None of us like to say we live our own lives through our children. We recognise that their lives are their own – not a do-over for ourselves. But what do you do when you see your kids be offered an opportunity that you think is fantastic, but that they want to turn down? What if that opportunity is a really big deal? Can you stand back and let them allow it to pass them by?
It starts early. Sport teams, friendships, perhaps even student council or volunteer stuff… little things. You might want your child to get involved, but they’re reluctant. Some people might nudge their child’s choices in the ‘right’ direction with negotiation or even bribery (oh come on, we’ve all totally done that). Others allow children to have the final say, and then are criticised for allowing their kids to do whatever they feel like.
For example, one of my sons had an opportunity to become part of an organised sporting team. He didn’t want to commit to the formality of it all even though he liked to just hang out with the team while they were training in our local park behind our house and he was always invited to play along too. He liked the relaxed, fun part. He didn’t feel the need for membership, didn’t want the shirt, and honestly, without a car of our own and travel/work schedules, I didn’t need the responsibility of it all. One parent of another child in the team said how “disappointing it was” that my son didn’t get more involved in the team (read: you’re being a bad parent for not getting your child to do this). Over and over again. Sigh, walk away.
That’s just the beginning. Kids grow up. They make bigger choices. Classes, part-time jobs, internships all enter the picture, along with social choices. It actually never gets easier. The kids get bigger, but so do the choices. It’s never easy to just let them make all their decisions.
When do you start giving your kids control over what they choose to do? Perhaps you let them decide, but you bend their ear relentlessly about whether their choice is the ‘right’ one or not. (Pause right here… sorry Bec. I should have been quiet more often. I’ve learned that. A bit.) During the teen years perhaps the parenting becomes more about your ability to nag than the ability to physically have influence and limitations on the choices your kids make. Perhaps we overcompensate with our opinions because our children get to the point where they have the same rights in society that we do?
When do we step back and let them make their choices, just as we make ours, and allow them to see what happens? Perhaps we never really do. My own mum sent me an email at the start of the summer, letting me know that she thinks the kids need a haircut. (She’s right, but they didn’t want one really and as long as it’s clean, I don’t care that much.) I’m 42. I hope she never truly steps back – it made me feel great that she told me what she thought. Then in June I was making Max’s birthday cake. I sent her a picture of the tin I was using. She emailed quickly back, “Don’t forget to grease the pan well, and let it cool for 10 minutes so it doesn’t stick…” Yep, she’s parenting me still from thousands of miles away. I don’t actually have a problem with that at all.
I’m old enough now that I can do whatever I like, and not need my parents’ approval – but I would still prefer it. And I’m glad to have kids that are all over 10 years of age, who are becoming solidly independent individuals. Sure, the kids have their own decisions to make that I’d do differently. But they’re not me, and their choices are not life-threatening unless I let my mind run wild with highly unlikely circumstances which would make them so. For example, I’d prefer one of my sons not play football, but he wants to. I could decide he’s likely to end up with a neck injury because you know, that’s happened to people in the past, so I’d like to discourage him… but I’ve allowed him to drive a scooter in a car park (he crashed), so really they should take the whole parenting licence thing away.
Finally, my 11 year old, Charlie, has caught two buses on his own home from school for over a year – the link stop is outside the supermarket, so of course it didn’t take long for him to decide to go in there for a soda on occasion – he even got his own store loyalty card at the service desk so he gets the discounts! And at Christmas he gave the $20 bill he had in his wallet to a homeless guy on that same corner. It was his choice. And while for us, $20 is a lot of money, for the homeless guy I’d guess it was even more. Charlie’s decision to give his money away would not have been mine. But I’m glad he decided to do it. Because sometimes the decisions the kids make remind me they really know better than me, and they should totally have the freedom to embrace those decisions – and teach me too.