Pills, Pot, Profanity and Parenting

As I was leaving a parenting presentation at the local school on the topic of ‘Drugs, Alcohol, and the Teenage Brain,’ I caught up with a fellow mother of a teen boy.  We commiserated in hushed whispers about the pessimistic message of the presenter, fearing that an unintended ear would hear our true confessions. We know that our boys use substances that are frowned upon by social standards, aka laws, and we have learned to tolerate it – somewhat.

Call it self-preservation – or something more judgmental and harsh if you wish.  But don’t mistake it for ignorance, negligence, or lack of caring.  Countless conversations, teaching moments, threats, punishments and bribes have been employed at our discretion over 18 years.  And still, here we are, facing the dilemma of how to keep our kids on the straight and narrow.

When we begin the parenting journey in blissful naivete, we actually believe that we have control over how our kids turn out.  As if children ‘turn out’ – like a soufflé.  With thoughtful intention and unproven parenting prowess, we create a recipe for ourselves, certain that if we follow every instruction carefully, our result will be perfect, or at least predictable.  Plans shmams.

The illusion begins to deconstruct as early as the first tantrum when our little cherub learns to express his discontent.  It progresses to backtalk, profanity, sneaky behavior, lying….any rebellion that helps a child begin the natural separation from parent.  ‘Psychological differentiation’ they call it – an academic way to describe the tug of war between parent and evolving child.  If kids aren’t testing their boundaries, they’re not growing.

A professional colleague had a son who was delinquent and derelict by all accounts.  The mother, an educated and compassionate soul, endured a years-long struggle to set him straight.    Certain that she had failed as a mother, she all but gave up hope of him ever pulling himself together. The boy, a late bloomer you might say, transformed his life in his 30s and went on to study law enforcement.  He is now a judge.  I’ll bet he’s a cracker-jack judge, having had all that experience on the other side of the law.  I also bet that prior to his current career, there was plenty of gossip about how the boy ‘turned out’.  And lots of judgment about his parents, too.

Another friend has a brother who started smoking pot at the age of 14.  He wouldn’t quit until he decided that becoming a pilot was more important.  The point is this: the lives of our children are not about what we want for them.  It’s about what they want, when they want it. 

This is a hard pill to swallow for a conscientious parent. Parents are under pressure to produce a product that will pass quality control.  But to some degree, our real motivation is to satisfy our own need to have a child who makes us proud, or at the very least, doesn’t shame us. We want the ease of not  having to worry about the stability, safety, or success of our children.  We don’t want to be reminded that they are their own beings who have every right to make choices – good ones and bad ones. 

Long ago my son refused GPS tracking, aka Parent Stalking.  Thank goodness.  It has forced me to trust or to worry blindly – just like my parents did without the benefit (or curse) of constant contact.  When I feel the need to check in, I text the one question that summarizes my intent:  “Are you happy and safe?”  That’s really what I want to know.  More importantly, that’s what I want my son to ask himself.  I want him to check in with his own heart and mind.  If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, ADJUST COURSE.  I’ve found that the asking is enough to let him know that he is loved and that I’m here for him.

My threshold for alarm is raised quite high since the early days when I worried about kids not eating vegetables to the the present concerns of kids making choices about risky behavior.  Case in point, when teen son opened the pantry cabinet and found an array of delicious and very un-nutritious snack food, he turned to me in shock, grinning from ear to ear.  “You’ve given up, haven’t you?” he asked with delight.  “That deserves a hug!”  I accepted the hug with the same level of gleeful appreciation with which my son cracked open his bag of chips.

Sometimes our parenting doctrine gets in the way of our evolution.  It becomes a god we worship ritualistically without question.  At some point we must loosen the reigns simply because they become too hard to hold on to.  Which usually means that it’s exactly the right time to let go. 

This year I accompanied my son to the voting polls for the first time, where he cast his own vote based on his own thought process.  He was also called for jury duty and could be part of determining another person’s fate.  In the eyes of the law, he is mostly his own young man.  He knows his current mind, and his thoughts are valid, if not in line with my own.  He is experiencing his expanding heart.  He is living with his raging hormones.  And none of it begs me to interfere or to impose outdated restrictions.  It asks for freedom to live.

Wise adults tell children that they were placed on earth to shine their own light.  What if your child’s light is less like a lighthouse and more like a bonfire?  What if the very purpose of his life, the hope he gives, comes so far down the road that you can’t see it?  Maybe it’s in a form that you don’t yet recognize.  Maybe he is shining his light already but you can’t see past your disapproval of personality or behavior.

After all these years I have less certainty than I did before I became a parent.  Much of what I thought I knew was best for my children was misguided because it was based on my own ideas from my own life.  It turns out that ‘best’ is a nebulous and evasive concept.

We simply cannot know what is best for anyone but ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we don’t try to impart our wisdom or enforce rules that make our lives sane.  But we must remember that parenting is part of a bigger dance – one in which every child has the right to be his or her unique self, whether we like it or not.

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