Monday, June 20, 2016

As They Learn To Fly

When our daughter Josephine was a 14-year-old freshman in high school, she asked me if she could go to a party being hosted by some seniors, none of whom I knew. It was taking place in a relatively secluded part of a local public park not far from our home and there would be a keg.

It was the sort of party I would have moved heaven and earth to attend when I was that age. The key difference, and it's one I recognized right away, was that I would have never bothered to ask my parents for permission because I know that their answer would have been a firm "No," followed by a lecture on the dangers of drinking. Instead, I would have lied about what I was doing and met my friends there. 

Josephine already knew that teens drinking in a park was all kinds of illegal, but felt comfortable with the risk because these sorts of parties were a "tradition" that went back years. I asked, "Are any other freshmen going?"

"I'm sure some of them are."

The good news for me was that it was still a couple weeks away, so I had some time to think. "I'd feel more comfortable knowing that you will have friends there."

"I'll find out."

Over the following days she named a few kids who were planning to attend although she was surprised and disappointed that most of her friends' parents had given them that same firm "No" and one-sided lecture I had learned to avoid by lying.

I said, "I figured that would happen. And I'll bet the kids who are going haven't even asked their parents. Listen, I was a teenager and I know you're responsible. I want to be able to say "Yes," but I still have some questions." Over the next couple days, I worked my way to "Yes" by asking about the older kids, how many, what times, transportation plans, and other details. We learned that several of her friends were scheming to sneak out despite their parents' refusals. I told her that I expected the cops would bust it up. I also told her that I would be ready to come pick her up no questions asked. We agreed to stay in touch via text. We had conversations about drinking, older boys, driving in cars, and ultimately we got to "Yes." I was nervous, of course, but also certain that she would be the best prepared 14-year-old in the history of illegal public park keggers. 

And as I'd expected there were other 14-year-olds there, lots of them, all of whom, with the exception of Josephine, without parental permission, knowledge or specific advice. And I was right, the cops did break it up. She had known what to do: be polite, don't lie, and do what she was told, which was, as I'd expected, "Dump out your beer and go home."

I'm not the first to point out that being a parent can be a high wire act. You want to allow them increasingly more autonomy, while at the same time you want them to be safe. You want them to have a robust and satisfying social life (and a social life is the air most teens breath), while at the same time you want them to be safe. You want them to gain the life experience that only comes from making mistakes, while at the same time you want them to be safe. You want to say "Yes," while at the same time you want them to be safe.

She arrived home relatively early, but after we were already in bed. The following morning, we got a full, enthusiastic debriefing while the rest of the parents remained, probably to this day, in the dark.

That freshman year party was a watershed moment for our family. My child had gone to the same sort of party to which I had gone, but with her parents' knowledge and best advice. She had had the fun, the experience, and she had been safe. From that moment forward, my approach was, "I want to be able to say "Yes," and the more time and information you give me, the easier it will be for me to get there." She didn't always make the best choices, but she was never sneaky, always gave us a heads up the moment she knew something was coming up, and talked with us about it both before and after. And we always knew where she was, something that can't be said for the parents of most of her classmates, and especially those who would occasionally phone me in the wee hours, an edge of panic in their voices, to ask if I could help them find their child, which I usually could with a quick text to Josephine who would pass along the message that mom was worried about them.

She's now a grown woman, thriving as a student in the heart of New York City, flying on her own, making her own decisions. She still knows she can speak with us without judgement or scolding. These days she tends to turn to her mom for advice whereas she needed me more when she was younger, but it's still there, the idea that we're figuring this out together rather than fighting through it in opposition the way so many teens do it with their parents. I'm proud of all of us.

This is always our job as parents from the moment they are born: to keep them as safe as we can as they learn to fly, always knowing that the only way to learn to fly is to actually practice flying.

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1 comment:

The Oak Leaves said...

This is basically how I was parented. I still did one or two things they didn't know about. But for the most part I knew we trusted each other, they had my back, and I felt safe in that.