It is late and instead of being asleep I am noodling around on the internet. I’m looking at articles talking about how helicopter parents need to back off, and lists of ways in which incoming freshman are not ready for college because their parents hovered too much. Then I think about parents who get prosecuted for letting their kids walk to the park, and about how my kid’s schools contact me every time one of my kids has an F. Or if my kids are marked absent for any of their classes. Or if my kid misses a flex session where they are supposed to make up work. The messages urge me to talk to my child about their choices. The unspoken message is clear: It is the parent’s job to make sure that their kids succeed. So parents get caught in this system that pushes them to hover, and then complains later because they hovered.
I’m thinking about all of this because, with one of my kids, we’re out in the weeds. There may be a path here, but it is hard to see and maybe it will only exist after we’ve trampled our way through to create it. I’m doing my best to step back, let him struggle, let him fail, let him learn. On the other hand I’m also doing what I can to make sure the path isn’t impossible, to help him keep moving, to make sure that the obstacles are surmountable with his current allotment of resources. At times it feels like the worst of both worlds. I have to explain to others why I’m letting him take a potentially failure laden path, and I’m having to explain why I step in and intervene in ways that look like I’m the one keeping him mired in childish dependence. I’m wending the best parenting path I can figure out, and I’m usually convinced that I’m getting it all wrong.
That “convinced I’m getting it all wrong” is a normal parenting experience. This is one of the reasons that society gets so focused on touchstones and check points. Semester grade reports and end-of-year testing are used as a way to know if the kid’s education is on track. High School graduation is a huge measure of success. Other touchstones are getting a job, getting a driver’s license, earning an award, college admission, picking a major, getting married, getting a job. Any success that the child has can qualify. When kids hit the checkpoints it is a small reassurance that maybe the parents aren’t completely failing. I read this behind many facebook statuses “Johnny won the spelling bee! (maybe I’m not completely failing at this parenting gig.)” Parents aren’t the only ones watching, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, neighbors, they all take note and help to celebrate. Milestones let everyone relax because the kid appears to be on track.
“Appears,” note that word carefully, because sometimes the internal experience of the child does not match the external success. Sometimes a checkpoint reached is more a measure of parental management than child growth. This is why helicopter parenting is scolded, because child growth should be the goal, not the checkpoints. Eventually the missing growth is exposed when the child is not prepared. Conversely, sometimes a checkpoint missed can also indicate growth rather than failure. Sometimes the strongest thing an almost-adult can do is to head out into the weeds because the standard path isn’t working. But a missed checkpoint looks like a failure. It makes everyone anxious and uncomfortable, because there is no reassurance that all will be well. then there is enormous pressure to get the kid “back on track.” People like the comfortable answers, the solid and stable answers. They like to know which college and what major. They want the major to be one that they can picture leading to steady employment. They try to steer artists away from art majors. They try to push college as the sure path.
There is no sure path. All of the paths are made of struggle, failure, getting up again, and moving on. Parents may manage their kids into college, but then the new adults have to do the growing they missed out on before. Sometimes people are exactly on track for a very long time, until life takes an unexpected left turn. Then they have to figure out how to find a new path for themselves. All of us will, eventually, have to venture out when the way ahead is not clear.
So perhaps I should use this as reassurance, that in “allowing” my kid’s education to veer away from standard, I’m letting him grow in a way that most people don’t until much later, even while he is not growing in some of the ways that his peers are growing right now. Maybe I’m succeeding and failing all at once. And maybe that is just fine.