So Facebook ambushed me with a TimeHop post this morning, with a photo of my daughter ten years ago. The overwhelming cuteness of her literally sucked all the oxygen out of my lungs, and my eyes misted over. It must have been the onions I was chopping earlier in the week.
Daughter was five years-old in this particular TimeHop, so is obviously fifteen now, and is starting to gear up towards her GCSE exams next year, whilst talking impatiently about driving lessons in two years time. I generally love these TimeHop memories, but this one was different. Why was it different? Because now there is a young man orbiting Daughter at school, who lights up her eyes and makes her smile like no one else has ever been able to. Whilst my first inclination (as Mama Bear) is to nickname this lad Lucifer, I can't in all good conscience do that, because he seems to be lovely. Daughter appears reluctant to let me meet him at the moment, at least until I've completed my training me on how not to embarrass her. I can't think why.
From all that she tells me - and she talks about him a lot - he's highly respectful of her, funny, charming, handsome, caring, sporty, an excellent student and they "just click". There are early morning and last-thing-at night texts, which tacitly informs her she's foremost on his mind. There is care, concern and flirty teasing whilst at school, and shoehorned Facetime sessions before his imminent football training. These are all positive signs, and exactly the kind of behaviours a protective parent wants to see in her Daughter's young suitor.
Have you noticed the image I've selected for this article? Well, as hard as I try otherwise, this is how I still see Daughter and Son, despite their fifteen and ten years respectively. So perhaps it's understandable why Daughter felt she had to sit me down to check in with me: How was I doing, now that her relationship with Golden Boy was progressing? Was I going to be okay, because she's well aware I still see her as my infant baby girl. I smiled and let out a deep breath, before explaining where I am, in the hope of reassuring her.
TAKING MY OWN ADVICE
I started by telling her about a blog article I wrote many moons ago, called Live Too Defensively And You Won't Live At All. In the blog I recount the Zen proverb of a man who raised a baby swan in a glass jar [as you do], but as the bird grew it became stuck in the jar. The man was caught now, for the only way to free the thing was to break the jar, killing the swan - and this is exactly where I I feel I am now. The time has come for me to give Daughter more space to be all that she can be, even though I know there will be inevitable tears and heartbreaks somewhere along the way.
As a parent - and I know I'm not alone in saying this - there is nothing I want to do more than to protect her from everything that could ever hurt possibly her, including a worst case Golden Boy heartbreak scenario; but to do so would be cruel. Sounds counter-intuitive doesn't it, but let's think this through. Who amongst us has never experienced failure and heartbreak, of any kind? Of course we all have, and we've all survived. Not only did we survive, but we grew and became bigger, better and stronger for having lived through the experience. So why would I deny Daughter such valuable growth? All that she's likely to experience with Golden Boy - and in her adult life generally - is an essential rite of passage, with growth opportunities in every crevice and under every stone upon her journey. To deny her this would be akin to restricting her in a glass jar like the proverbial swan; a thoroughly lose-lose scenario.
WHY WE PARENTS MUST TRUST
The reason why we parents must trust, love and respect our children is simply because if we don't, we will be forever confined to the sidelines to watch whilst someone does it for us. The best proof of love we can offer is trust, because without trust, love is unstable.
During my conversation with Daughter about Golden Boy, I explained how she has reached the age where I must now step back and trust in my own parenting legacy. Not only do I have to trust Daughter to make the right decisions for herself, but I also have to trust I've taught her well enough to do so. We're both hurtling through time and space without a net here!
I then decided to tap into her impatient longing for driving lessons, to offer her an accurate analogy for how I'm feeling about letting her grow. It feels to me like I've been teaching her to drive all these years, encouraging her skills to develop, but always in full possession of the dual controls for her safety and security. If she was ever in danger, about to make a catastrophic mistake or do something outside of the rules, I was able to slam on the brakes and prevent further disaster. Now that her skills are strong and mature enough, it is my turn to learn. I must now learn to take my feet away from the dual controls and let her drive her own life - mistakes and mishaps, come what may.
No I'm not comfortable, how can I ever be comfortable ever again? But if I love her, and I do love her with all my heart, then what is best for her now is to let her grow. Oh, and to be here whenever she needs me of course. For now though I'm busy recalling as many of her childhood TimeHops as possible, desperately trying to reassure myself my parenting skills were adequate enough to raise a strong, independent and intelligent young woman. And I think they have been. There is certainly some evidence to support this claim, given the strong choices she's already made in her life. Of course she's going to accrue bumps and scrapes along the way, but that's life, and I am confident she's more than capable of dealing with them.
SAY NO TO BULLDOZER PARENTING - AND HERE'S WHY
You've probably heard of Helicopter Parenting, where parent's hover anxiously over their little ones? We're all well aware of how suffocating and unhealthy this can be, but not everyone has heard of Bulldozer Parenting. Bulldozer Parenting is where parents passively aggressively clear the paths of their children of all the trials, tribulations, upsets and challenges of life. By doing this, every little thing in the child's eventual adult life becomes intolerably painful and difficult. The young adults can't handle such trials and upsets, because they've not been equipped with the correct mental and emotional tools to do so; they have no frame of reference to defer to. However well-intentioned the Bulldozer Parenting may have been, it's ultimately left the young adult vulnerable and psychologically fragile, at a time when they should be making their own way in the world without parental protection.
Here's another way of looking at it: In his book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation For Failure, Jonathan Haidt teaches us that if you knock over a wine glass it breaks; nothing good happens. If however the drinking vessel was made of plastic, it won't be damaged by the knock, but it doesn't get better than plastic either. Some things in life have to be stressed or challenged - like the immune system - to ultimately get stronger. If we coddle our children, if we indulge in Bulldozer Parenting with endless i.e.: antibiotic wipes etc, we're essentially preventing their immune systems from getting the information it needs to learn how to defend itself in future. We're setting ourselves up with short term gain (i.e.: parental peace of mind) for long term pain (i.e.: an unprepared young adult entering the world at large).
THE ESSENTIAL BENEFITS OF RISKY PLAY
Hey, I'm not preaching here. These are lessons I've had to learn myself over the years; I'm just passing on my learning. My good friend Sarah was the primary care giver for both of my children during their nursery years. There were many days I'd have to sign the accident book, detailing the bumps and scrapes they'd achieved during their risky play. Risky play? OMG what risky play? Sarah had to make direct eye contact and explain the essential benefits of risky play to me on more than one occasion, I can tell you. I would have been more than happy to have had them playing with cotton wool and bubble wrap all day, but how would they have learned what they were truly capable of? Patiently asserting these critical life facts is precisely why Sarah and I are still friends to this day - I can't let go of wisdom like that from my life! And thanks in no small part to Sarah's wise and educated teachings, the kids grew up with happy, robust and adventurous spirits.
So here I am again with Daughter, about to embark upon risky play with Golden Boy, and having to let her collect her scars along the way. There will be no accident books to sign for the inevitable mental and emotional scrapes, but there will be sympathetic healing hugs and her favourite meal waiting for when the need arises.
We parents simply must trust and adapt to our new realities as they evolve, or we might lose our children's engagement altogether. Their intrinsic natures are designed to lead them away from us into competent lives of independence, but we can grow with them if we learn to let go at just the right time. Life with Daughter at the moment feels like trapeze work in a circus. Knowing when, and then actually being able to let go at precisely the right time, will give her the best chance of catching the life she wants for herself.
To not let her go - or to grow - means I will forever be pulling her back with me, and that's not love, that's selfish.