car simply stopped. And I learned these things because I was given the space to learn these things.
This is not to say that I was neglected or deprived. It is hard for an only child to be either. If I needed a new winter coat, of course my mother took me shopping for one. My parents bought me subway tokens when they bought their own and they threw a few dollars my way each week for expenses. But all the money I left at the record stores or buying tickets to rock concerts came from babysitting, from part-time jobs and birthday money. I was luckier than some in that I didn’t have to pay completely for my education. But most of us had no expectations that whatever our parents were paying for college was unlimited and that we could spend five or six years goofing off and finding ourselves while our parents paid the bill. There were expectations put on us. Maybe that was because, for many of us, we were the first to go to college and we were representing our family. Maybe it was because we had been held to high expectations all along, taught to take responsibility and accept consequences when they were handed out. I don’t really know the reasons, but what I know is the kids I see in my office are very unlike the students of only twenty-five years ago. We weren’t smarter, but somehow we were older.
I am not suggesting that we go back to a time before bicycle helmets and seat belts or that you should let your children hang around crack houses or play with matches. What I am saying, though, is what so many of the colleges are saying. Let your kids get a few knocks before they go off on their own. Let them solve some of their own problems. Don’t answer the cell phone immediately. Let them feel the sting of consequences − better to be handed out by you than by the police. Let them pay for something. I fully believe that if a parent has the means to pay for college, then he should, but there’s nothing wrong with a young adult paying some of his own expenses, or only getting tuition covered if the grades are good. Let your kid find her way home for a holiday weekend visit. When did it become necessary to drive hours to pick up an adult who could just as easily take a train or bus? You would be doing your kids a favor because eventually they will have to navigate the world on their own, and they are not going to be coddled. I have the opportunity to talk to some of your kids when they do accomplish something on their own and they are very proud of themselves. I cheer them on as well. Last week a tenth grader told me how she and her friends went down the wrong subway stairs and had to ask another passenger how to find the uptown trains. They took the train one stop and crossed over. One college student recently got lost and learned the limitations of her GPS (another ridiculous crutch, at least as it’s used by so many). I’m not saying these events aren’t anxiety-provoking; they are. And that’s the point. They are stressful and the kids lived. And next time they will hopefully take their lessons to the next situation. Maybe more carefully reading a sign, or being more certain of directions rather than counting on an electronic device to get you there.
Letting go a little doesn’t mean going back to a time before safety features or being an absent parent. To go back to the barn example, when you want a horse to do what you want, you have to let up a little on the reins. You have to let there be a little slack, while there’s still control. The time to give up some of that control is NOT the day your kid goes off to college; it’s in the years leading up to it − in the skinned knees, the fights with friends, the poor grades, the wrong turns, the flat tire. Yes, even the exhaust system of a 1976 Firebird dragging on the highway. A good parent gets the kids ready for the real world. And guess what? The real world is not as dangerous as everyone makes it out to be. And if it turns out that it is, well, we better get these kids ready to face it, skinned knees and all.
Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.