Lately I’m considerably more conscientious about preparing my children to successfully launch into adult life. Maybe that’s because my children are 13- and 16-years old and college is around the corner. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen in my practice and in the literature that young people are just not as ready for real life when they leave for college or start work. When I grew up, adulting wasn’t even a word, now the lack of it is an epidemic and a syndrome (check out this fascinating look at the rise of the actual term adulting.).
A few years ago, I saw Julie Lythcott-Haims speak to a large group of teens and parents. I read her book (How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success), and I consider myself fairly up to date on parenting and child development. But during her talk, Haims said something that resonated so deeply. She said, “Our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job.” That was it. So simple. It was like being hit over the head with a cast-iron frying pan and suddenly, my mindset shifted.
Around the same time when I was writing Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction I stumbled across a flyer from the Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock. It reads “If you are dropping off your son’s forgotten lunch, books, homework, equipment, etc., please TURN AROUND and exit the building. Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence.” Yes, Yes, Yes!!! The universe was telling me (and every other parent) that something had to change. We’ve got to stop enabling our kids to sit back and have their parents solve their problems.
With my parenting brain realigned I understood there were lots of things I was doing for my children that needed to stop. Out was checking up to see if they did their homework. Out was making sure the gym uniform was washed, dried and returned in the backpack. Out was cooking every morsel of food that was to be put into their mouths. Additionally, I made sure to give the kids several chores in the house that they were required to do on a daily basis. When my kids instinctively ask for help opening a cheese stick (yes 13- and 16-year-olds still ask this) or how to spell astronaut I now tell them to figure it out.
With Haims’ phrase and the Catholic school’s flyer in mind I’ve mostly avoided overparenting. Recently a teacher approached my high schooler to say, “Your mother sent me an email about your grades. Let’s talk after class.” My daughter looked at the teacher and said with complete confidence, “There’s no way my mother sent you an email.” She was 100% correct. There was absolutely no way I would send an email to my daughter’s teacher about her work or grades. I would have recommended my child email the teacher directly if he/she wanted to get some extra help. If the child chose not to get the help, then that child would have to deal with the consequences of not be prepared for the next test. Turns out the teacher was speaking with the wrong student.
And so it’s been going until I was forced to decide how far this adult preparation was going to go. This morning I allowed my son to miss his bus so we could have breakfast out together before school. This is normally my husband’s weekly special time with my son but in his absence this week I took over. I was planning on dropping my son at 8:30 am and meeting a colleague at 9 o’clock. Everything was going perfectly. We were enjoying each other’s company. We were discussing life and important topics over a chocolate almond croissant. When I mentioned the Say No to Drugs Red Ribbon Week campaign at school my son looked up in a panic and said, “There’s a Halloween costume contest at lunch today.” At 8:11 he’s realized that he did not have a costume. He forgot. Now I’m faced with a choice. We are two minutes from school and at least 10 minutes from home. We really didn’t have time to get his costume and for me to meet my coworker without being late. Morosely, we got up and ambled to the car.
On the way there I’m muttering about how we really don’t have time for this. My son is muttering as well. He’s saying, “It’s ok. We don’t have to get it.” But my heart is breaking. He’s such a good kid on all fronts. He’s generally responsible. He does take the dog out and empty the dishwasher with a minimum amount of complaining. He’s self-directed and above all, I know he would go out of his way to help me in an emergency. It all comes down to one question: Is this one of those times I should not rescue him and let him suffer the consequences for forgetting something?
I don’t want this question. I just want to enjoy my breakfast with him, drop him off and arrive on time to my next appointment. And I really really don’t not want to reinforce any kind of disorganization. However, I looked at the kid in front of me. He absolutely loves Halloween. School is mostly boring and lame, and this is one of the fun days (even if it has nothing to do with actually preventing drug use). Do I want him to miss it because I have a principle to uphold?
It turns out that I didn’t. More than I wanted to teach him a lesson, I wanted him to have his costume today. I’ve taught him many lessons, and I will continue to do so. But I realized there isn’t an all or nothing in this parenting gig. Consistency and following through are important. I made a video on this exact topic yesterday. But there are times that instead of being the parent I need to be a human being who has empathy for another human in distress. I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve frantically called my husband because I’ve forgotten something important. It happens to the most organized among us.
So, I quickly turned the car around and started driving toward home. If this were the 10th time my son forgot something for school this would have turned out differently. But it wasn’t. It was the first. My son and I said nothing for a few blocks, and then he said, “I think we can make it.” We caught every green light on the way home, and I took the toll road (expensive but fastest route) on the way back to school. Because my son knows that I don’t normally rescue him if he forgets something, he was unusually grateful. A block from school he rushed out of the car flashing a smile. I rushed back to the highway.
I arrived at exactly 9 o’clock on the dot. My son was right. We both made it. Still thinking about if I made the right choice, I looked down at the floor of the passenger seat to see my son’s pencil case laying there. In his rush to get his costume on in the car he must have dropped it. I will not be dropping them back at school.