I got sucked into an intense parenting conversation with my mother. She has talked occasionally about a colleague’s sister’s teenage son (perfectly clear, right? ;)), and about how his mother is going to send him to last-chance wilderness boot camp in a few weeks because he is mouthy and stays out all night. The mother and father of this kid have apparently been very strict his whole life, and now he curses at them, tells them he hates them, and won’t obey his curfew. I totally misread her point the first time she told me this: she was saying, How horrible for his parents. I was hearing: How horrible that his parents are doing this. I’ve read and heard accounts of people sending their kids to these programs and thought, Well, it’s hard to imagine what else they could do—but for a mouthy kid? A mouthy teenager? Of course we neither of us know the whole story, but based on our different understandings, we misunderstood one another.
For my mother, this means that I am judging her parenting. She didn’t send any of us away, but has told me many times that she considered sending me to military school because I was so depressed, and I have said that I’m glad that she didn’t, and I would have seen it as proof that she didn’t love me. I know as an adult that it wouldn’t have been that, of course, but as a teenager? I would have been certain, and heartbroken. It seems like a relevant fact that she never did sent me away, but she has apparently been needing to talk this out/set me straight, so while Mr. Book and Joey played with a cardboard tube (adorable), we talked about this without her persuading me to her point of view. She started to explain to me that parenting isn’t always simple, and sometimes you have to do hard things and be mean in order to help your kids, and I was saying that yes, I know that it is complicated, but I still value coming to these decisions from a place that prioritizes a warm and close relationship with my kids over their GPAs, and she felt as though I didn’t understand, and finally Mr. Book jumped in.
My mother was explaining that you want your kids to be successful, and you can’t stand to watch their actions close doors for them—I suggested that there will be doors open to them that you can’t possibly imagine, and while you can support your kids to succeed you can’t make them, and maybe their ideas of success aren’t the same as yours—and she was getting really exasperated. Mr. Book had been listening quietly, mostly focused on Joey, and he all of a sudden looked up at my mom and said, “We have different values than you do. We first off want our kids to be good people; we secondly want them to be happy; and everything else is a pretty distant third. We don’t prioritize success in the same way that you do, or think about it the same way.” My mom asked how you can make your kids be happy; he said that you can’t, you can’t make anyone be happy—but you can help. The conversation ended then.
I’m writing about the conversation because I’m still worrying it, chewing away at it and trying to figure out what happened. My mother has regrets, and that is what it is—I don’t hold my childhood against her, and I don’t bring it up with her. I know that we’re nowhere near the hardest parts of parenting yet, and am in that frustrating position of saying that while I know that I can’t know what it will be like, I think and I believe and I anticipate these various things. My mother kept asking me what I would do in this woman-I-don’t-know’s position, and I kept saying that I would really have to find myself in that position and figure it out—but I might see if he wanted to stay with relatives for awhile, I might let him drop out and look for work, I might ask him what he wanted and where he was going. Who can say? My mother worries that our decision not to hit our kids is a sign of some fatal parental weakness, and that we will be taken advantage of by horrible children; again, I suppose it’s too soon to rule that out for sure, but we don’t let Joey crawl around the floor in restaurants or make other peoples’ lives a burden to them. We have limits for him, but we don’t hit him when he crosses them—we just pick him up, explain, and redirect him. And my mother watches us, and worries.