Take a Step Back From Parenting (aka Controlling) Your Children
Sage advice from one control freak to another
“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Once upon a time, when I was a young woman, as compared to today (old), I didn’t value higher education. Obviously I was immature and didn’t know much about anything but thought I knew everything. Sound familiar?
I made the assumption that because elementary, middle, and high school had been boring for me, all school was boring.
Boy, was I wrong.
Because of my crazy childhood, I made the uninformed decision to skip college. Instead I went to work at a restaurant my boyfriend’s parents owned.
I worked my ass off — both before work and after. I hate to sound like one of those people who throw around the cliche’ that they walked uphill both ways to school/work/whatever, but I truly did.
Every morning, if I had to work the early shift, I would get up at 4 a.m., drink some instant coffee, shower, pack a bag, and then either get on my bike and ride 5 miles to work, or if it had snowed, I would first take a SEPTA bus, then walk the remaining distance.
After arriving at work, I’d clean myself up in the women’s locker room, put on my uniform, and head downstairs to begin my shift.
I’d work 9–15 hours (if I agreed to a double shift) and ride my bike five miles back to my apartment — sometimes not arriving until 10 p.m., only to start all over the next day.
Even after all those hours, I was only making enough to cover my rent and a few new clothes and not much else. I recall some weekends I did not eat because I had not been put on the schedule. One of the benefits of working at a restaurant is either a discounted or free meal or two, and I used this benefit as much as possible.
From even this brief synopsis of my early years, anyone can see I had not made a brilliant choice of skipping college but it was my choice to make, and I owned that choice.
Nobody talked me out of not going to school. Or nobody I can remember.
My views on college changed when a new roommate moved into a house I shared with three other young women.
Courtney and I hit it off like we were soulmates. We did everything together. We were inseparable. I’d never had a friend like her before, and sadly, never again.
One day she brought home a class schedule for the upcoming semester at Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania. We pored over the catalogue and decided on the different classes we were going to take. Every one of them sounded incredible. I couldn’t believe I had a choice about which classes I could take because I was so used to a high school telling me what I needed to take in order to graduate.
Who knew you could take classes just cuz?
We enrolled and I began attending classes during the Spring semester.
It was uh-mazing. I met new people. I learned so much. I never missed a class, unlike during my high school career (waving at Deli Garden and now craving their insanely delicious cheese fries).
And, it was the exact opposite of boring. School became a kind of an obsession. It was as if once my thirst for knowledge was tapped, there wasn’t enough information to quench it.
After moving to California with Courtney, I looked into enrolling in the community college located near our flea-infested apartment; however, I had to wait a year in order to get the California resident rate which was so cheap I probably shouldn’t rely on my memory to quote a price.
I believe the original price was somewhere below $10 per unit so a class cost about $30. It’s currently $46 per unit but compare that to classes that currently cost $1800 at a university, and it’s still an incredible bargain. Heck, it costs more to go to a concert for one night than it does for four months of classes!
So I waited the full year because I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and I needed the break in tuition.
During that year-long wait, I worked at a plant nursery and learned so much about plants. I also learned that pursuing horticulture might be a fantastic career idea for someone like me — an introverted learning sponge with few people skills.
Turns out, plants don’t insist their food be served hot. Who knew?
I remember when my year wait was up — it was the summer semester but I didn’t care. I had lived in California for an entire year and knew that every day is summer in Southern California, so I knew I wasn’t missing anything.
I worked all day at the plant nursery and then attended school at night. There was no other way back then — no online schools.
I went to school every semester for years. I couldn’t take more than a class or two at a time because I had to work. I didn’t know about grants, loans, or any of the free money programs for the poor — all I knew is that I didn’t want to go into debt getting a college degree.
At some point, I met my husband-to-be and my college aspirations fell to the wayside. I was in love and for some reason, I didn’t want to be away from him for the few hours each evening to attend a class so I dropped out of college.
Flash forward a few years and I realized my terrible mistake. Kids, as the commercial says, stay in school.
I was unhappily married with a small child at home and no options. I had no degree and the most I could hope for from an employer was minimum wage.
I was stuck. I swore that no child of mine would ever be in my situation. They would go to college, graduate in four years (not seven like me), and have a high paying career.
But reality kicks in with one’s children, doesn’t it? An 18-year-old has her own interests, goals, ideas, and desires that don’t necessarily jive with a parent’s.
My first daughter never loved school. She did the bare minimum to graduate from high school but I was bound and determined that she’d go to college no matter what. I thought she’d have a similar experience as me where she would hate high school but discover the beauty of college.
She started at one college, then moved onto several more, and then finally dropped out. She had always wanted to be a real estate salesperson like me but since I hated the profession and had little success, I thought she’d have the same experience.
I was so wrong. So, so, so wrong. Again.
Devon won her very large company’s Rookie of the Year Award her first year in real estate. She sold enough real estate as a newbie than I did in my first five years — maybe more. I never did the math.
She lived it, breathed it, and loved every minute of it.
Devon had no college degree but she was doing what she loved and making more money than most 22-year-olds. I don’t think money is the key to happiness or anything; my point is that even though she did not have a college education, she was still making much, much more than minimum wage, and woke up each day eager to do her job.
I learned an important lesson from Devon: sometimes the path to happiness is not found after an expensive college degree. Sometimes the path to happiness is finding what you’re good at and doing it.
Passion is what should be pursued, not a paycheck.
My second daughter started at a private art college in New York. It was her choice to chase after an art degree and not the physics degree I wanted her to get. But, by the time it was her turn to go to college, I knew her choice that mattered.
Madison returned home from school in the spring after her first semester, and heaved a sigh of relief. I didn’t know how stressed and unhappy she was until it was time to plan for her to go back. I assumed she was doing okay.
She came into my room one night in early August and wanted to talk. Like most parents of nearly 20-year-olds with boyfriends, I braced myself for all the potential bad news coming my way, and waited, my breath held.
Madison informed me that she didn’t want to go back to school. She said she needed a year off. She told me she wanted to get her first real job and just hang out and paint. She told me she needed time away from college for her mental health and her creativity. She promised me she would return in the Fall of 2019.
I, of course, panicked. I worried she’d never go back, never finish, never again get a scholarship, or get a ‘real’ job with real benefits, but I decided to take several deep breaths, and step away to let her plan her own future.
Madison’s decision to take a break from school had absolutely nothing to do with me, and everything to do with her own goals and ambitions.
This whole stepping back thing was hard, especially after all I had been through but it was the best thing I could have done for my adult daughter — given her the gift of failure.
Madison began the process of filling out online applications for a job. She was so excited and she dove head-first into job hunting. Because she had no previous work experience other than pet and baby-sitting, she focused on retail. She knew for sure she didn’t want anything to do with food service despite it being the number one first job for many.
She heard back from a few stores and was hired on the spot at a large chain as a seasonal worker. Fortunately for her, Madison was looking for work while employers were desperate for bodies.
At first, Madison went happily to work. She excelled in her position and the managerial staff loved her. She always showed up with a positive, can-do attitude and soon she was getting awards and receiving accolades.
But then something unexpected happened; management started giving her various overnight shifts and then throwing in daytime/early morning shifts — she was always tired and always either sleeping or running around trying to complete her errands around her schedule.
Madison learned that when you work for someone else, they decide what time you work, and for how long you work.
Unfortunately, Madison hadn’t anticipated that none of her friends would be around because they returned to school.
She was lonely, bored, and going through the motions day after day. Life as a person with a job was not what she thought it would be. It wasn’t as fun as she expected.
She was learning a serious life lesson that cannot be taught by a parent nor a teacher. It has to be learned firsthand by the student. And the student has to be open to the lesson.
By mid-October, my daughter was going out of her mind with boredom. Ironically, her preferred solution was to sign up for classes at the same community college I attended so many years prior, but she had missed the deadline for the fall semester, and the late start classes were of no interest to her. I suggested she look into online schools and she dove right into researching what she could take that would transfer to her art college.
After contacting her art school and getting all the information she needed, she started attending classes online.
It was the best thing she could have done for herself. Suddenly she was happy again, passionate, and had a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Madison saw the change in herself, realized her mistake withdrawing from art school, and made the decision to go back in January — no longer willing to wait until August.
She created 12 original paintings and reapplied to a different art school in Chicago she had previously been accepted to. It wasn’t any closer to home but it was a better fit for her.
Fortunately, the art school accepted her again, gave her a similar scholarship, and Madison completed all the requirements laid out by the school early. She was so excited to be admitted again.
Now I could have told Madison back in August that this would be the outcome but I knew she wouldn’t have listened to me. What kid listens to her mom talk on and on, nods appreciatively, and says, “You’re right, mom. Golly gee, thanks for the informative chat.” Only the kids in sitcoms, that’s who.
She had to experience this life lesson herself. Firsthand experience teaches like no other.
If I had forced her to go to school when she didn’t want to go, I knew how that story would end: badly and with hurt feelings, bruised egos, and potentially bigger scars than one would normally have from childhood.
There’s nothing like real-life opening one’s eyes in order to make better informed decisions. I had the same opportunity, so why wouldn’t I, as a parent, afford my brilliant children the same experience?
I raised my kids to use their brains, and now it is time for me to sit back and watch them run their own lives, figuring out what’s best for them.
Control freaks, beware, raising children is a lesson in letting go of the wheel and handing it over to someone with little life experience for a while. It’s exhilarating, scary, but also satisfying to see the outcome. It’s akin to sitting in a dark theater on opening night of an epic movie, and watching it for the first time. What will happen? Will the kid find success? Who will be the key players? Will there be a happy ending?
Who can say with any certainty but I can’t wait to find out.