Yesterday I was at coffee with a cluster of my good female friends. (I am purposely not calling them girlfriends because I am already old enough to wonder if I should dye my grey streak and too old to be posting selfies to Facebook and calling my female compatriots "girlfriends.") Anyway, we were all of us drinking lattes at my friend's kitchen island while someone was making a hair-removing concoction of lime juice and sugar and the rest of us were watching in fascination.
My friend's oldest son, who is seventeen, was wandering around the kitchen and talking, and all of us were torn between enjoying his company and wanting him to go away so that we could talk about the things that you can't say in front of teenage boys. As he moved back and forth through the kitchen, lighting briefly on counter tops before hopping off again, his mother questioned him about his homework, suggested what speech he should choose in the next Speech and Debate tournament, and told him to go and weigh himself and see if he had gained any weight, like his swim coach wants. He remained rather congenial throughout these suggestions despite not really doing anything she said. Somehow, all of us fell into talking about internet security and the necrophiliac-bestiality porn that we are all afraid our boys may be watching on the ginormous cesspool called the internet. That, and all the countless hours some of them spend staring at screens instead of doing their homework. My friend with the seventeen year-old talked about a program called Safe Eyes and how it was installed on her kids' devices now, allowing her to limit their screen time and block unsafe sites. Safe Eyes, I thought. I should write that down. Her son asked her to unblock YouTube, and she told him no, but she could unblock it temporarily that afternoon. He didn't get obviously angry. He's a good kid. They're a good family. A supportive, interested mother and a son, almost a man, still letting her do her job.
"You're lucky he lets you do that," I teased her. "My teenager would leave home if I did half of that [meaning half the instructions, half the incursion on what he has learned, to my dismay, to think of as his own business]."
Another very good friend (who also has a teenager) responded to me, saying with alarm, "Let? Who's in charge?"
I chose not to respond at that moment, sensing the presence of a complex subject, but I have been thinking about her words ever since then, and I think her question is both very understandable and also a really good starting point for discussion.
When I was myself a teenager, my parents (who, you have to understand, had only recently been hippies) tended to take the attitude that if they forbid me to do things, I was going to do them anyway, so what—really—was the point. This was not really untrue. However, not having the boundaries they might have given me to push against, I assumed both that I was not loved enough to protect and that the world was very unsafe. I felt like a person walking over a high and narrow bridge without guard rails on either side. It always seemed like I was in danger of falling, and I felt equally sure that nobody would catch me if I did. I looked for boys and best friends that might catch me and tested them all repeatedly by hovering over the edge. With my chronic drama, I used all of them up so that they could barely stand the effort of knowing me. And then I did whatever I did—to show them or to show my parents or to make someone come and rescue me.
What I learned from this, by the time I was eighteen and sober, is that no one can really stop you if you want to destroy yourself. Nobody's love for you, no matter how great, can substitute for your own sense of self-preservation. When I did finally return to safety, it was of my own volition. Many, many people loved me and helped me to do this, but they all made it clear that my decision to survive would be completely my own. I had always blamed my parents for what I thought was not loving me, and for being human and therefore imperfect, but in the end, the damage I had done to myself through alcohol, drugs, and anorexia was entirely my own responsibility. Both the mess and the cleaning up.
This was a good beginning, but I was twenty-five, with two children, when true sanity finally dawned on me. My oldest child was struggling in school and, due to an extremely unfortunate presentation of severe ADHD, was chronically in trouble for doing something awful to someone else. I tried my best. I was extremely young and extremely stupid and had assumed that if I provided what I thought were the right ingredients that my child would come out happy, successful, well-behaved, and nice. He would be like a cake that I had baked following a recipe. I had read countless parenting books. I knew the recipe, but the cake still kept coming out fucked-up. One day, it hit home to me what was so hard about parenting a kid like mine. It was that it was assumed that I was responsible not only for my parenting—for my own actions—but entirely for the actions that my child himself chose to take.
It was then that I realized what I had done to my own parents. I had held them responsible not simply for their own actions but for all of mine. I could only now begin to appreciate how painful that blame must have been. Stricken, I immediately called my mother and apologized. I can still feel now the horror that I felt at the moment when I realized what an asshole I had been to the people who loved me most, who had stood by me, always doing their best to help me in whatever way I could receive any help they gave. They had been afraid that if they laid down the law, they would lose me altogether—and they had been absolutely correct in having that fear. Instead, they had managed to maintain a relationship with me, and because they did, I had been able to stay with them and get well on my own, when I decided to.
Which brings me back to my friend's question. Who's in charge? The answer is actually obvious if you can look at the situation for what it is.
It seems to me that to think otherwise is to buy into a luxurious deception wherein you can go on thinking that your children are somehow within your control, that they are appendages of your own desires and intentions, and that, if you follow that sure-proof recipe, they will turn out as they "should." You can get away with the thinking this way when you happen to be parenting compliant children—children who, by temperament and circumstance, are not especially inclined to go to war with what you want. But when you are given a spirited child to parent, you quickly learn the folly of this kind of parenting.
Certainly, parents have enormous influence over their children. We make rules. We set examples. We encourage. We inspire. Good parenting is as important to children as good baking powder is to cake. Without it, nothing is going to rise. But here's the part most parents never grapple with—when you make rules, kids either choose to follow them or not. You can give consequences and you can give rewards, but if they don't want the reward as badly as they want to break the rule, or if getting the consequence is worth asserting their own will, they can and will break the rule anyway. Day after day, they comply with our smallest desires, with our endless instructions to get ready so that we're not late, with our requests that they eat vegetables, and our injunction that they go to school.
They do all of that of their own free will, and rarely do we appreciate that they Do. Not. Have. To. When we encourage or inspire, the child still has to be encouraged or inspired. They have to participate. They have to value their relationship with you enough that they are interested in what you say.
They get to choose—always.
A wise man in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, "You can do anything you want—as long as you are willing to accept the consequences of your actions." Later, my friend Amy gave me the keys to the kingdom, saying "I think your problems parenting come down to this essential problem of belief. You think you should be in control of him and not that you are two human beings trying your best to work out your relationship."
Realizing that she was right may have saved me from committing child abuse (or some other horrible result of my constant stress in the face of not getting what I wanted).
These are now the truths I choose to parent from: The choices are theirs. The consequences are theirs. Just as my choices and consequences are mine. I make as many rules as any other parent. I follow my kids around, entreating them to complete their homework. I threaten cell phone confiscation. I follow up. I praise. I hug. I rub backs. I apologize. I lay down the law. I build and nurture our relationship. But I never forget that my children's choices belong to them. That, in fact, they don't have to do a thing I say. I can restrict their internet and, if they want to, they can watch porn over at the house of a friend whose mother does not. I can pack them healthy lunches, and they can toss them and spend all their allowance on Fun'yuns and Arizona iced tea. I can spend sixteen years raising them to value themselves, to work hard and try and make a difference, and they can still choose to ditch class, smoke pot, or bully other kids, if that's what they've set their hearts upon.
Parents who have never dealt with real behavior problems in their children are like wealthy people who have never known what it is to walk around with holes in their shoes until next paycheck, who have never had to choose between groceries and electricity, who have never had to stay home praying with a fevered child, terrified and wondering what the emergency room might cost. Studies now show that we all make the same mistake about our good fortune: We think we deserve it. We think we have earned it. And we think—all of us—that those that don't have what we have simply have not done as well as we.
I think it all the time. My kids know how to think critically because I engage them in interesting conversations. My kids know how to work because I expect them to do so at home. My kids are smart because I picked good books, because we don't have cable, because we value education in our home. I have done a damn good job, I think.
That kid with the meth problem? Bad parenting. How the Hell are they letting him do that? The bossy tyrant in my sons' play group? Naturally, he's a bully. Just look at how cute his mom thinks his antics are. That woman getting the divorce? Bad picker. Why would you choose to marry a man like that?
As long as I can continue thinking I have what I deserve—bright, drug-free, compliant kids, a supportive husband, a vegetable box filled with organic food—I am protected. I don't really have to worry about teenage addicts, about painful divorce proceedings, about how I might feed a family on what I could buy with SNAP. Even if I feel compassion, I still don't have to feel fear.
But it's a lie. I don't have what I deserve. I have what I am blessed with. I have kids who, every day, choose to let me parent them, kids who do the dishes when I ask them, kids who listen to what I say and text me, over and over this letter:
"K." [Yes, Mom, I'll do what you say.]
Except when they don't. And whenever they don't, I am presented with the conundrum at the heart of all human interactions: that I very badly want what I cannot make another do.
It is at these moments that I find I can use force, I can direct anger like a fire hose in hopes that I scare them into doing as I say, I can cajole, I can entreat, I can cry. I can make new rules. I can enforce existing rules. I can be authoritative but not authoritarian. Not permissive. Empathetic, but strong. And how will they respond? I am suddenly aware that my relationship with that child that is almost a man hangs by one tiny, frayed thread of remaining belief that I am the parent and he is the child, that I am really the authority figure governing his life. We have to agree to this reality—both of us—or we lose each other. We damage ourselves.
And, again, he agrees to believe that I am the parent, that my rules govern his behavior, that he still needs me and I can be of some use to him. He does not have to believe this, but he does—as much as an act of love for me as because it is easier to think it true. The fraying thread of his childhood thread gets smaller every time, but he still believes this. He still looks at me and answers "K."
At that moment, I am blessed by his choice—as I am blessed that my husband doesn't leave me, as I am blessed that, despite the economy, I still have vegetables in my frig to eat. I may be blessed, but one thing I am not is in charge of anyone's choices. I am again granted permission based on the shared illusion we call parenthood.
Here is a strong-willed, intelligent, complex human and he has given me the honor of continuing to let me be his mom. If he wasn't as much like me as he is—strong-willed, feisty, single-minded—I wouldn't have to know that I'm not really in charge. I wouldn't have to deal with the fact that I want very badly something which I cannot make another person do. I could go on believing I am the only parent he has—that there are no teachers, no peers, no media, no unexpected disasters, and no authority within the young man himself.
To believe all this would be easier, but it isn't true.
And so I remain profoundly grateful to have strong-willed children. I am a better human for not thinking I am in charge of what I'm not in charge of, that I am the master of what I am merely the servant of. I cannot fall asleep to the truth because they won't let me. I am a humbler and more compassionate human being for every single time they have looked at me and, instead of saying "K"—have told me "No."