Monday, December 16, 2013

Something She Really Wants To Do

Several years ago, we took a family summer vacation to a resort in Oregon. Mom and Dad went too, as did my siblings and their kids. Since our daughter Josephine, then only a few months from starting high school, was significantly older than the nieces and nephews, we let her choose a friend to come along with us. I'll call her Megan.

Before agreeing to allow Megan to travel with us, her father, who also had an older daughter, phoned me to learn the details and to not so subtly make sure I intended to keep the girls on a tight enough leash for his taste. "I was that age," he said, chuckling, "I remember what kinds of things kids that age want to do. Believe me, I got into just about everything at that age." He warned me about booze, boys, and sneaking out after the adults had gone to sleep.

I assured him I'd keep her safe, but hung up with a slight sense of dread, not at all confident I could, or even wanted to, spend my week defending the girls against "those kinds of things." In fact, I'd sold the trip to Josephine based upon my own childhood memories of my brother and me freely riding our bikes around the resort, going to this swimming pool then that one, stopping here and there for a set of tennis, and hanging out at the "Teen Barn" shooting baskets, playing pinball, and monkeying around with the kids we found there. (Megan's dad had been particularly concerned about the Teen Barn.) The whole point of going on this vacation was that freedom of movement and association, at least it had been for me as a kid, and I wanted that for my own daughter.

As it turned out, there really wasn't any sort of nefarious teen scene on the resort premises and the girls spent their days sun bathing in bikinis that perhaps showed a little more than I would have liked, reading books, and drinking sodas by the main swimming pool. They mostly wanted to be with the family in the evenings as we got together for dinner and board games.

It was, as it turned out, a trip full of good clean fun, but Megan's father had really got me thinking on more nefarious topics. It's not that I expected that my child would never drink or become sexual or do any of those other things he'd warned me about. No, what was on my mind was the idea that she might be sneaky about it. It conjured for me, all the lies I'd told my own parents, not just as a teenager, but throughout my childhood, falsehoods behind which to hide as I did the things I really wanted to do, but which were forbidden by mom and dad. Lies that made those risky behaviors even more risky, and the consequences much worse when things didn't go the way I'd planned.

I had identified with Megan's father's self-description, as a kid who gotten into "those kinds of things," reflecting on the fact that my own parents' prohibitions had done very little by way of keeping me from doing the things I really wanted to do. No, what they had succeeded in doing was to push my desires underground, creating a cycle of secrecy that was only broken when things went wrong, followed by punishment, then more secrecy again, this time enhanced most by the lessons I'd learned by being busted the first time.

This is when I began to recognize a great truth about parenting: No parent has ever prevented their child from doing something she really wants to do. Indeed, we can stop them today and tomorrow, but if they really want to do it, they will, be it balancing across the top of that wall, climbing up the slide the wrong direction, or losing their virginity. The more heavy-handed our vigilance, the more crafty their deceit. 

What we can do is listen. What we can do is share our own experience, our concerns, our fears, honestly, without hyperbole. What we can do is be there to catch them when they fall, something that is impossible when secrecy is the norm because you are not there when they fall. Forbidden fruit will always be tasted. Always. I don't expect my child to tell me everything, and I know she doesn't. But I've told her that my default position is to want to say "yes" to her and that the more lead time she gives me, the more time for reflection and discussion, the more likely it is that I will be able to get to get there. We've had many uncomfortable conversations over the years on all kinds of topics. I've listened and tried my best to be honest in my answers. I tell her when I think she has a bad idea and why, but when she persists, I try to fight the urge to forbid and instead have a frank discussion about how to mitigate the risks I see ahead of her. Often she has gone ahead with plans about which I have second thoughts, but sometimes she'll decide to "wait" until she's ready.

More often than not, my fears are not realized, and I like to think that is at least in part due to the fact that those conversations required for me to get to "yes" have given her the tools to make more mature decisions. Of course, I know she also has regrets. We all do. Mistakes are part of how we learn about the nature of life among the people. But there is nothing worse than a secret regret, one that must be kept bottled up because it resulted from a taste of forbidden fruit.

No one has ever prevented their child from doing something she really wants to do, a truth that Megan's father and I shared over the phone that day even though neither of us knew it at the time. This isn't to say that we must allow them to do whatever they want whenever they want, but rather to acknowledge that our job is not to forbid them their desires, but rather to help prepare them for the day, and it will come sooner than we want, to explore life on their own terms.

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