My friend called me upset. While driving her kids home, she had crashed into another car. No one was hurt, but her car was wrecked and she kept replaying the incident in her mind. Could she have avoided the accident if she hadn’t stopped for gas? Or maybe her timing was lucky. If she hadn’t had that split second to turn toward the oncoming car, it would have plowed into the side where her sons were sitting.
We usually have more than an instant to make tough parenting decisions, and the stakes are generally much lower. Still, I’m frequently torn between issuing directives to my kids and giving them the space to figure out what matters to them.
It’s confusing for children too. They seesaw between wanting us to back off and hoping we’ll tell them what to do. About a year ago, my 14-year-old son faced a dilemma and called me for advice. Schuyler Bailar, the first openly transgender swimmer in NCAA Division 1 history, was about to speak at his school. The assembly was at the same time as his orchestra rehearsal, and his teacher was resolute. If he didn’t show up for rehearsal, he was told he’d be kicked out. That didn’t sit right with my son. He felt it was a unique opportunity and the school should support his desire to hear Schuyler’s journey.
He weighed his options and called us. With little time to consider the variables, we told him we’d support his decision either way, but that we expected him to be respectful. As he considered the consequences, I tried not to calculate the number of times I’d driven him to violin lessons over the years. He hung up without a plan.
Minutes later, he politely told his teacher that he’d like to go to the assembly and hear Schuyler speak. His teacher was calm, nodded his head and told my son it was too bad he would no longer be a part of the orchestra. Given the stakes, the exchange was surprisingly low drama.
That night, my husband and I processed what had happened and were bewildered. We thought the teacher’s reaction was overly severe. Our son had been a positive addition to the orchestra throughout middle school. Perhaps the teacher was facing a difficulty in his personal life? It just didn’t compute.
We wrestled with whether we should call the school. Although we didn’t like the outcome, we had trusted our son to handle the situation. We worried that stepping in now would undermine that message. If we wanted to be consistent and foster his autonomy, we decided he had to be the one to approach an administrator. I took a deep breath and suggested he advocate for himself, but he was uninterested in making it into a big issue. Although I second-guessed my hands-off approach for months, my son never expressed any regrets.
I’m constantly navigating these moments with my kids, and they tend to be no-win situations. I assume a neutral stance as they toss questions at me. Should they try out for the competitive tennis team or the no-cut lacrosse team? Should they take the more difficult class with the nice teacher, or the easier course with the chronically grumpy teacher? I ask open-ended questions and try to avoid pushing my own agenda. I know they’ll have an easier time accepting an adverse outcome if they own the decision. P.S.A. for parents–that doesn’t mean we won’t get blamed anyway. It’s in our job description.
I think back to my conversation with my friend. I can’t imagine what it felt like to be faced with a car barreling toward her, to choose to drive head-on into traffic to protect her boys. Whether we’re dealing with something minor or major, we’re constantly relying on a mixture of experience, intuition and instinct. The honest among us know we’re just winging it, and we hope we’re steering our kids in the right direction.