The Questions that Refuse to Be Answered

September 21, 2011

These are the school supplies we had to buy for just one of our kids. School is plenty challenging.

Am I expecting enough of my children, preparing them to be resilient and strong?

Or do I ask too much, and give too little, leaving them feeling lost and low?

Paul Tough’s brilliant article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine and yesterday’s Motherlode blog each explore an issue that has vexed me since the day my first child was born:  how to know when to back off from protecting my kids, so that they will develop resilience and grit.

(These issues apparently vex a lot of people:  Tough’s article was among the “most emailed” for many, many days.)

Before my older daughter arrived, I was so confident that I would be a great mom.  I was sure I would always be perfectly loving, and perfectly challenging.  And then I gave birth and I was caught up short day after day.  I was still able to be certain about my parenting:  it was just that my certainties kept changing awfully fast.

Some days I am certain that I am being more than tough enough with my girls, and they are getting plenty of opportunities to develop character and strength.  I watch them push through long days, plow through piles of homework assignments, apparently at the edge of their tolerance for challenge.  I watch them flop on the sofa after biking to and from the park for an hour of soccer practice and an hour-long game.  While my nagging hasn’t made much of a dent in their ability to pick up their own stuff around the house, the simple checklist I made for them this summer (sort of) has.

They are starting to walk around the neighborhood independently, to learn to take care of themselves for an hour or so at a time.  I watch parents of kids just a little older than ours for cues about how and when to do this.  I’m pretty sure that seven is way too early to be a latchkey kid, but children certainly have to be alone sometimes before they are in high school.  They walk the dog, sometimes.  Grace is succeeding in her little mini-job as a mother’s helper, although I still have to make all the arrangements for her.  They’re both clearly in an intermediate place between childhood and teenage independence.  Perhaps all I can do is find ways to encourage them to keep moving in the direction they are headed.

I update the checklist of what they are expected to do, adding new challenges and letting the easier ones drop off as they master new skills (and yes, I can give you a copy of this checklist.  I’m extremely proud of it, and it works like a charm with my kids when I use it properly.  Shoot me an email and I will share.)

Other days I am certain that I’m not asking nearly enough of them.  I think of all the kids I have taught who overcame enormous obstacles to achieve great academic and personal success.  I think they could handle greater responsibility, and would thrive with more risk and challenge.  They should work harder, and have less given to them.  Abigail came home the other day — just after opening a boatload of birthday presents — and told us that she would like her own “personal private yacht” someday.  I could have died.

On my days of discontent, I inevitably nag the girls, which still never works.  We get into tussles.  I curse my inability to be adequately loving while also being adequately demanding.

I could not possibly love them any more.  And still, I can never be sure I’ve gotten it right.

DH and I have always wondered about whether the constraints of their lives (all this time indoors doing schoolwork and homework, for one) prevent them from the bigger challenges they might be ready for.  Their whole generation of post 9/11 upper-middle-class children has been more sheltered, more programmed, and more encouraged — by their parents and by technology — to stay inside.  They have more homework than kids did when I was young, and while doing all that work certainly builds their stamina and skills, it takes away the time when they could be trying other things.  Kite building?  Piano lessons?  Raising livestock?  Bowling?  Fencing?  Double-Dutch?

I’m pretty sure that if my children were out on the Prairie with the Ingalls family, or in a family with harsh and inattentive parents, they wouldn’t make it, and would be seen as an enormous liability.  Then again, the same would be true of me.  We are all a product of our place and our time, our race and class and gender.

I have two white upper middle class girls, who attend private school and live in Park Slope.  That tells a whole lot of our story, leaving only a tiny sliver of differences based on outlook and personality. Those factors dictate that their challenges are all about homework, complex social dynamics, and organized soccer games.  Even if our kids spend more time outside than other kids where we live, they will still always be indoors too much.  I think that I am parenting consciously, carefully, thoughtfully, lovingly — but then again, so much of what I do will be determined by who, when, and where we are.

Do I ask too much?  Do I ask enough?  These are the questions that never go away.

Dawn Allen September 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I love to read your writing and know that as a parent I go through many of the same challenges. Thanks for sharing… ps. would love your list if you have time to email it to me. Right now I am trying to find a balance for when they come home at 8pm or later at night, and still have homework to do after sports, they do nothing around the house, is that okay? I hate to make it too easy for them, but I also hate to put so much on their already tired bodies at 10pm at night when they are finished and ready for bed.

Lindsey September 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

While I have no idea how to answer these questions, I can assure that I too am intimately familiar with them. And from where I sit, watching you, someone whose parenting – and living – I so admire, it’s heartening to know that you still wrestle with these internal debates. Maybe we will NEVER know. I suspect that’s the truth. xox

Launa September 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I guess I know what I’ve done right and wrong as I look back on my children’s earlier lives — or I think I know. Perhaps someday I’ll know how I handled this particular now. Thanks for the jolt of confidence. It means a lot that you find something in my mess to admire!

T. September 21, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Lovely, thoughtful piece. I think the title of your post says it all: The Questions That Refuse to Be Answered. I think maybe the point is not to try to answer them, but to just keep asking them. Our kids change so fast. The things they couldn’t do alone today they’ll be doing with one hand tied behind their backs tomorrow. I think often they let us know when it’s time to back off, to let them sort something out on their own. The trick is hearing what they’re telling us.

I live in Maine and my kids do spend a lot of time outside (coincidentally, they also happen to fence and play piano, too) but I ask all these same questions and agonize over whether I’m helping them too much, or not letting them fail when I should. Am I teaching them the “right” things? At 6 and 9 my kids are not so far along the road as yours are, but still, I wonder if I’m sheltering them too much or not enough. Am I trying too hard to correct the things I felt went wrong in my own childhood and losing sight of the fact that my kids aren’t me, no matter how many similarities I see? Probably.

What always feels truest to me in my relationship with my kids is my impulse to comfort them and give them a sense of security. I can’t stop them from falling, but I can be there to help them up again. And while middle to upper class parents tend to get a bad wrap for being overprotective, I will never stop trying to make my children feel secure and even sheltered in their home. There is a difference between being allowed to learn from your mistakes and being left alone with them. I think we can focus too much on children as individuals and forget the importance of the family unit. Yes, I want my kids to be resilient and responsible but I also want them to know the joy of a cohesive family that will always have their backs, so that they can go out into the world and create one of their own someday.

Launa September 22, 2011 at 7:23 am

“I will never stop trying to make my children feel secure and even sheltered in their home. There is a difference between being allowed to learn from your mistakes and being left alone with them.” what a gorgeous sentiment, perfectly stated. This gets at the balance we keep trying to strike. Thank you, thank you.

Terence September 22, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Hilary and I bump up against the challenge question almost every day. As a teacher I feel relatively confident about how to scaffold lessons, how to get students into their zone of proximal development. But as a parent, I’m on shakier ground.

denise September 29, 2011 at 12:59 pm

this is gloriously written and makes me feel normal, knowing those questions pummel, rummage the corners of your mind, too. as lindsey wrote above, never knowing just may be the truth. they aren’t questions with answers. they’re pulsing guideposts, i suppose, keeping us grounded.

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