My son has grown so accustomed to having all eventualities worked out for him that it’s working against both of us.
My son is 6 and a half and I’ve only been late to pick him up from school twice. Usually, I’m early, and he emerges cheerful to find me already waiting for him on the lawn.
The first time it happened, at the beginning of this new school year, with its baffling Wednesday minimum days, it was about seven minutes to pick up when I realized I would be late. It is exactly seven minutes from door to door if I take the back way, which doesn’t include parking or walking to his classroom. I won’t lie: I sped the back roads, and bolted like a sprinter from my car (looking quite the dork in my summer dress and flip-flops). I arrived at his classroom, sweating, hair in spikes, my face beet red, unable to catch my breath. I was only six minutes late.
“Where were you?” he demanded, lips puffed into a frown of betrayal, tears lurking in the corners of his eyes. “All the other mothers were here.”
That’s it, I thought. I need to run late more often.
The moment jarred me back to a day when I was in third grade. Opening my backpack at lunchtime I discovered in horror that there was no paper lunch sack in my bag. My mom had forgotten it. A deep and terrible panic rose up from my belly as I sat, numbly, on the lunch benches with my munching peers, my stomach rumbling. In that moment I was Oliver Twist, a sad and hungry orphan, working myself up to a dramatic emotional pitch of abandonment. But then, from across the schoolyard, there she was—my mother, running in exactly the same manner as I would, 30 years later, to my son’s class—hair flying, clothes flapping, a McDonalds bag in her hand.
She hadn’t forgotten my lunch, not really.
My adult tendency toward over-preparation stems from many moments like that one in my own childhood, where I shuttled back and forth between divorced parents whose struggles with addiction and the necessity of working full time just to get by left lots of room for details to fall by the wayside. Details that I, as an only child, was quick to pick up and carry over into adulthood. I grew up determined to have it all together.
My son’s reaction to my lateness made it starkly clear to me: I’m an over-prepared parent. Almost anytime we leave the house I have snacks (for him and me), changes of clothes, toys, art supplies and more. This is partly to stave off hunger meltdowns (we both run to the hypoglycemic) and whining about boredom, and about 75 percent of the time, it works. And let me be clear: I am not from the school of “do everything for your child”—it’s up to him to decide what to eat, play with, and when, but the accessibility of those items has often been a boon to making things go smoothly.
Perhaps too smoothly.
In contrast, my son’s friends, particularly those who have siblings, have an ability to go with the flow that mine lacks. They suffer in silence, or simply figure out another solution. My son has grown so accustomed to having all eventualities worked out for him that it’s working against both of us.
“Where are my Lego guys?” he asked recently as we were driving to the store.
“I thought you brought them,” I said.
“No!” His voice became a wail. “I thought you did!”
“It’s no big deal, we’re almost at the store,” I said. “Five minutes.”
“But five minutes is a really loooong time.” He spent the remainder of the drive whining and moaning, and then dragged himself around the store with lead legs and grunts of refusal. This bad mood carried over to the return trip and by the time we got home we were both so grumpy that we had to take separate time outs.
The second time I was late he still pouted all the way to the car.
“How many times have I ever been late to pick you up?” I asked.
He shrugged and wouldn’t look at me.
“Exactly twice, one of those being today,” I said.
“Fine,” he conceded at last.
Research says that children need to fail, and learn to process and handle these failures without being rescued, or you have at best, helpless kids who can’t fend for themselves, or at worst, sociopaths who see people as objects of their own pleasure. And that means that sometimes we parents have to recognize that we can’t prevent our children from suffering or struggling in the ways that we did. In fact, a little “suffering” can go a long way toward building a resilient child.
As we Gen-Xers can attest, having all but raised ourselves with little supervision (and no seatbelts!), the fate of civilization, much less your child’s college future, does not depend on perfect parenting.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Dame, Modern Loss, The New York Times, Paste, Purple Clover, The Rumpus, Stir Journal, the Washington Post, Role Reboot and more.