A common fantasy we have as parents is the eternal preservation of our children’s innocence. It would be so nice if we could shelter them from the harsher realities of life. And if we can’t prevent the inevitable bumps and bruises that life deals, we’d at least like to have the power to fix the damage; kiss our kids’ booboos and make them all better.
In this post, my husband Mike shares his personal realization about the limits of his power as a parent – when intervention is appropriate, and when sometimes just being present is good enough:
There are tangible moments in everyone’s childhood when a layer of precious innocence is stripped and replaced by some less fanciful, arguably less reassuring truth. These moments come faster and faster as our kids mature and stray further from our oversight into the big, bad world. As a parent, I have not been privy to most of them. They happened off camera, and my kids processed the information without the value-add of my analysis or input. But I have witnessed a few, and I have never felt more impotent. While on the one hand I am privileged to share these ‘growing up’ experiences, I desperately wish my kids didn’t have to go through them.
My boy is a superb soccer player. Not just because of his physical ability, but also his demeanor as a competitor, what used to be heralded as sportsmanship: offering bruised teammates and opponents a hand up; showing empathy for hurt limbs or feelings; finding joy in others’ success and acknowledging his own mistakes. Though fiercely competitive, he plays at every game with a purity of heart and intention that not only makes me proud, it fills me with admiration.
When he was eight years old, toward the end of a particularly intense soccer game against the league favorites, a very frustrated older boy picked up the ball and threw it at my son’s head. He missed, dinged the referee instead, and the boy was dealt with. I will never forget the look on my son’s face. Never. Amidst the howls of righteous indignation from players and parents, what I saw in my dazed boy was utter confusion. The action of the other player was completely foreign to him. Did this guy hate him? Did my son do something offensive or wrong? Weren’t they all just trying their best? Weren’t they having fun?
I watched silently, feeling entirely helpless. I am not overly emotional (you may fact check that statement with my wife), but for me that moment was pure heartbreak.
After the game, we talked a lot. Actually, I talked a lot, driven by my paternal instinct to protect and fix. While in this case it was too late to protect, I was desperate to fix. My great fear was that the incident would decimate forever the pure joy my son got from physicality and competition, and that somehow it would translate into ‘if I excel, the other kids will hate me.’ I assured him the other player’s reaction wasn’t his fault. He had done nothing wrong except play really well.
‘To parent’ is a verb, and, as such, it demands action. But as kids get older and are allowed appropriate independence, they are inevitably going to find themselves in confusing, sometimes inappropriate, sometimes scary situations. And while I can’t (and shouldn’t) be around 24/7 to supervise every critical juncture of my kids’ lives, I can protect them from casual, day-to-day exposure to adult realities before they’re old enough to understand and process them for themselves. Part of being a responsible (grown-up) parent is having the stomach to go against conventional parenting wisdom (much of which, I’m convinced, evolves for our own convenience).
It begins, of course, with media. Any shrink will tell you, kids cannot filter and process torrents of visuals and sound bites designed to entertain adults. They don’t have the knowledge base, experience or perspective. PG-13 action, horror, even comedy movies are not all right for a pre-pubescent, even if we’re sitting with them. Single shooter Xbox games are not healthy for a young mind with an undeveloped moral compass, no matter how cool it is to have an in-house gaming buddy. And local news (‘if it bleeds, it leads’) is not appropriate background noise while my kids are doing homework.
I have come to know that parenting needs to be practiced in the real world with extreme conviction, follow-through and consistency. It is not easy telling your friends, neighbors or relatives your five-year old boy cannot attend his buddy’s birthday because you don’t think a John Carpenter Film Festival is appropriate. It means saying ‘no’ to – and for — your kids a lot of the time, even though other parents will feel judged. Not a great way to win friends and influence people, but this parenting thing demands backbone.
There is nothing I could have done to avoid my son’s soccer experience. Surely, it was an age appropriate rite of passage (and I do pat myself on the back for not getting involved and embarrassing my boy by demanding some false apology from the other player). But I would never knowingly place any of my kids in a situation they weren’t cognitively prepared to handle. That is something I can control, and it’s probably the best any of us can do as our kids grow up. In fact, it’s the least we can do.
It’s quite possible that parenting becomes more difficult as our kids get older, because there are more grey areas and judgment calls. Figuring out where to step in, when to hold the line, and when to stand back are constant challenges, and I imagine they always will be. I comfort myself knowing that if I make decisions and act from a place of respect, I can’t go too far wrong.
(Photo by Jack Mallon on Flickr)