By Lindsay Rogers
I remember when my first child came home. My best friend from college, Joanne, already a mother of three, said to me the most profound words I’ve ever heard about motherhood: “Enjoy this time because once they turn two the real parenting begins and the worry never goes away.”
No words spoken about motherhood have ever been truer for me and I hear them swirling in my head often, although in my brain they usually sound more like, “Don’t screw up, don’t screw up, don’t screw up…”.
Skip ahead twelve years to this past June when my friend, Susan, posted an essay on Facebook by Julie Lythcott-Haims: “What Overparenting Looks Like From a Stanford Dean’s Perspective”. In a nutshell, Lythcott-Haims warns parents that the love and care we think we are providing by doing for our children is actually crippling them in adult life.
Did the safety-conscious, academic-achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, checklisted, childhood that has been commonplace since the mid-1980s, and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults? What will become of young adults who look accomplished on paper but seem to have a hard time making their way in the world without the constant involvement of their parents? How will the real world feel toward a young person who has grown used to problems being solved for them and accustomed to praise at every turn? Is it too late for them to develop a hunger to be in charge of their own lives? Will they at some point stop referring to themselves as kids and dare to claim the “adult” label for themselves? If not, then what will become of a society populated by such “adults”?
The message in the essay seemed so obvious–but then I started thinking about the scandal involving the Maryland parents whose ten and six year-olds were picked up by the police and taken to Child Protective Services because they were walking home from the park without adult supervision. My head swirled. How do I not screw up the balance between letting my kids experience the world and learn self reliance while protecting them from harm (and me from punishment)? Here was my Facebook comment to Susan at the time: “I’m conflicted by all the mixed messages: kids need to learn “street smarts” but let your kids walk home and you get a visit from CPS. Expose your kids to lots of experiences, which they’ll need to get into a “good” college, but don’t over schedule or manage them, and on and on… What is a Gen X parent to do? Can they just stamp my kid’s college/job application ‘Her parents did their best’?”.
I have since seen Lythcott-Haims speak and started reading her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, from which the above essay is excerpted. I’ve become a huge fan and evangelist of her book. I talk about this book so often that I’m sure my friends are ready to throw it at me. What I’ve learned so far from the book, and my own childhood experience, is that it’s better to err on the side of letting our kids wade into the deep end of the pool while we remain on the edge cheering them on rather than jumping in and holding them above the water line. They’ve got to learn “self-efficacy”—that is, what psychologist Albert Bandura identifies as, “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations”. So I’ll do my best to stay out of their pool but, if I’m honest, you’ll probably catch me holding a life preserver just in case.
So all of these musings and book promoting have brought me to our theme this month: Resistance. In my experience parenting is about resistance. When our kids are toddlers they begin to test the boundaries of their world and assert their independence–they resist us. I’ve found that parenting a “tween” (who recently turned 13) is about me resisting over-parenting her. I am burdened with an attitude that it’s easier, less messy, will be done right, if I just do it myself. (Gulp! That sounds like raising a child, not an adult doesn’t it? Darn! Refocus.)
Back to my friend Joanne. She has been a great parenting role model for me. Several years before her twin daughters left for college this fall, she and her husband reverse engineered adulthood and came up with a list of life skills the girls would need to have to be successful adults, or at least be reasonably independent in college. They came up with things like the girls needed to be able to make an entire meal on their own — salad, main dish, and a side — that would make it to the table at the same time and be reasonably nutritious and tasty. The girls had to know how to gas up their car, check the oil, top-off the wiper fluid, and get a smog check. They filled out their own forms, applications, cards, etc. and can look adults in the eyes and speak full sentences to communicate their world view. Joanne would never claim to be a perfect parent but all evidence supports my claim that she’s nailing this “raising an adult” thing.
As I told my oldest recently, resisting the urge to clear and light the path for our kids is one of the most difficult things I’m learning to do as a parent. It’s heartbreaking to see your kid in pain — especially if it’s a pain you’ve personally experienced and feel you could have helped them avoid. But where is the lesson in that? Our kids need to learn they are capable of dealing with disappointment and heartbreak and that their world won’t end when faced with trauma. Instead, we need them to know they have the grit and coping skills they need to persevere and will be better armed for future disappointment or heartbreak. I speak from experience.
Due to a family move and “girl drama”, I ended up going to three high schools when I was a kid. It was a very painful and lonely time for me but I am grateful now to have experienced it when I did — as a teen rather than an adult. I got through it with the love and support from my brother whom I fought with like cats and dogs most days but who, when the sh!t hit the fan, always had my back. My junior year I had to figure out quickly that I was ok with who I was even if it meant I didn’t have school friends that year. I had a good senior year and went to college feeling very capable and secure in the knowledge that my mom and brother thought I was a pretty neat person and I could make friends on my terms. Learning to resist following the herd in high school was probably the most defining moment in my life. I’m grateful my mom didn’t try to fix it for me and that I was allowed to move through it and grow from it. Giving my children the opportunity to struggle through similar self-doubt and painful relationships may test my resolve but resisting the urge to fix it may be the second most life-defining moment in my life. We’ll see. I’ll let you know how it goes.
What about you? What lessons on resistance have you learned, or are learning, as a parent? I welcome your counsel.
If you’re interested in seeing Julie Lythcott-Haims in person, she’s touring in 2016 and will be at Bainbridge High School February 3, 2016.