Favors For Our Children
A few days ago my son sent me an urgent text that he needed his swim gear for a required after school swim practice that he was unaware of before he took off in the morning; furthermore, his proposed window for drop off was ending in only 20 minutes, barely enough time for me to get over to the high school. I dropped everything I was doing (putting the finishing touches on another blog entry, reviewing live edits to my book, and fighting a rather nasty cold) to get him his gear. On the way home I wondered why I did that, not out of regret, but rather out of curiosity at the lengths we go to aid our children in their endeavors, in amazement at what hardships parents will endure, and in awe of the parts of ourselves we will set aside in service of our children. More importantly I wondered if I had done the right thing. Did I miss an opportunity to teach a lesson? Was I making life too easy for him? Was I letting him take advantage of me?
It was 11:45 in the morning and I was deep in a couple editing tasks that absorbed all my attention except for the sliver of consciousness niggling me about the need to finish and get to work on the 2000 words of new writing I push myself to do (often unsuccessfully) every day, all the while I was sniffling and coughing, in the throws of a nasty cold. I had plenty to do before my kids came home, thereafter my time would be consumed with help on homework, rides to after school activities, and cooking dinner. My phone blared the incoming text sound and I automatically glanced at it without the slightest concern; it’s usually a trivial carpool update and reminder.
It was from my son. I stopped short and read the text more carefully. He needed his swim gear for an after school swim practice that was announced late the previous night. He did not get around to checking his email in the morning before he left in the rush to get to first period on time. The drop off window he suggested was narrow and closing fast. I had to stop everything, scramble to find the gear bag and inventory its contents, and get out the door in under two minutes. I weaved my way through traffic, cursed at every red light, and eyed my watch all the way to the high school.
The end of the story could be the point where I managed, by a minor miracle, to arrive at the outskirts of the school in time to hand over the swim gear to my suitably grateful teen.
This tale does not end there because, on the drive home, I reflected on my recent actions. I asked myself why I just dropped everything I was doing and raced to help correct a mistake that was not mine. I decided not to be satisfied with, “I love my kids and would do anything for them.” The question and subsequent thoughts over this was partially spurred on by the wide range of vocalized parenting styles that echo throughout the diverse demographic and cultural environment of the San Francisco Bay Area. Some parents would criticize me for what I did and insist that the school of hard knocks was open for lessons. Other parents would be surprised that I later questioned my actions at all, because they insist their child’s every request and need be met without question. Still others, with a laissez faire approach to parenting, might not understand the need for any reflection at all.
In our society, extremes, or opposite ends of spectrums, often face off with one another, sparking debate as to the correct approach to just about everything; this way or that, more this way and less that, and visa versa. We are a society of opposites, struggling constantly to balance and many times coming up polarized. Parenting is no different and one of the aspects of this difficult job that results in debate is concerned with how much we should help our children navigate the complex universe of choices open to them and to what degree we should let them fail and suffer the consequences of poor decisions and, even, simple fate.
When I thought back on my quick decision to act as rapid courier for my son, I considered whether I was denying him valuable life lessons and allowing my life to be unnecessarily inconvenienced. In the face of this common quandary, I know there has to be a balance between demonstrating care and concern, and over protecting and instilling an unrealistic view of the world. Was I supporting a pattern of irresponsible behavior? Was I teaching responsibility through my actions?
I asked myself if I was constantly delivering forgotten items to the high school and it turns out that this was the only time in the current academic year that I’ve had to come to his rescue in this way. So, it really seemed like, aside from a gentle warning that this could not become a regular occurrence along with a reminder that he is lucky to have a parent with a flexible schedule, there was no real benefit to punishing him for such a slight mistake. Furthermore, I think that a valuable lesson was imparted and that is that we as a family and as fellow human beings do our best to support each other and cover each other in times of need. This lesson is just as important as the lesson of personal responsibility. I believe that teaching our children that we also play a role in the health, safety, and, to some extent, the fulfillment and happiness of those around us, leads to socially responsible adults.
I thought about the rush involved and concluded that, since the materials were not required till the end of school 4 hours later, my son was considering my time when he suggested we meet on the edge of campus at noon, instead of telling me he needed the gear bag dropped off at the office some time before the end of the day. I confirmed later that he notified me the second he noticed his error and that he recognized that, if he cut his own lunch short to meet me outside campus, he could save me valuable time that I would otherwise have to spend looking for parking, getting a temporary parking permit, and speaking to people in the office to figure out where I could deposit the bag securely for later retrieval. I was not hard on him precisely because he recognized his mistake, admitted it, and tried to make my involvement in the correction as painless for me as possible.
Parenting is not something that just happens, it is intentional, or should be, and every decision we make as parents needs to be filtered through the lens of what we envision for our children when they reach adulthood. Our choices and actions should be further measured against what we know of our children’s personalities, past behavior, and current sensibilities. I think it makes sense to consciously parent and review our own parental decisions often. I can see the benefits of either side of the support/teach responsibility spectrum. On the one hand, I think that it is important to teach children compassion, patience, selflessness through example and, on the other hand, I also believe that no one develops into a productive, resilient, self-reliant member of society without the lessons imparted by struggles to overcome hardships with bravery and meet challenges with confidence and strength.
The only attitude I don’t understand is the laissez faire approach to parenting. Parenting surely is the hardest, most rewarding job any person with children will ever perform. Just not thinking about it or picking the easiest choice for you is not parenting, that’s a cop out. That said, I understand that we all get busy and struggle with life challenges and many of us have times in our parenting careers where we wish we could be more present in our children’s lives. Still, making an conscious effort, to whatever degree one can manage, is part of the job. Most parents I know would do anything, give anything up, on the mere chance that they might better their kids chances of having successful, fulfilling lives. The trick is to stay flexible in the parenting role and reevaluate parenting decisions and actions often.
It is important to remember that, as parents, the greatest lessons we provide to our children are the ones we often don’t know we are giving in the moment because at those times we are being ourselves, engaging in the passions that consume us, treating others the way we will, and generally living our lives the way we do; our children are always watching and eventually emulating these automatic instantiations of ourselves. This is where the sticky rubber of do as I do, not as I say hits the road of life. And that is why I’m often happy with my choice to perform small and large favors for my children, to put them first, ahead of myself, my desires, my obsessions, because I want them to grow up believing in the connectedness of all human beings, sure in the thought that they can have a positive impact on the world by, at least, occasionally putting another person first.