I have sometimes been the uptight parent who didn’t want her kid to eat the food at a friend’s house or, more seriously, to play violent adult-rated video games like “Call of Duty 4”. I have never been so restrictive that I would make a big deal out of it, but I have nonetheless sometimes thought of other parents as “bad” parents for allowing their 10-year-olds to play “Halo” or watch rated-R movies and tried to casually steer my kids in other directions.
The shoe was on the other foot recently and I was that parent receiving the disapproval of another parent. My son’s friend came over and he was surprised by our most risque video game, Shadow the Hedgehog, which I gathered he wasn’t allowed to play at home. This game is considered more mature, not because your character is hacking off the heads of other characters with blood spurting everywhere (as in God of War) but because Shadow says “hell” and “damn.” To further display the wild unchained hedonism in our house, my son and his friend were allowed to drink copious amounts of Mountain Dew Voltage and whack each other with sticks in the backyard in an epic battle they referred to as a sword fight.
Mind you, I was shocked when my 12-year-old told me one of his friend’s dads introduced the son to porn. I was shocked when I heard that it was commonplace for 9 year olds to seek out nude pictures on the internet in the library system where I work. But other people are shocked by Mountain Dew and a cartoon hedgehog saying “hell.” It’s all relative.
In the online world of moms practicing attachment parenting among whom I count myself, there was recently a story in which a high-profile figure admitted that her 18-year-old had a drug problem. This has caused ripples of discussion among the moms I know, some of whom had older children with drug problems as well, about what they would do differently now to prevent such addiction. They would crack down harder. Have a zero-tolerance policy. Insist on putting the kids in rehab immediately when the kid voluntarily tells the parent they’ve experimented with smoking pot. It all centers around a belief that “if only…” they had done the right thing, they could have prevented the problems.
I’m not so sure that’s how it works, though. Obviously any parent is terrified by the thought of their child becoming a drug addict and most conscientious parents actively try to prevent that. But part of parenting is coming to terms with the fact that your child is ultimately not within your control. I’ve known people whose parents flipped out upon discovering that their teen smoked pot and cracked down hard, and the kids ended up addicted to harder drugs anyway. After all, the kid had their own reasons for being drawn to the drugs that had little to do with the parents. Then there are people like me and my husband who experimented a little, mostly behind our parents’ backs, and we ended up fine. Neither of us has any substance abuse issues today. Something else must be at play to explain why so many people like us turned out okay but some people we know didn’t.
When my kids were smaller I thought I could absolutely control what happened to them. I didn’t allow them to eat blue food or McDonald’s hamburgers and I never left them in daycare because I didn’t trust anyone. But once they went to school they were exposed to a lot of things we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen and I have gradually eased up. I still deliberately avoid exposing them to those things but they have had them before.
I fully accept that they have a secret life when they’re away from me, as all kids do, and within reason I think this is a healthy thing. We haven’t gotten through the teen years yet, but so far I feel that I’ve given them a good foundation and hope that will be enough. They’re still well-attached to us and we get compliments pretty much everywhere we go about how well-behaved and intelligent they are. I’d like to take credit for that but in truth I don’t think it has that much to do with me. The only thing I can say that I feel I’m doing really well is talking to my kids about everything. I try to keep things age-appropriate but they know they can ask me anything…which they often do, as uncomfortable as that sometimes is.
I can still look at other parents and think well, I certainly wouldn’t do that and I’m silently judgmental more than I’d like, but the more time goes on, the more convinced I am that a lot of it is about trying to strike the right balance between giving them enough intervention but not too much. Beyond that I think a lot of it is out of our hands.