Helicopter Parent, Free Range Parent. These terms are so overused they're as thin as my cotton tee shirts have become. I consider myself on the continuum, somewhere between the extremes of ultra-permissive and overprotective. Somewhere sensible, somewhere kinda in the middle. You know, perfect. Which is why, last summer, when my 16-year-old and her friend wanted to make a crazy teen trip to New York City to see their favorite band perform on a morning talk show, I was all for it. We live about 150 miles north of the city. They could get themselves there on the train or the bus. They could pay for it. It would be an experience, as well as a "good experience" -- which is a euphemism for "a lot of effort for questionable payback but they're teenagers and time means less to them than it does to me now."
Since they had to be in Central Park by dawn to line up for the show on Friday morning, I suggested they ask Grandma if they could stay overnight with her beforehand. Eventually, I decided I would be willing to drive them to the city if I could arrange visits with my friends, and if they wanted to return on Saturday morning with me, they could get there and back for free. I was not, I made clear, going to have anything to do with driving out of New York City on a Friday in August, when everyone who has a weekend home in the Catskills or Adirondacks would be heading out, too.
Which is how I found myself sending off my daughter and her friend to take the subway to the Port Authority to catch the bus back to our home city (Albany, NY) one Friday morning in August. Even though she was nervous, I told my daughter she could do it. She had a Metrocard and a Trailways bus ticket. She wanted me to come, but I said no. She is about to start her senior year of high school. I was thinking of all she has to do this year, all the college visits and applications, as well as all the things she will have to do on her own after she is in college. There haven't been too many opportunities for her to be independent this way, since we live in an automobile-organized suburb. I thought that not only is she old enough to do this piece on her own, but also it would make her feel more competent to do so. Plus, she had a friend with her. While I wouldn't want to hang around the Port Authority bus station, it's not like it was in the days of "Midnight Cowboy."
They left around 10:40 a.m. The bus was scheduled to depart at 11:30. At 11:10 the first text came. "We're confused. We can't find our gate."
I was sitting in an apartment on the Upper West Side. Hello? I thought. They're confused? Why are they texting me? I texted back. "Ask someone! Find information desk."
More texts. "We don't know where that is either"
Me, thinking, well, for God's sake, I don't know. I'm not there. I texted back, "You can do it. Did u find a departures board?"
"Yes and it didn't show up."
Right about now Lenore Skenazy and those poor parents whose kids got picked up by social services walking home from the playground in Bethesda, MD, are laughing their heads off.
I was thinking how glad I was that they were having this experience. And how even though I don't consider myself overprotective -- just moderately protective -- my daughter was reacting the way the kids criticized by college deans as unprepared for independence act -- texting me for the answer instead of relying on herself in this situation.
Then I thought over a few things that led to this moment. After she came up with the idea for this trip and I suggested they take the train and contact grandma, nothing happened. Until I offered to drive them to the city. Then, when I refused to drive them back out of the city on Friday afternoon and told them to take the bus or the train (I suggested the train because of potential road traffic) NOTHING happened. They did nothing until I said, "What's the deal?" Then my daughter said her friend didn't want to pay for the train. So I asked if they had considered the bus. And then I looked up the bus schedule and purchased the tickets for them, since they don't have a credit card and couldn't do it themselves online. I did it for them. Me.
And I'm sure it's like this every day. I'm sure there are a million little things I do that enable my daughters to do what they want to do, without them having to actually figure it out themselves.
Now's the time for one of those annoying, "'When I was your age' stories." When I was their age, I took a trip to visit colleges with a friend. We got ourselves from the airport in Washington, DC, to three colleges in three different cities in Massachusetts, and then back to the airport in Washington by ourselves. Our parents purchased our plane tickets, but we did everything else. And it felt so good.
What is my point? My point is that even those parents like me who value independence and want to help their children feel the power of using their own brains and bodies to move around in their lives, even those of us whose first thought when considering letting a child do something slightly out of our control isn't of kidnapping, murder, prostitution, or arrest by social services, even we may be more controlling of our children's decisions than we know. My daughter and her friend did find their bus, which left late and got stuck in traffic. I felt guilty for their long ride that took double the time it would have taken if they'd taken the train or waited until Saturday to drive back with me. However, she figured it out. She got to her destination. Plus, she got to experience the squalor of student travel for the first time. I'm glad I resisted her verbal plea to accompany her to the bus station, and her silent, eyes-only pleas as well. Now I understand a little better how many tentacles of protection I need to unstick.