An ode to my parents

First, sorry for the radio (blog?) silence of late. I recently started a new job–my first nursing job! So I’m pretty preoccupied with that now, and blog posts and activity will most likely be confined to the weekends. But anyway, I wanted to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about lately: my parents.

My parents are far from perfect. I see that and will openly admit that. But I think that they did a good job raising me, and I think that because of them I’m a well adjusted, productive adult capable of critical thought. So what did they do to raise a successful child? Tutoring after school? Heart to hearts around the fireplace every night? Making me learn another language or skill? Sending me off to science camp? As it turns out, my parents had a rather different strategy.

They were hands-off parents.

That isn’t to say that they didn’t love me or protect me or offer me the benefit of their experience when I needed it. They did indeed love me and protect me and they did offer me their wisdom when I asked for it. But by and large, my parents didn’t meddle in my life. They essentially allowed me to be my own person, even at a young age. My individualism was never squashed or tempered–unless of course I was being a little dickhead and doing something that hurt or offended other people.

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But because I had a lot of freedom as a child, I never really was aggressive. I’ve always thought that aggressive children are that way for one of two reasons. Either they have aggressive parents and just learn that that’s an acceptable way to deal with problems or they don’t have the skills to express how they feel and it comes out as anger. And I’ll come out and say that, from what I can see, the generations that came after me are either maladjusted or are going to be maladjusted mostly for the latter reason. When all is said and done, parents who micromanage every minute of their child’s life or protect them from everything are doing those kids a tremendous disservice.

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Just because I had freedom didn’t mean there wasn’t structure in our home, though. This is bed time and this is when I’m going to wake you up. Dinner is always at 6 o’clock. Be home before the streetlights came on. Don’t lie. Ask permission before doing something. That sort of thing. The bare essentials.

I remember that in high school I was the only one of my friends without a curfew. My parents just wanted to know where I would be and what time I thought I would be back. But if the answer was “midnight” they didn’t stop me.

My parents gave me the sex talk, but they never really discouraged me from having sex. They encouraged me to wait for someone I loved, but they didn’t really seem to be worried about me having sex as a teenager–so long as I used protection. Pregnancy and disease were definitely part of that conversation. When it came to sex, my parents used a strategy that involved two rather unconventional things in our society: realism and honesty. They knew that as a living, red blooded teenage male I was going to be curious about and want sex. So they were upfront and honest with me about it. They didn’t shame me about it, they didn’t tell me I had to be X years old or whatever and they didn’t wrap up a perfectly natural act in morality. They told me that sex should be with someone you love and that I should use condoms. And that was my sex lecture. And you know what?

It worked.

I waited to lose my virginity. I was 19 when it happened. It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested. I had started to explore my sexuality long before that. But because my parents were forthright and didn’t bullshit me, I respected their advice. I can’t emphasize that enough. This strategy worked pretty well for them and for me on a lot of topics.

When you’re honest with kids about taboo topics, you demystify them. You take away the allure. Guns? My dad owned guns growing up, and I was taught gun safety and to respect firearms, and when he deemed I was old enough allowed to use them with his guidance and supervision. I never came across a firearm while at a friend’s house, but if I had, I wouldn’t have been very fascinated with it. Been there, done that. I knew what they were, how they worked, and more importantly how dangerous they were. I knew the reality of guns because my father was realistic and honest about it with me.

My dad would also let me drink whatever alcohol he was drinking. Wine, beer, liquor, whatever. If I was curious I could try it. And I did. And I distinctly remember not liking it at all. Again, taboo demystified.

I was never shamed about any of these things, I was never told that I was a bad person if I did them or used them. I was never really forbade anything. I had very few limits imposed upon me.

Now, hearing that, you might think several things. Surely, some people might think (especially the ones my parent’s age) that a child with no limits, who while never directly encouraged to try things certainly wasn’t discouraged either, was a hellion growing up. Surely I went wild and experimented and tried everything under the sun without parental discipline and limitations.

The answer to that is a resounding, “Not even close.”

I was quite the opposite, in fact. I waited until is was 21 to drink. I was 19 when I lost my virginity. I never once smoked a cigarette or even so much as tried any other kind of drug–and still haven’t to this day. I was actually a very, very responsible child and teenager. And do you want to know why?

Because I knew that my parents respected me and trusted me. And I didn’t want to betray that trust. By letting me set my own limits and make and learn from my own mistakes and exercise my own judgment, my parents were telling me that they trusted me to make the right decisions. And I wasn’t about to let them down. Because my parents had confidence in my abilities and thinking and judgment, so did I

But you know who did end up going wild and crazy in high school and especially college? The children with super strict or very religious parents. Gee, who didn’t see that one coming? Who would have guessed that the kids who were repressed and suppressed and not allowed to explore the world and social conventions–things that stifle critical thinking and good judgement–would bottle it all up and let it out on their 18th birthday?

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Free from the shackles of their parents, a lot of my compatriots had a lot of exploration to make up for, and boy did they ever. When you’ve never had freedom in your life and then suddenly boom–no one is telling you what you can’t do anymore–people tend to lose their shit. Drugs, smoking, binge drinking, sex–all of the people I knew growing up who were raised to be “proper” suddenly went nuts. People I knew who went to church every Sunday and were in youth group and went to bible camp and wore purity rings were doing body shots and having sex with total strangers.

Some people might also be wondering how a child with no limits could do well academically. Well, with total freedom comes exploration. And with exploration comes curiosity. Curiosity is the cornerstone of learning. Because of the way my parents raised me, my natural curiosity and wonder were allowed to flourish. If I was interested in something, I wanted to naturally learn more about it. So I did. I was really interested in history and space as a child, and so I spent my free time learning about those things. That freedom also meant flexing and developing a healthy imagination, which also goes a long way in learning.

And more importantly, I had time to learn these things. Helicopter parents send their kids off to endless stupid camps during the summer or enroll them in activities the parents think are good ideas or in competitive sports–all things that eat up time for exploration and tend to squash a child’s imagination. That isn’t to say children shouldn’t be enrolled in sports or activities. But let the kids pick them and please don’t overload the poor things.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to having been raised in this manner was that it was naturally scientific. Since limits on my exploration were few and far between, I was allowed to investigate things, to develop a trial and error process, to be curious–all very important aspects to being a scientist. Because of all this, I had the ability to critically think and a pretty good sense of judgment. Perhaps that’s why science has started to decline in this country over the last few decades–children are naturally little scientists, but adults have stamped that out of them or suppressed it.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you want your kids to be well-adjusted socially and academically, give them freedom. Let them be individuals. If you don’t, you’re just creating little maladjusted ticking time bombs. Sheltering your kids will only make them confused adults who don’t know how to deal with their own feelings and inclinations. And then they end up making poor choices. You may think you’re sparing them hardship, but people learn the most from failure. Children should be free to make mistakes and to fail. It builds character, it teaches them how the real world works, and it gives them skills and experience to use going forward in life.

So thank you, mom and dad, for letting me be me.

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10 thoughts on “An ode to my parents

  1. I am far from perfect, but to the best of my ability, this is how I have pretty much raised my kids. You have to let them be who and what they are, you have to let them explore, you have to explain away the things they question honestly, and you have to smack em on the ass when it needs doing.

    I’ll add this, if it is time to whoop a backside, never do it in anger, just as a matter of fact job that needs to be done. Then explain why you did it, and why the behavior needs to be rectified. Keep it short then send them on their way. If you do this parental job in anger, it serves no purpose.

    Parents do not own children. We are their guardians, we are their guides. We are their walking encyclopedias. We are not their wardens. Kids should given knowledge and be given the opportunity to make their own decisions as much as possible.

    I salute your parents. They have done you a great service, and many could learn from this post.

  2. I’m a little torn on this. Without going into too much detail and writing an essay in your comment section, my parents were generally hands-off. All the positives you mention, I can see, but my brother and I were raised very similarly and couldn’t be less alike.
    “Surely I went wild and experimented and tried everything under the sun without parental discipline and limitations.”
    I, like you, didn’t go wild, but I can’t say the same for my brother. haha.
    I agree with you, though. I think letting a child explore on their own is the way to go (the studies I’ve seen seem to both support and refute this). Part of what terrifies me about children is how hard it is to predict.

    1. I see your point. Children have different personalities and different temperaments, and some of them might not do so well with such little structure. And I think that’s perfectly fine, we have to respect a child’s abilities and limitations. But I still think that the basic principles involved hold true, they might just be a little more watered down depending upon the child.

    2. An interesting hypothesis I read suggested that siblings will often differentiate purposefully even under the same conditions. A child is programmed by evolution to rely on the parent for survival and they want as much attention as they can get. By being exactly like another sibling they reason that at best they will get half the time, but by being different they feel like they might get more. Sometimes that can be good or bad.

      But like Ryan said there is some differences in genetic makeup which may also be important.

      1. That is an interesting hypothesis. Does it have a name (or a link to an article)? I’m not well read in developmental psychology, but Turkheimer was presented in one of my classes (and I read about him again in one of Pinker’s books) and there seems to be a lot of support for the genetic influence being the most important in personality. Lots of material about this stuff so I won’t claim any understanding.

      2. I believe I read this in “How the Mind Works” By Steven Pinker. But if you’ve read that book by Pinker then I must be wrong. lol The only other guesses would be the Believing Brain by Michael Shermer, but I don’t see why that would be a discussion there.

  3. Wonderful article. My childhood sounds fairly similar, although I guess I just never really had an urge to do anything wild. My friends were all geeks like me, and the most trouble we would ever get in was cutting class in high school to go play pool. Although many times I cut class and just ended up playing cards in the cafeteria. I think the criteria that you hit on was most important and that’s not a lot of meddling. I see a lot of people complaining when their parents come to visit that they are constantly giving advice and criticizing and my parents are just happy to see me. If I come to them then sure they will help, but they don’t offer. I guess just as I typed this I wonder if it’s exactly why I am that type of professor. I don’t ever go up to a student and say “hey Jimmy, you didn’t do so well on the last test you should come to my office and talk”. I figure they are all adults if they want help they will come and get it.

    Anyway, in general I think that when we underestimate a child’s ability we do them a disservice. I am always going to keep my standards high, but if my son fails then I will be there to help. TO me that’s good parenting. Rather than spending too much time anticipating the worst case scenario and thus keeping the standards low so they don’t fail. To me that is the essence of “helicopter parenting”. Instead of dealing with failure after the fact they try to prevent it. Failure is hard and disheartening, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you. I think those kids with helicopter parents aren’t so much showing real anger, but rather child like tantrums because their parents have made sure everything has gone their way.

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