First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
I Give You My Permission
So much of parenting is about guilt.
We of my generation were raised by anxious, guilt-ridden parents. They grew up in the Depression and lived through World War II. They knew what it was to be poor, to be broke, to be hungry; they knew better than to ask their parents for a thing, because there was no money.
Their idea of a date was to take the streetcar to get an ice cream. Their idea of a party was to stand around a piano and sing the latest hit songs together. Their idea of a great Christmas present was a jacket that hadn't been worn by an older sibling.
And they were grimly determined that their children would lack for nothing.
So we -- their spoiled baby-boom children -- grew up with a weird combination of being spoiled rotten while being made to feel guilty about it.
"Eat this huge plate of food. Children are starving in China."
"What do you mean you don't like hot cereal? When I was a kid I went without breakfast and hot cereal was a luxury."
"You better enjoy this vacation in Disneyland. Your father had to work two weeks to pay for it."
"You're whining because you have the best health care money can buy? When I was a kid with a toothache, my dad just pulled it out because we couldn't afford a dentist."
"Look at our big new color television! When we were kids, we had to sit and look at the walls and hum, because we couldn't even afford a radio."
So when we of the Baby Boom generation got married, we were determined (a) to make sure our kids had every single thing their hearts could conceive of desiring (because we felt so guilty) and to make sure they never felt bad about having it (because we hated feeling so guilty).
Weren't we the love generation? Our children would know nothing but peace and love. We would take their side in every dispute at school. We would never make them follow silly rules. We would never say, "Because I said so!"
They would be free spirits!
OK, well, now they are. And it's terrifying, isn't it? Our kids go out there and we don't know where they're going, what they're doing, whom they're with, when they'll get back, and whether they'll get pregnant, get date-raped, pick up some hideous incurable disease, o.d. on drugs, or get killed in a gang-related shooting.
Repression Is Looking Better
Now some of those horrible old repressive rules our parents grew up with and sometimes tried to impose on us (those Nazis!) are beginning to make sense.
That whole curfew thing -- now we get it, don't we.
And chaperoning! Don't you feel a lot safer if you know your irresponsible but post-puberty child is not alone with that person of the opposite sex? Sure, you gave him/her the lecture on "safe sex," but doesn't it make your skin crawl to think that this weirdo might be his/her first sexual partner? Or worse, that this weirdo might not be his/her first?
Don't you want to scream?
But you can't do a thing, can you? Because it would make you feel so horrible and guilty to be the only parent who insists on a curfew.
How can you be the only parent who calls up your kids' friends' parents to say, "My beloved child is coming over to your house, he/she says, to take part in a wholesome activity with your child. Is this true? What adult will be there to supervise? When they leave, would you be so kind as to call me so I know when to panic if my child isn't home soon afterward?"
You don't mind the embarrassment of the other parent reacting as if you were insane. Nor do you mind your child's abject humiliation in front of the other children. After all, this is about keeping your child alive, disease-free, mentally alert, unaddicted, and reproductively inert. What does embarrassment matter?
No, the thing that is just killing you is that if you do these things, your child will be oppressed! And you learned in the sixties and seventies that the worst thing that could possibly happen to a child is to have parents who keep them from "expressing themselves" and "pursuing happiness their own way" -- parents who forget that it's "their life" and "you can't possibly understand them."
Here Is Your Parental License
I am, here and now, offering you absolution from all your guilt over being an attentive, responsible, careful, loving, and strict parent.
First: It is actually a terrific thing if your child's desires are repressed. In fact, one of the main skills that civilization depends on is the ability of its citizens to delay gratification of their desires until an appropriate time.
Like, not acquiring property that doesn't belong to you until you can pay for it.
Or not engaging in potentially child-producing activities until you're actually old enough and committed enough to guarantee such a child a two-parent family for its entire life.
The other word for repression is self-control. And here's how it's learned. First, your terrible mean awful horrible parents keep you from doing what you want.
Then, as you get older, you begin to realize that your friends whose parents didn't stop them from doing those things are now having horribly messy lives. You're glad your parents kept you from doing it. Now you keep those same rules yourself. You have learned to control your desires because you now understand the consequences.
But during those many, many years when children are too ignorant, inexperienced, self-willed, stubborn, or angry to grasp the idea that really bad things can actually happen to them, parents have to have the strength to say no, to mean it, and to make it stick.
That's what happens when parents actually love their children.
So when you find yourself worrying about whether to put your foot down because you don't want to cause your children to be "repressed," I give you permission to say, "Live with your repressions, child! Live long enough to go to a shrink every week for years, working through all your 'issues' with your horrible parents. But you will be alive because I am going to make sure these insane, self-destructive desires of yours get good and repressed for the next ten years of your life."
Nobody Else's Parents Do That!
Not only that, but my wife and I will perform another service for you. When your child says to you, "Nobody else's parents call their friends' parents to check up on them!" you can answer, "Oh yes they do. The Cards do."
When your child says, "Nobody else makes their kids wait till they're sixteen before they can go on a date," you can answer, "Oh yes they do. The Cards do."
When your child says, "Everybody else can go to this concert without their parents insisting on coming along!" you can say, "The Cards do -- because the Cards firmly believe that the more a child wants his parents not to come, the more certain it is that they will come."
And when your child says, "I wish I had cool parents," you can answer, "You do have cool parents. Because when it comes to parenting, the only way parents can be 'cool' is to care enough to keep their children safe ... from themselves, from their friends, and from the dangers in this world."
Trust for the Trustworthy
At the same time, of course, you have to be keenly aware of your child's level of maturity. If you have a kid who always tells you the truth, who does his homework without nagging, who takes care of his assigned chores and even does jobs around the house just because they need doing, and who treats you and his friends respectfully, then it is not insane for you to trust that child way more than you would trust a child who has to be yelled at to get him up in the morning, who is failing all his classes, who never does anything you ask, and who lies to you constantly.
A trustworthy child should be rewarded with trust. Not total trust, but more trust than untrustworthy children should get.
Of course, it often works the other way -- the children who whine and nag and lie and cheat often get away with it because their parents are too unconcerned, too intimidated, or too guilt-ridden to draw a line and make it stick. While the obedient children are easy to overlook; it's easy to find fault with them for the small things they do wrong instead of realizing, Wait, this child is really great about most things, so I'm going to cut him a little slack.
In other words, the kids who most need to be kept on a tight rein are the ones most likely to have way too much slack cut for them, while the kids who barely need reins at all are the ones most likely to be kept from access to the freedom they actually have earned.
But hey, kids don't come with an instruction manual. (Nor a warranty. Nor a refund policy.) We're all inventing it as we go along.
Meanwhile, though, you have the Parental License that I have just issued you. You can proceed with the confidence that comes from knowing you aren't the only ones who are actually expecting your kids to earn their freedom by proving they can be trusted.
Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.
When Is a Husband Entitled to Speak for His Wife? - by John Hansen
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