All of parenting is a slow exercise in leaving the room, so your child can stand without you.
This withdrawal begins—when? The first time your baby picks up a Cheerio and puts it in his mouth, then thinks in whatever infant language he’s got, “Hey! I can do this by myself.” Or maybe it’s when she crawls away from you for the first time, and you wait for her to look back over her disappearing shoulder, but she doesn’t. Perhaps it’s even the that first time he cries in his crib, and you’re in the middle of doing something else—can’t you even go to the bathroom, for goodness sake—and you can’t get to him for a few minutes and a tiny bud of realization sprouts in his mind that no, you won’t always provide instantaneous solutions. It begins early, and you keep backing away, step after step, until your baby is an adult who has taken complete responsibility for himself.
One of the challenges of parenthood is trying to figure out which steps to take away from your child when. How do you know when to let a kid own a piece of her life—when to butt out? My kids are only thirteen and ten, and already I have found myself physically clapping a hand over my mouth to hold back words I want to say but have decided my kids don’t need anymore. You insist on wearing shorts when it’s only forty-five degrees out? You know what, son? You’re old enough to decide. If you’re cold, then you’ll figure that out on your own. I’m out. (On the other hand, if it’s five below and frostbite is a danger, then stop arguing and put on pants. You’re still young enough that I can require you to take measures to avoid hospitalization. Also, don’t be an idiot.)
A few weeks ago, thirteen-year-old “Jack” was scheduled for his annual physical. In case there is anyone who doesn’t remember, if you open a thesaurus to the word “awkward” or “uncomfortable,” you will find, “thirteen years old.” Overall, Jack seems to be handling the age light years better than I did, but still: a physical is about one’s body, and it occurred to me that the last person in front of whom a thirteen-year-old boy wants to talk about his body is probably his mother.
I spoke to him in the car a few weeks in advance. “Jack, you know I’m always happy to talk to you about anything, answer any questions you may have.”
“Well, your annual physical is coming up soon. This is your time with your doctor. After we talk about the basics and a couple of questions I have for her, if you want to ask her anything or talk to her about anything without me in the room, just say so and I will leave.”
“I mean it. Your body is changing a lot right now, and you might have some questions—questions you might be embarrassed to ask with your mother sitting there. So I am happy to leave the room if you have anything you want to talk about with your doctor.”
“Okay.” He began to fiddle with the radio stations.
Never deterred in private by my children’s desire for me to stop talking about something I think they need to know, I revisited this offer several times before Jack’s appointment, and then again during the visit itself. Jack did not take me up on it this time, but I’m confident he knows it’s a genuine, standing offer.
Here’s the hard part about my offer to Jack: I don’t want to do it. Jack is my son—my child, with an emphasis on the underage, not-an-adult meaning of the word. He has no right to keep anything from me; if there is information being passed in that doctor’s office, I have a right to know it. And I really want to know it. How else can I protect him?
But I decided that I need to take another step away from Jack, for his own good. Ultimately, it’s not just my job to protect him; it’s also my job to teach him to protect and take care of himself. I’m not sending him to physicals on his own yet, but I am giving him the opportunity to discuss what could be sensitive issues with his doctor. I want him to learn how to manage that relationship, to know that there are people other than his parents who can be appropriate resources in various parts of his life. And if he is too embarrassed to talk to me about something, I’d rather he discuss it with his doctor and obtain solid information and support than not speak to anyone at all.
We hand our children autonomy and responsibility a little at a time, not feeling more than a pinch or two when they are little. After all, any handoff that permits us to sleep a little longer or eat our own meals sitting down is joyous in the early stages. At a certain point, however, we find ourselves moving away from kids who are catching up to us in height, abilities and shoe size, and every bit of independence for them is bittersweet for us. We want to tell them: no, tell us everything, keep us in the room.
But we don’t. We clamp our hands over our mouths, take one step after another back toward the doorway, until the day we find ourselves watching them stand in the room on their own.