Testing Independence

How independent is your child?

When my boys were young I longed for the day they would be able to dress and feed themselves, ride their bike, play with a friend or do an activity without parent supervision. As teens, my boys have been able to do these things for quite some time, but now are moving into the phase of wanting more independence.

My oldest is quickly embracing being a young man. Learning to drive, growing taller, and feeling more confidence in his capabilities helps. He has moved into a phase where he is testing his independence.

Our son does sport conditioning most weekday mornings. He has his father or I to pick him when he is done. It can be challenging to do based on my husband and my work commitments. I was feeling good when I got to the parking lot to pick up my son early one day. I was able to finish a work call and let my son know I was there. He had his phone and asked me from the field, “A couple of upper class men want me to lift weights with them after practice. Can I stay with them? I’ll get a ride home later.” “Sure,” I replied and headed home. I didn’t think much of it until we gathered around the dinner table later. “How did lifting go?” I asked. “Oh, it was fine. We only did it for a little bit than went over to one of the guy’s houses and played basketball. That was fun.” “What?,” I said, “why didn’t you tell me where you were going?” “It just kind of happened,” my son replied. We spent the next few minutes discussing why us knowing where he is is important. I reminded him of a saying I’ve said to him before, “I can’t help you if I can’t see you or don’t know where you are.” He said he understood and would be more upfront with his whereabouts.

Fast forward to the next day. He asks if he can join a friend to go boating in a nearby lake. The assumption was there would be adult supervision. At dinner that night we asked how boating went. “It was great. We went tubing behind the boat. It was a lot of fun.” “Who all was there?,” I asked. “My friend, his 18 year-old brother and his friend.” Wait, what? I thought. “Was one of his parents with you?” “No,” my son replied, “but his brother has his boating license.” Oh boy, I thought, here we go again. My husband and I then discussed with our son the importance of providing upfront information. Being truthful about where you’re going, and who will be there, is important. It helps us as parents know how to find you if needed, give guidance, not to mention build trust. And with trust comes more independence. We pivoted the conversation and tried to help our son understand that the situation could have presented challenges he wasn’t prepared for. “You don’t know the older brother that well or his friend. What if one of them brought alcohol or an edible trying to be cool? What would you have done? There are cops of the lake that patrol for just this thing. And if you get caught on a boat where someone else is doing something wrong you may get be accused simple by proximity and/or association. Not only do we (your father and I) need to know where you are and the details, you also need to assess the situation and make sure you’ve got a plan if you feel like you need to leave.” He was upset. He thought we were challenging him on his judge of character. “I’m sure your friend’s brother is a good kid, but you’ve said so yourself, you didn’t know the friend. This isn’t about your judgment of character, it’s about you understanding the importance of being honest with us, aware of your surroundings, and having a plan for when things go south (how can you safely exit the situation, how can you get help if needed (be if from mom or dad or the authorities, etc.)),”

It was a needed conversation that I’m quite sure we’ll have again. “Part of growing up includes making mistakes and learning from them. Your father and I are trying to help you better navigate growing up, and avoid mistakes as much as we can. That’s it. We’re not trying to be harsh, or firm, or difficult.” He seemed to understand—we’ll see.

How is your kid showing their independence? What conversations are you having with them to help them make good choices as they grow?

I’ll be off for the next few weeks enjoying time away with the family and will be back later in August.

Secrets

Secrets can be heavy, and are something a child learns to keep.

When I was six, I was playing restaurant with a friend. We were seated at the play table and decided we need to create a menu to make the game more fun. My friend asked, “what should we put on the menu?” I was feeling gutsy, so instead of saying what I normally would have said–pizza, fries, pie–I decided to try out a new word I’d heard a neighborhood teen say–a word that sounded bad, but I wasn’t sure. I decided my friend would be a safe place to try it out. I said, “why don’t we put f***ing cake on the menu.” My friend’s face went pale. I giggled nervously, thinking I was somehow cool for having the nerve to try it out. My friend said, “you just said a bad word. I’m going to go tell your mom.” Oh no, I thought…I hadn’t thought about my mom finding out as a possibility. I panicked and begged my friend not to tell. They did tell, and I got into big trouble. My punishment was soap in the mouth — needless to say I didn’t say another bad word out loud for a long time, but I picked up another habit…learning how to keep a secret. Instead of asking my parents or a trusted adult what something I didn’t understand, or was confused by, meant I kept it to myself, trying to figure out the meaning on my own, or relying on my peers or older kids in the neighborhood. It was a recipe for a lot of misinformation and even more confusion about how the world worked.

As an adult, I learned keeping secrets can become an overwhelming burden; weighing you down lot a ton of bricks. It can hinder your ability to enjoy your life controlling your thoughts and actions. Speaking your truth–whether it’s ignorance about how something works, or something you did, or something you didn’t do but should have, etc.–can set you free, or certainly start to lift you from the weight of the burden.

My son recently asked if he could talk to me in private. He asks me to do this occasionally, and I always reassure him that I will listen to what he has to say, and he doesn’t need to worry about being embarrassed or ashamed about whatever he wants to talk to me about. He shared that he had seen a picture that made him feel excited, nervous and sick. Despite having the computer in an open space in our home, with parental control filters on, he came across a picture that was too grown up for him to see (the pic was of a woman scantily clad in a provocative pose–it was an ad next to a YouTube video (the YouTube video was appropriate for kids, the ad clearly was not)). My heart dropped a bit when he told me this, partly because I recognized he was losing some of his innocence, and partly because I was hopeful we wouldn’t cross this bridge with him until he was much older. The upside of learning this information was that my son had the courage to tell me, and trusted me to help him deal with it.

While I would love to take away screen time forever and protect my son from being exposed to inappropriate matter, it isn’t realistic, and wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, my husband and I needed to come up with a plan to help our son. I sat down and talked with him about what he saw (my husband had a separate conversation with him as well), and we came up with a plan for what to do when you come across inappropriate pictures. Like many parental firsts, I felt like we were treading new ground. I’d never had a conversation like this with my parents, and can only hope we’re handling this in a way that will truly help him.

After sharing his secret, my son’s demeanor changed: where he had been moody and short tempered, he became happy and couldn’t get the smile off his face. We were out the next day enjoying ourselves, and he came over to me and said, “Mom, I don’t have any more secrets!” I could see the shear joy on his face at this realization. I asked him how not having any secrets felt. He thought for a moment and said, “Pretty good.” Pretty good indeed, I thought.

Keeping a secret is hard. Helping your child navigate growing up is hard. Having open conversations that don’t allow secrets to live is freeing, and it feels great.

How are you helping your child navigate challenging issues?