We’re standing in a very long line to get through the doors of the auditorium in the blistering June sun—the middle school graduation for our youngest of five children. We’ve been through this four times already, the place is ghastly crowded, and the line barely moving. Then someone ahead of us shifts and we see, almost directly in front of us, the relative against whom we have a restraining order for abuse and harassment. In that moment, we decide to step out of line and take a walk around the block. We end up in the corner pub nearby, where we drink an icy cold beverage, choosing to skip this one event, and take emotional care of our parental selves for once. Our son never knew we missed it.
While this makes us sound like heartless jerks, one of the lies we often hear as parents is that “every milestone matters,” when in fact, it didn’t make one bit of difference whether we were there or not. Of course, we didn’t tell him we skipped it. We’re not cruel. We met him outside the auditorium afterward and took photos. We got the important parts right. But the graduation? I’m not even sure why there was one. Parents today over-authenticate and congratulate their kids for normal, ordinary events. Leaving high school or college is event-worthy, party-worthy, for most kids (one of ours eschewed the entire thing as bogus sentiment). Leaving kindergarten, or elementary school, or junior high? It’s not over yet, so simmer down.
I know I’m not alone in my lack of enthusiasm. In fact, we’re in the throes of a backlash lately toward the mollycoddling of today’s children. They’ve received trophies just for showing up. They’ve never walked to the park alone, made their own lunches, or spent a day without hand sanitizer or sunscreen. Almost every day you’ll find articles and essays on parenting websites and by mommy bloggers weighing in on the subject (Google “helicopter parent” for a smidgen of this hysteria, er, trend.)
The two people (or, frankly, all too commonly, the one parent keeping it all together) who manage all the details of raising a child from birth to middle-20s (because they don’t go away when they turn 18) sometimes just need a little slack. And if that means there isn’t an artistically created bento box lunch every day, artisanal cupcakes for each birthday, and a 21-gun salute when she gets all her spelling words right, it’s not the end of the world. It might mean that finishing a school year equals an ice cream cone or a pizza night, but not a party or a ceremony. Taking care of one kid is tough enough; more than one can be a never-ending slog for their folks. Parents have to take care of themselves, too, and sometimes that just means saying no to the last overwhelming task.
For my husband and I, that “no” moment was the epiphany of standing in line and seeing a happy day turn bitter. Sometimes the expectations and demands are just too much. Whether that makes us winners or losers in the long run, I don’t know. In our case, we’ve offered both indulgence and tough-love to our kids. We’ve been to as many games as we could manage, made sure they had what they needed if not always what they wanted, and so far, have got four out of five out the door and into productive lives. An event that didn’t matter, at which we didn’t participate and weren’t even missed, took place without our eyeballs on the stage and on our precious boy.
The sky didn’t fall. Lightning didn’t strike. Everyone survived. If that’s not a relief from the pressures of praising and nurturing, I don’t know what is.