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.

Distance Parenting and Curve Balls

parenting worryWaking to a text from my college Freshman declaring “I’m scared,” was enough to give me a mini heart attack. Her physical safety had been inadvertently threatened by the thoughtless act of a misguided roommate. A week’s worth of distance-parenting ensued as my daughter found herself involved in an intense process that resulted in removal of said roommate.

Supporting Principessa from afar was a frustrating experience. I wanted desperately to rescue her, coddle her, speak for her… As mothers do, I wanted to kiss the boo-boo and make it better. Not unfortunately, the miles between us prevented any such nonsense, which gave Principessa the opportunity to rise up and shine through adversity.

Principessa had the wherewithal to handle herself with maturity and sensibility. Witnessing her instant evolution from child to young adult was gratifying to say the least. I felt as if I had arrived in a place I had dreamt about for years. It was a place that validated my (and Husband’s) work as parents.

Husband and I shook our heads in disbelief at the insanity of it all. As parents, we send a child off with hopes that we’ve prepared them for life. But we can never prepare for every conceivable situation. We can only hope that the skills they learned will serve them when life throws a curve ball.

When all was said and done, I felt relieved, of course, but also a bit damaged – strung out from sleepless nights of worry and days filled with phone calls. A week’s worth of uncertainty had taken its toll.

Friend asked why I hadn’t ‘freaked out’ about this violation to my first-born. I could thank yoga, meditation, prayer, denial, level-headedness, or any number of tools in my toolbox. I’m not really sure what held me together, but there was the underlying belief that Clarity works better than Chaos. I can’t allow Chaos to run the show, especially when my kid’s safety is on the line. Besides, I’d like to save ‘Freaked Out’ for an unidentified special occasion – one that can’t be solved with sanity. One that hopefully will never arrive.

Accepted, Excited and Panicked

collegebound2I knew by the size of the envelope that it was an acceptance letter, but I still held my breath when Principessa tore into it.  This was her top-choice university and the outcome could make or break her sanity.  She was ecstatic for a solid five minutes until nervousness set in.

I’ve tried reassuring her without being untruthful.  Sort of like telling a toddler that a vaccine shot will hurt – but only for a minute.

To be honest, I’m questioning my success in preparing her for what’s ahead.  My confidence in this regard has been taking hits of late. Like when we were driving at night.  I flipped my rear-view mirror to block the headlight glare from behind.  “Wow!” Principessa exclaimed.  “Does every car have that feature?!”

This is the same honors student who thought that the car made its own windshield washer fluid.  No joke.

I find myself dispersing random facts of life at every opportunity to ensure that I’ve covered all possible topics before releasing my first-born to the world. A crash course in Life, if you will.

  • Expect to feel free.  You are about to grasp that Golden Ring of Freedom that every teen craves.  For the first time, you’ll have no parental supervision.  But let me remind you that even in the absence of authority, actions have consequences.  And the fact that you will make more of your own decisions means that you will assume more of the responsibility for the outcome.  Think before you act.  Or as your grandpa the carpenter would say, “Measure twice.  Cut once.”
  • Expect to feel lonely.  Even if you’ve forged strong bonds with new friends and are having the time of your life, you will, at some point, feel lonely.  You may be standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of 10,000 students on the college quad and it will strike you that you are utterly alone.  The good news is that loneliness is a slingshot.  It propels you back in the direction of meaningful connection.  Just as spontaneously as you fell into loneliness, you will reconnect and wonder what your heart was fussing about.
  • Expect to feel amazed.  You probably feel pretty worldly already.  But I assure you, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Get ready for jaw-dropping stories and experiences, the likes of which may test your faith in humanity.  You’re leaving a bubble of relative predictability and heading to a melting pot of cultures, customs and values.  This isn’t a bad thing.  If you observe from a reasonable distance like a wildlife researcher, your observations will resemble a really good movie.  Grab some popcorn.
  • Expect to be betrayed.  There’s no sugar-coating this one, darling.  A friend will tell your secret, or a roommate may steal your boyfriend.  But at the end of the day, there will always be more good in the world than bad.  I can’t give you scientific proof of this, but I believe it with all my heart.
  • Expect to be loved.  You know this one.  Love has no boundaries.  Your family will not forget you or wane in our affection while you’re gone.  Your place in our hearts is guaranteed.

What I’m trying to say, my dear, is that yes, college is a big deal for a small-town girl. But it’s just another season of life.  There will be harsh Winters AND glorious Springs.  As long as your heart beats, you will weather the seasons, because that’s what humans do.  They live through all manner of experiences from horrific tragedy to mind-blowing joy.  Some survive and others thrive.  Each decides.

Sixteen

16If you weren’t a sixteen year old boy and embarrassed by me, your uncool mother, I would dance in the car like I used to and you’d join me.  We’d purposely embarrass ourselves and laugh at the reaction of others.

If you weren’t sixteen you wouldn’t hide in your bedroom.  You’d seek me out to share stories and jokes and music with me – like old times.

If you weren’t sixteen I’d compliment you and you’d believe me.  You’d hug me and not get antsy when I say ‘I love you.’

If you weren’t sixteen you’d admit that you get scared sometimes and would look to me for comfort.  You’d ask my opinion and not have to pretend that my words of wisdom mean nothing.

If you weren’t sixteen, you wouldn’t wear a perma-scowl to appear less sensitive than you are.  You’d allow yourself to feel.

But you are sixteen, like I once was.  I know what’s underneath that tough exterior of yours – the same generous heart, humorous spirit, and killer personality that I fell in love with so many years ago.  When you’re not sixteen anymore, these hidden gems will resurface.  People will marvel at the man you’ve become.  “Who knew?” they’ll remark.  A knowing smile will cross my lips, betraying my secret.  “I knew.” I will say.  A mother always knows.

 

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