20 December 2010

Boyfriends, Independence and Parenting

[A]fter dropping my daugher at the Denver airport to go visit her college boyfriend, I in turn flew home too quickly. Distracted by my concerns of whether I was being a good mother to allow my daughter such an independent visit, I missed the 45 mph speed limit sign. My maternal worries were quickly replaced by that awful sinking feeling of seeing flashing lights in your rear-view mirror.

Pink traffic ticket in hand, I slowly drove home worried that my speeding ticket might end up costing as much as my daughter's airline ticket.

- Priscilla Dann-Courtney (author of "Room to Grow: Stories of Life and Family") from "Do You Know How Fast You Were Going - And Why?", a guest commentary at the Denver Post, December 20, 2010, page 19A.

The lede is in this story pretty much stole the show. Who can care all that much about traffic court when a young man and woman's fate hangs in the balance on the delicate thread of a long distance relationship?

As someone who has exchanged Valetines with my now wife from the time she was eighteen years old, made and received lots of cross country trips to see her in our long distance relationship phase (Philadelphia, Buffalo, Ann Arbor, Oberlin, Chicago and Grand Junction figured into those itineraries in every imaginable combination), ran up untold long distance bills, and was engaged to be married when she was twenty and I was twenty-one, I'm not someone who underestimates the potency and importance of late teen romance.

As a middle aged parent of a tween, I'm also bracing to figure out how to manage the challenges Dann-Courtney was facing as a parent myself. They will, no doubt, make the current struggles over the terms of conditions of a first cell phone, first e-mail account, unsupervised trips home from the bus stop, homework deadlines, fashion choices, flute praticing schedules, and acceptable snack foods pale by comparison.

Let's face it, I am guilty of helicopter parenting, as are about almost all middle class parents I know. It seems criminal not to know who your children's friends (and their parents) are. Raising kids in a city isn't as condusive to granting them independence as were my small town upbringing, or my wife's suburban childhood. When they were little there was a wide consensus that your children should always be in your sight or hearing, shouldn't cross even side streets alone, and should have carefully controlled diets free of the evils of sugar, unduly processed grains and excessive juice consumption. We felt a little guilty every time we skipped the organic aisle in the produce section.

Teachers and administrators at middle school Back To School night encouraged parents to ride herd on their sixth graders, while they were internalizing good study habits. Independence could wait until they had the hang of it, we were told. Parents were issued passwords that allow us to monitor homework and quiz results in real time, and were taught how to audit our children's planners to determine if they had homework that needed attention. Have we used all those tools? Only indifferently. But, the message is there, we ask a lot more questions about school work as a result, and both our middle school and elementary school child seem far more eager to have parental assistance in completing homework than I every remember being comfortable asking for when I was that age.

Dystopian teen fiction, like Scott Westerfeld's "Uglies," Ally Condie's "Matched," and webcomics like Gina Bigg's "Red String," while still featuring teens seeking independence in worlds where the older generation has plotted a path for them, gives the older generation much more credit for trying to do the right thing, even if they fail in the attempt, than similar young adult fiction did when I was kid.

In part, this is even an issue, because there is less of a generation gap than there was when we were young. My parents spent their college days struggling with slide rules and punch card computers. The software that I used to word process my sixth grade essays isn't that different from the software that my children use. My parents didn't like the Beatles when they first came out, preferring the crooners of Lawrence Welk fame. The jumble of pop, hip hop and country crossover that my kids listen to on Radio Disney isn't all that different from what my wife and I listen to on radio stations with an older target audience. The video games they play are more sophisticated than the ones we played, but we did at least play video games too as children.

It is mildly distressing to learn that the unisex jeans, t-shirt and chucks outfit that was the de facto school uniform of my entire youth has finally been displaced by a mismash of athletic clothes and ballerina skirts. But, the demise of the bowl cut that I wore for a decade in favor buzz cuts and mullets, with little in between, is surely no worse, and while girl's names have gone posh on us, with Ashley in and Jane out, their hairstyles and makeup preferences seem unchanged to my XY eyes from those of my childhood.

The flip side of being more involved in the day to day details of your children growing up, is that you have to acknowledge to a greater extent, the legitimacy of what they do care about. It is harder for Dann-Courtney to say no to her daughter's trip to see her college boyfriend when she knows the young man isn't half bad, and knows her daughter well enough to know that her daughter's feelings are heartfelt and not crazy. It is harder to insist that an elaborate role playing world videogame be shut off precisely at 8:00 p.m. as agreed when you know what a pain it is not to take the extra minute or two it takes to disconnect properly from that kind of fantasy world. Understanding fosters compromise. These days, parents are expected to be caring mentors, not authoritarian dicators of social norms, although the horror of being called out by another adult to "be a parent" puts limits on just how understanding parents can afford to be.

We meddle in our children's lives a lot, they know we want the best for them, and we know that we might not always get it quite right. This is the anxiety of parenting in the twenty-first century. Somehow, we'll muddle through, we hope, with everyone not much worse for wear in the process.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Judges were confirmed and Food Security reform did pass.

Jude said...

I'm involved with about, let's see, 11 teenagers on a consistent basis, and I don't see much helicopter parenting in their cases. Well, there's some over-parenting, but a lot of under-parenting. All of these teens are classified as gifted and talented (including my two sons). One girl became an atheist and left her Mormon household to live with me; her dad dropped by 3 times to try to reconvert her, and then left her alone. She figured out how to get a full ride scholarship to a lesser school than the one she should be attending--Mines--and I help out when I can. Her boyfriend was kicked out of the house by his mom. I made sure he had blankets and was well until his mom came to her senses. She had forbidden him to talk to his girlfriend--she kicked him out when she found out he was. How did she think she could prevent him from texting or emailing his girlfriend when all of his friends have computers? The rest are in various dysfunctional relationships with their parents. One boy, 18, went through a $47,000 insurance settlement in 4 months while his dad stayed in North Carolina and has since forbidden him to move back home. I already have 1 extra teen--he doesn't like his stepfather, so he's living here instead. My extra teen dropped out of high school last year with his mother's permission and spent 6 months playing World of Warcraft before I got him enrolled in college. I've met his mother 4 times now, but she's content to let him live here. So my experience of involved parents is that by the time kids are teenagers, most parents seem to be sick of being involved, and given an excuse will gladly write off their kids.