When your children are small and snuggly and clamor for your attention you can’t imagine there will come a day when they will ignore you, dismiss you, or outright avoid you. But the day comes. And I don’t care how sweet and loving your child is, or how close you are or how openly they share their hearts with you; one day they will shun you. I promise. And it’s a good thing. Even if it doesn’t feel like it.
I looked up the word parenting in the dictionary and it says: “the rearing of children.” And what is “rearing”? I, being a horse person, of course thought of that moment when the horse lifts its front end off the ground and attempts to set you on your butt. But Dictionary.com says, “to take care of and support up to maturity.” Huh. So there’s some comfort in knowing that once they are mature I don’t have to support them anymore. I know a few parents that would find that knowledge welcome relief.
A big part of supporting our children to maturity is teaching them to function independently. To that end, they will, or they should, naturally separate themselves from us. The fact that they aren’t mature yet means that sometimes they will do this with a callousness that will cause your jaw to drop and your heart to seize up. To be honest, in my vast experience with my two teens (the third one is thankfully still a beautiful little boy who wants me to say prayers with him at night), some will do this more than others. But they will all do this. They have to figure out that they can dump you and not lose you.
And your job as a parent? To take it. But maybe not all of it. I drew the line with my daughter when she told me to shut up. She can ignore me, roll her eyes at me, argue with me, but she can not under any circumstance tell me to ‘shut up’. I value my opinions and will fight for my right to be heard, especially in my own house.
I think parents that ‘hover’ and are overly protective of their kids are in for the worst of it. It takes a much bigger effort to break free of someone who has a death grip on you than from someone who has a loose hold. Finding a balance between the death grip and the loose hold is the art of parenting.
And some kids seem to be more sensitive even to your ‘loose hold.’ They would prefer you simply stay in the general vicinity rather than have any real impact on their lives. My own daughter made this clear at age two when she did not want me to walk her in to preschool. She told me to stay in the car because she could walk in by herself. She has been gently, and not so gently, asking for this space ever since. Sometimes I can give it to her and sometimes I can’t help myself. Blessedly, for both of us, she is gaining the maturity to have more control of her life. And I am learning to give it to her. But if I didn’t she would have taken it, one way or another.
That’s why the other morning when I called her back as she headed for the bus stop and demanded a hug (I was leaving for the weekend), I cherished the momentary smile that crossed her face as she trudged back up the drive to me. I can still picture it. The quick upturn of her mouth just before she returned it to the classic teenage smirk – somewhere midway between bored and annoyed. As the song says, “She wants me to want her.” She just can’t let on.
My other teen has been much gentler with us. Every now and again he asserts his independence, but almost immediately feels badly for disregarding us. He argues with me about his planned activities, school schedule, and hygiene, but he is also quick to give me a hug, regale me with stories of the lunchroom, and seek my opinion on his writing. We’ve done nothing different with this child. He is simply a softer sort of soul.
My daughter wasn’t always the distant one. It hasn’t been so long that I can’t easily call up the memories of her unquenchable need to be held. From the moment she was born, she wanted to be in our arms at all times. Eventually I carried her in a sling or snuggly to keep her close. She was in it so often and so contentedly, that I forgot she was there several times and had heart-stopping moments as I lit the gas stove or clambered down the basement stairs. At night she became furious with us when we attempted to make her sleep in a crib – alone. I wonder, in my more cynical moments, if we used up all our hugs back then. Or if this independence she asserts now is her way of punishing us for teaching her to sleep through the night alone.
It is our job to rear these children. Part of maturing is recognizing that you are in charge of yourself. You decide how you will act, what you will say, and most importantly, how you will react to the circumstances and people you encounter. And you reap the consequences. It’s a lot of responsibility and it comes more easily to some young people than others. Demanding personal space to do this is natural. So if that means I’m not welcome to put my arm around you in public or you don’t want help as you sift through the details of your day, well, then I’ll find a way to be okay with that. Because if I don’t, I’m certain this will be the part where you dump me on my butt.