When my son texted to ask me to bring his forgotten chromebook to school, I was immediately conflicted. I went through all of the arguments in my head that I always do when one of my kids forgets something at school, which is blessedly rare. But each time, I think to myself: let them handle it or help them out? It is a question at the root of most parenting dilemmas these days. How much does a loving mother help out and how much does a loving mother step aside so that her child will experience consequences. Like most mothers, I walk that line, at times falling on one side or the other.
Armed with the knowledge that the chromebook is actually essential in class, and that the school was on my way to an appointment, I decided to bring it in, but my inner dialogue still raged. As I drove through the rainy morning, I noticed two six-year old boys waiting for school busses and they crystalized my conflict exactly.
The first boy was dressed in a raincoat and his mother stood next to him with an umbrella shielding them both. She bent down and was showing him something on her phone and they laughed together. This kindergartener was warm, happy, and safe.
The second boy, not very far down the road, stood by himself. He had a hooded sweatshirt on, and it was already soaked through. He had nothing to entertain him; he looked straight ahead as he waited for the bus. This kindergartener would likely spend the day with some discomfort, but he was safe and well.
As I noticed them both, I knew that, despite appearances, the second boy is likely the one with the advantage. He was learning, probably had learned already, how to cope with difficulty, how to manage himself in the rain. I identified with him. I walked to school in all kinds of weather from the time I was five. I later learned that my mother walked behind me for some of my kindergarten year, but mostly we were a pack, my sisters and the kids from the neighborhood. Not many of us had raincoats or rain boots, but we made it work with our winter coats and sweatshirts. We were learning how to adapt, and not to sound like a terribly old person, but our whole generation did learn these basic lessons about managing ourselves and being in the world that I fear our children are missing.
I started babysitting at age twelve, and started my first job at age fourteen, and I made sure my son did the same. He is a good kid, a hard worker, and someone who impresses his employers. But I wonder how well I have walked this line of helping or letting him go. I wonder how the details of his life will be managed when he is on his own just a few months from now. I wonder if I’ve spoiled him.
Later that same day, my son was cleaning out his car and found a very old, very smelly travel mug that once housed hot chocolate. He was headed for the trash with it when I stopped him and told him to clean it out. When he told me it was un-cleanable, I gave him a choice; give me ten dollars to replace it or clean it out. And as I watched him at the kitchen sink, both of us breathing only through our mouths due to the absolutely disgusting smell of spoiled milk that permeated my house, somehow I smiled. This is a kid who can take care of things. I may have sheltered him from time to time, may have extended my umbrella to him on some of the rainiest of his days, but when it comes down to it, my kid knows what to do and he will do it. Sometimes he needs a nudge, and I know my voice is one that will stay with him whether I am physically present or not. As for how well I walked that line, only time (and his college roommates, and later, his wife) will tell. But as I am nearing the end of my course in active mothering with this boy, I do find it harder to keep my umbrella to myself. There are only so many more times he will want to stand under it with me.