March 21, 2013
“My parents aren’t cool!” - Liam Baskin
Every now and then, you get a comment from your children than makes you think you are doing something right.
At first glance, the above comment does not seem to fall into this category, but it does when you hear the rest of the quote. He was talking to a woman from California who had moved to Cambodia during our recent trip there. She had told Liam that he thought he was lucky to have cool parents. He responded quickly,
“My parents are not cool. They are interesting, but not cool. They do not want to be cool in the eyes of teens. They want to be parents.”
This is exactly what we want, but we did not think a 15 year-old would notice.
One of the parenting trends we see as camp professionals is the desire to be friends with children. Such a parent often wants to appear tuned into the culture of their children, even listening to the same music and wearing similar clothes.
Even before we had children, the Silver Fox (my wise mother) shared a thought with me. “Your children will have many friends, they will have only 2 parents. You must be the adult and set the limits even if you are disliked or derided.”
This advice has found its way into our camp lexicon. We often tell counselors that there is something a little pathetic about a college student that needs to feel “cool” in the eyes of a 10 year-old. [Note: the more you understand what a 10 year-old boy thinks is cool, the more you wonder why anyone - including a 10 year-old boy - would want to be cool.] They also have many friends. They do not have enough heroes and role models. Also, if you (still talking to the counselors) are simply yourself and engaged with the campers, they will admire you and want to be like you. You will redefine what “cool” is: confident, caring and compassionate.
As parents, we have strived to follow the Silver Fox’s advice. It is not always easy, but it is important.
Children crave limits. They will say differently (“everyone else gets to . . . “), but limits provide structure and security. The world is a big and chaotic place. It is immensely difficult to process the world as a child. Limits put order in the world. They also send the non-verbal, but undeniable, message that they are protected.
Ironically, some parents set unnecessary limits in some areas (my child cannot go to summer camp), but none in more critical areas (no limits of TV or internet time). Finding right balance is one of the great challenges for parents. When do we say no and when do we stretch our children? Clearly, my family’s trip to Asia for 14 weeks is an effort to stretch our children. Sending each of them out of state for at least a month to camp is another. But we also set limits concerning the amount of time they are connected to the “technological tether”.
They do not always appreciate our efforts. They still share one mobile phone between the four of them (we have it for our convenience, not their amusement) and virtually all of their friends have their own. [Note: please do not read into this a criticism of parents that provide phones to their children. If we lived in a major city with activities occurring at multiple locations, we would certainly have provided our children with individual phones. Our hometown of Marble Falls, however, is sufficiently small and all their activities have readily available phones. In the rare circumstance where one of them will be away from us and without a phone, we give him or her the “kids’ phone”. With this set of facts, giving them their own phones would simply be tools for texting. I have no doubt that my children will eventually be facile with texts, but we prefer to tweak them in the direction of eye-to-eye communication as much as possible.]
As we strive for this balance, we focus on the goal of “preparing our children for the road and not the road for our children” (as psychologist Wendy Mogel cleverly put it). We want each of them to be caring and confident. We want them to be resilient and optimistic. We want them to be independent. We do not want them living in the house when they are 30.
Susie likes to talk about “letting out the umbilical rope”. By this she means the following. Each baby starts literally connected to the mother by an umbilical cord. Eventually, they will grow into contributing and successful adults that do not require any help from the parents at all (once again, hopefully before they are 30). In between these two extremes, parents reduce their level of protection and involvement and the child/teen/young adult increases independence. In her mind, it is like letting out a little more rope each month until it is now longer connected. She does not mean disconnected, but truly independent.
I am not sure how that analogy works for you, but I like it. I have met many parents who want to protect their 12 year-old like he is a 5 year-old. Yet I have not yet met the parent that hopes to be roommates with their children at college (or, at least, I have not met one that will admit it). When I ask them how their child will develop the independence, confidence, risk-assessment skills needed to succeed in college, they often have no answer. If the parents do all the risk-assessment, the child is left under-skilled in this area when she is a freshman, without any limits on curfews, activities or behaviors.
But being a parent is not easy. Heck, I like to be liked; especially by the four young people I love the most. Setting limits takes effort, especially when the children have inherited their father’s stubborn streak