Parenting is an endless stream of shopping, cooking, laundry, tucking in, checking homework, kissing boo-boos, running baths, making lunches, scheduling and doctor appointments. It’s disciplining and breaking up sibling battles. It’s cajoling picky eaters to just have one bite of steak. It’s helping anxious kids onto the bus for the first day of preschool and then calling an hour later to check in. It’s the toughest job, and we often don’t know if we are doing it right. I mean, besides the day-to-day chores, it’s hard to know whether we are imparting knowledge and wisdom to our kids. Will they know to give up their seats to pregnant women on the bus? Will they grow up to be good people who stand up for injustice? Will they be able simply to stand up for themselves?
Years ago, I learned how a good parenting talk doesn’t always land as we hope. When my daughter Casey was 7 she went to day camp with a good friend, Allegra. It is customary for kids to take a deep-water test to show they are ready to swim without intense supervision. My daughter could pass the test, but she was resistant. After a few days of her avoiding the test I had a long talk with her before bed. She told me she wasn’t taking the test because Allegra wasn’t taking it yet. I explained that sometimes it’s good to move forward when one is ready. I said her friend would want her to take the test. In fact, I mentioned that if she took the test it might help encourage Allegra.
The next morning, I again nudged her to take the swim test. Off she went to camp. I waited not-so-patiently for the bus to arrive home to find out if my parenting talk did the trick. Did she take the test? Well, Casey hopped off the bus with a big smile. “I passed the test,” she said.
“Hooray,” I replied. I was patting myself on the back. It was my talk that did it. I knew it. But I couldn’t let it rest. So, looking for an affirmation I asked Casey, “What made you decide to take the test?” She promptly put me back in my place, “Allegra did it!”
There you have it. I hadn’t influenced her a bit.
Most of the time, that’s how parenting goes. We talk and there’s no sign that anyone is listening. Kids nod and say, “Yup”—but really, we don’t know if we are making an impact. This week, eight years after the swim test, Casey helped me see that I am indeed giving her more than just a ride to practice and a hot meal after.
A few years ago, Casey was dress coded in middle school. Frustrated at the objectification of girls’ bodies I wrote a letter to the principal, and it went viral. Since then, we have had many conversations about dress code. The emerging #MeToo movement added an additional discussion point on the situation. This year the dress code was drastically altered in our district, allowing kids to wear just about anything. Administrators were explicitly told in the written policy that they are no longer allowed to “accuse students of ‘distracting’ other students with their clothing.”
So it was quite a surprise to Casey when at a back-to-school assembly, the new vice principal announced tight clothing would not be allowed because it could be distracting. Without a moment of pause, Casey raised her hand and asked, “Can you explain what about tight clothing is distracting?” Turns out the VP wasn’t quite ready for this question, and he replied with a rambling tangent. Casey raced into the house after school to tell me about the assembly. She was beaming with pride that she pushed back about the distracting comment. And then I was beaming. As parents we worry constantly about making all the right decisions regarding our kids. Mostly we worry about the minutia —Is this teacher a good fit? Will my kid make the water polo team? Why wasn’t my child invited to the birthday party? Solving those issues are all important. But it’s really a much bigger, broader question that looms. Namely—Will our kids be alright?
When I used to teach a social work ethics class I told my students that ethics was putting our values into action. Our values are what we stand for, even when it’s hard and maybe not convenient. When confronted with an issue that affects her and all her friends, Casey stood up and used her voice. I had talked, and she was listening. I could not have been more proud.