Being the Voice in Your Child’s Head

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The Checkup

When my son first negotiated for the right to take the New York subway to school alone, I thought I was agreeing that he could take a very particular train from one specific stop to another specific stop at certain times of day (and after all, if he didn’t arrive, I thought, the school would know something was wrong). He thought I was saying, the city is yours, my boy, go out and explore, now that you’re old enough to ride the subway by yourself.

And the thing is, of course, he was ultimately right, and that is what I was ultimately saying. I just meant to say it a little more slowly, and drag the whole process out over a much longer time. We negotiated it, more quickly than I might have hoped, and with a bunch of qualifications on my part which he saw as silly parental nit-picking. And in principle, he was right: The city was his.

Many of the ongoing negotiations and even the battles of child-rearing are scripted for us, rolled into the daily experience of this most daily job; you get up every morning as a parent and start over with a child who is one day older than the child you had yesterday. We set limits, that’s what parents do, and children push at them, according to their temperaments and their circumstances and their peer groups.

Your child will (most likely) want to go places without you, and you’ll say no, it’s not safe, it’s too far, and your child will push back and at some point, you’ll give way and renegotiate. Your child will want to hang out with people you don’t feel you know, or watch movies you don’t think are appropriate (too scary too violent too sexy too disturbing). Your child will want, step by step, to grow up.

The long arc of this parental negotiation is about losing, gracefully, over time. Eventually, your child is going to get to decide about going places — alone, with friends, at smart or dumb times of the day — and hanging out with people and watching movies — or any other kind of watching or reading or game-playing. We all know this, right? When we say, you can’t go to that party, you shouldn’t see that movie, we aren’t definitively winning a battle and heroically setting once-and-for-all parameters. We’re slowly and thoughtfully negotiating a time-lapse surrender, a handover of increasing power and independence, and we’re making decisions along the way about when and how and what makes sense.

We have to start from the idea that eventually our children are going to be adult players. We want them to get there, and to get there with enough good sense — and enough fine sensibility — that they use their adult powers wisely.

So that means they need trial runs and training wheels, supervised adventures of every kind. And it also means, as we all know, that real adventures are always at least a little bit unsupervised. There’s a famous quote out there about how good judgment comes from experience but experience comes from bad judgment (it is variously attributed to Mark Twain, Will Rogers and a range of others).

You try to keep your children safe, but you acknowledge that real safety involves being able to face risks and decisions on their own. You grit your teeth and replay the eternal parental conversations in which it is revealed that nobody else has parents who make such stupid rules, that everyone else is allowed to do the thing that you are restricting. But you also acknowledge that ultimately, these are all losing battles, and that the only thing you’re really fighting for is time and timing, and the hope that you can transfer some of your own preferences and prejudices to even a resistant child.

I am one of those pedants who is irritated by what I consider the improper use of the word “hopefully,” and it was one of my proudest moments as a parent when my college-age child told me that whenever anyone used “hopefully” to mean “it is to be hoped,” rather than, “in a hopeful manner,” he would imagine me making a face. He didn’t agree that it was incorrect, he said, accurately pointing out that the usage has been widely accepted. Except, whenever he heard it, he knew it would bother me. I didn’t mind that he disagreed, so delighted was I to realize that I had managed to install my idiosyncratic prejudice to serve as my son’s superego. He was free to say and write whatever he wanted, he was flying solo, but I was still along for the ride.

Our children will eventually go wherever they like, and with whomever they like. They will watch whatever they wish, play whatever games appeal to them. As parents, we cling hopefully to the small moral victories that accrue whenever, for example, we manage to plant our parental sensibilities in their brains, so that they hear our voices even when we aren’t there.