Kids grow and expand their circles and frankly, that’s what I want to see happen. But letting them experience some independence is an area painted with a large swath of gray; there are still plenty of ways that things can go wrong and just because I’m letting them have some freedom doesn’t mean that I’ve stepped back completely. How much information is a parent entitled to and is there any off-limits behaviors on the parents’ part? What should my guidelines be?
Years ago, I spoke with a friend whose kids were already teens while mine were either in pull-ups or early elementary school. Caught in the daily rush of providing physically intensive, high-touch care to three children, I told her that I envied her now that her kids were in middle and high school and able to take care of themselves. I would love to not have that constant demand. It would be a huge decrease in the daily pressure of small kids. Her response was surprising since she actually missed those days; the pressure, she stated, is still there but now it’s just different and I worry more than I did before. Our conversation veered on to other topics but the remark has stayed with me and as my kids are now further along in the age pipeline, I can appreciate what she’s saying. Where are they at the particular moment, who are they with, what are they doing and are there any parents nearby to monitor what’s happening?
Spending my teen years in the 1970s – yes, I’m middle-aged! – meant that there wasn’t the Wild West of the internet and more likely than not, having a parent who was home and able to keep tabs on what was happening. In the introduction to the reissue of his Summer of Night, author Dan Simmons writes about his perceived difference between the life of a 12 year old boy in 1961’s Elm Haven and such a life today. He recalls a life of freedom from the post-breakfast hours to late afternoon as kids would hit the bikes and head out throughout their hometown; the contrast is with today and the fear that either something bad will befall the boy or else he’s going to fall into a life of crime and delinquency without constant oversight and structure. From my recollection, growing up in a rural Pennsylvania was akin to Simmons’ fictitious Elm Haven and to an extent, I agree with Simmons’ premise.
There was a major difference between the rural 1970s and today, however and that is the presence of a parent to keep tabs on the kids and activities. I know that my mother knew – either personally or via phone – almost all of the parents whose kids were my friends and there were certainly phone calls back and forth just to apprise one another if the traveling circus was either moving or up to something. There were friends whose parents both worked, but they still kept tabs via phone and these kids were also welcome at my home at any time and a few spent considerable time there. There are far more parents working today than before, and many of these kids also come from single-parent families whose custodial parent is stretched thin to work and also oversee the activities. It’s this badly frayed parental net that makes teen freedom more problematic, I believe, since the parents aren’t around to keep an eye on things and also aren’t familiar with the parents of their kids’ peers.
Summer childcare in my area is easier for the younger kids. There are multiple daycamp programs through non-profit agencies as well as through the local municipal governments, who hire college students to keep an eye on elementary aged kids at the local parks and pavilions. But when the children enter middle school, they no longer qualify for many of those programs and are left to their own devices – precisely the worst possible time in life to have that happen to a child. The result is that more than a few young teens – impulsive, sexually curious, some not a little gender-confused, and frankly feeling a bit abandoned – spend their time unmonitored with their peers in a weird, whacked stew of testosterone, estogen and other various hormones. It’s a recipe that makes me, as a parent, more than a little nauseated and causes the same worry that weighed on my friend years ago.
So what options are there to help handle this? They need to be able to spend time apart and learn to handle independence, much as many learn to drive a car with lessons, practice and guidance before they actually slide behind the wheel; as Kurtwood Smith remarked in a radio ad for the Masonic Youth Organization, De Molay: you can’t just lock them in their room.
- Expect some conflict and pushback as the kids chafe at the perceived tethers, not knowing that you really do want to lock them in their room. Apart from the aggravation, what they say will give you a sense of what’s going through their head and where it’s coming from.
- Be explicit about return times so that there’s little chance of confusion that escalates into real unpleasantry.
- As I’m finding out with two teens and an elementary schooler, consider actually writing the times on a calendar or handy notepad so that you can keep it straight yourself and not appear to be the senile, doddering fool. Kids can blow through multiple plan permutations in a heartbeat and think that you’ve approved plan G when you’re really still at their plan C because of conversation with another child who’s calculating plan D on his own.
- Be clear on expectations about notice. I understand – I remember – the freedom to go with buddies to the store for a soda or a magazine and I want them to have some latitude as well. But if you’re going to someone’s house and end up elsewhere, please contact me just to provide a heads-up. You’re there? Fine, thanks for letting me know. If there’s a glitch in the plan that might cause delay, then contact me so that we can sort things out.
- Try to have a sense of what adults are around and if necessary, take a moment to pick up the phone and call the parent(s) and introduce yourself. They’re likely to be relieved to hear that their own kid is spending time with someone whose own parent appears to give a damn.
- Pick the moments on when to speak about stuff that you’re hearing. Teens will do goofy things and it’s probably not much different from your own youth. If the teens are scrawling the word kar on their t-shirts and piggybacking one another through the Wendy’s drive-thru to order a Frosty, then hell, what are they hurting?
- Occasionally check on where they are when they say that they’re somewhere. I won’t just drive to a location and search for them, but I have altered my driving route if already out just to see if they’re around. Then I can mentally cross-reference that with what I’m hearing later when they’re home.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge them if something doesn’t appear right or as it was supposed to be. If you were with Steve tonight, why did he call here looking for you? It’s certainly uncomfortable and potentially nasty, but the kids learn that you are paying attention and frankly, I believe that more than a few are relieved that you actually are paying attention.
- Try to remember to take a few moments to go over anybody else’s plans and activities. Teens are notoriously egocentric – like politicians, except that most teens grow up – and will sometimes forget that younger sibling has a championship baseball game or that Grandma’s coming to visit. That way, you can both hammer out a plan that satisfies them, younger brother and Grandma without creating needless angst.
- Grab any opportunity available to have the friends over so that you can meet them and make the place available, if at all possible, for sleepovers and get-togethers.
- Share your concerns with them about kids and situations and if at all possible, try to be as specific as possible. That kid is trouble! will probably engender feelings of loyalty from your own kid while specific circumstances and events, if you can enumerate them, helps your child delineate why that kid really is trouble.
This is going to be an ongoing exercise that will certainly test our – and our kids’ – patience as we work through what’s acceptable and find common ground. There have already been tense moments and each side has had to apologize to the other for testiness, and I anticipate that there will be more until they are finally on their own two feet.
And honestly, the piggybacking at Wendy’s sounds like fun.