Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Hiking the Parenthood Peaks

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Jul 12, 2014 10:03 AM

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (William James)

I remember (fondly) a former principal of mine who used to say, “I’m not going to die on that hill.” In one simple phrase, she managed to zoom in on the need for prioritizing the objectives of a situation -- what was worth going after and what was not -- and it didn’t take long for her phrase to embed itself in my vocabulary.

But it wasn’t until I became a parent that I fully realized its significance.

There are probably as many parenting mantras as there are parenting “experts”. We’re told to “be consistent,” that “actions speak louder than words” and even cautioned to (or not to) “spare the rod spoil the child.” But while these overriding philosophies can help to shape our parenting, they aren’t very helpful in guiding our day-to-day choices.

Matters of health and safety are non-negotiable. Like little parenting gifts to frazzled parents too tired to decide the right answer, these issues can be managed on autopilot. Wear your seatbelt. Wear your helmet. Look both ways (or left-right-left) before crossing the street. It’s easy to be consistent when your kids are little and the rules are simple.

But life doesn’t stay black and white for long, and parenting for the long haul requires compromise, which means that thoughtful parenting is full of second guesses. Beginning sooner than we expect -- perhaps as early as the preschool stage when “why” prefaces every other question, and, indeed, becomes a stand-alone question itself -- we discover that parenting rules have exceptions, and that being consistent is a whole lot more challenging than we expected it to be. 

By the time our kids are teenagers, we’re weighing every parenting choice -- or so it seems -- and asking ourselves daily whether or not it’s worth “dying on that hill.” If we use their electronic tethers to put our minds at ease, are we smothering them? If not, are we giving them more freedom than they’re ready to handle?

How important is a clean room? A healthy breakfast? Homework completed on our timetable rather than theirs? And when those independence-seeking teens begin to step away from us, shunning family activities for time alone or time with friends, how do we know when to hold fast and when to let go?

Do we let them bring a friend on a family vacation? Buy them a car when they turn sixteen? Allow them to pass on a family event just because they want to? Keep our mouths shut about the friend (or boyfriend) who’s a bad influence because we suspect that sharing too freely will only cause them to cling to the relationship even more?

Each hill has its own vantage point, and we make our decisions based on the vistas that stretch out before us as we climb it. The “when I was 16” hill, part of an old and venerable tradition for some of us, can help to put teenage actions into perspective. The “right vs. wrong” hill, which, in many families, is carved out of Church Mountain, can help in matters of values. The “what all of her friends are allowed to do” hill, which can be part of a very scary mountain range all its own, can be a measure of contemporary mores. As the “why” of the preschool years morphs into “why not?” parents of teens spend many long hours atop those hills asking themselves that very question.

My favorite peak is Independence Mountain, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. From my vantage point near the top of this hill, I have a panoramic view of all the steps my daughter has taken on the way to sixteen. First day at daycare. First steps. First bus ride. First day of “real” school. First ride in another parent’s car. First sleepover. First solo trip to the park. First day of middle school, first day of high school. First day driving alone in the daylight, at dusk, in the dark. 

And some days, I am content to dwell on that mountaintop, to see all that she has accomplished. Other days, I find it necessary to turn and explore the view on the other side -- where she is headed -- because if I fail to consider that perspective, I may make a decision that is a poor choice for the long haul, no matter how good it may look in the moment from atop one of those other hills.

And so I say yes to things I’m not yet ready for -- sometimes -- because she is ready and because my fear, acquired decades after my own teenage years, should not inspire fear in her. And other times, I say no because she’s not ready or because she’s not yet experienced enough to know that a healthy dose of fear can be a good thing. I don’t ever want my fear to be the thing that holds her back, but sometimes it’s the very thing that protects her.

As the parent of a teenager -- one who acquired a driver’s license just a month ago -- I  find myself frequently deliberating that question I learned from my former principal: do I want to die on this hill? Some hills leave us no room for a change of heart and so they require snap decisions while others have plateaus that leave space for pacing and deliberation. By the time our kids are teenagers, they have developed navigational systems and hiking skills of their own, and sometimes we even stand together on a hill, contemplating the question together.

The hike up Independence Mountain was steep and the view often left something to be desired. And while the sights that are visible near the top are both gratifying and terrifying, they’re an important reminder of the big picture. From this hill, I can see all the others, which it makes it easier to know where and when to take a stand. Seeing them all at once has a way of bringing everything into focus. And while the view from here is not at all black and white, there’s a lot to be said for technicolor.

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