There was a kid running at the neighborhood pool the other day. The pool attendant asked him to walk , as pool attendants have done since pools existed. The boy’s dad — a big-chested, serious kind of guy — came over to the attendant and told him (I swear I’m not making this up), that as the child’s father, he’s the only one to tell his kid what to do, and that if the attendant has something to say, it should be directed at him. In other words: Don’t talk to his kid. The father will decide if his kid needs direction.
The attendant kept his cool (I would have rolled my eyes or worse) and replied — carefully — that it was his job to make sure that people follow the pool rules, and “no running” is pretty much the universal pool rule. The dad pushed back and added some aggressive posturing to intimidate the pool guy, saying that he didn’t see anything wrong with what his kid was doing, so as far as he was concerned, the pool guy needs to back off. In summary: The kid was free to run at the pool because his dad said so — eff the pool rules (this is America!), nobody tells my kid what to do except me.
There’s a weird sort of fear spreading among reasonable grown-ups. My sister’s family had some friends over, or maybe my sister’s family went over to their place. I don’t remember, doesn’t really matter. Anyway, one of the adults gave one of my sister’s kids some polite direction about sharing or something basic like that, you know, stuff people tell kids. Then the grown-up realized the grave error in 21st-century feedback rules concerning kids who aren’t yours, and apologized to my sister for shamefully overstepping. “Are you kidding?” my sister said. “I absolutely want you to tell my kids if they’re doing something you don’t think they should be doing! In fact, do more of it! They need to learn to hear things from people other than me.”
If I’m the only one who can tell my kids what to do, I’ve failed them in every possible way by making sure they have completely unrealistic expectations of the world. Also, I can’t ever die because my kids won’t be able to take care of themselves. Following Big-Chested Dad at the Pool’s logic, a lifeguard can’t lifeguard, teachers can’t teach, coaches can’t coach, and later in life, managers can’t manage… You see where this is going, right?
Is cushiony perfection for our kids a new national obsession? We all know that mom in the neighborhood, who is literally at the school every day, escalating everything to make sure her kid gets an A, is chosen for student council, or gets placed in the gifted program. Later, when her kid is in college, professors will hang up on her and laugh behind her back because she’ll call about something that’s none of her business.
My middle-schooler and his project partner failed to turn an assignment in on time, after many reminders of the deadline. The other kid’s mom (who I met once, briefly) came to my house and wouldn’t leave until I talked with her for nearly an hour about the “injustice.” She was heartbroken for the disappointment her kid must be feeling with the failure and wanted to fix it somehow. She left, but I think it was only because I told her I had no idea how to reverse the course of what happened and suggested she escalate the issue to a school administrator if she believed the teacher could be convinced to reverse his decision. I haven’t heard back from her.
I don’t mean to brag, but my high-schooler fails at quite a few things. None of them too epic, but there’s still time. We talked about it recently. I told him it’s my job to let him fail while he’s still at home with me, because he needs to learn how to lose his shit and then pick it up and move forward. That’s like the most major of life skills — in my experience, anyway — and I’ll be damned if any kid of mine is going to fall to pieces his first semester in college because I’m not there to fix life for him. You remember that person from your dorm days precisely because that person became an utterly forgettable shadow.
This is an open notice to people who know my kids: You can tell them what to do. It’s really, really OK. Tell them not to put their feet up on your coffee table. Tell them to stop running, not to play with that knife, or not to touch your things. Actually, now that they’re older, you’ll likely be telling them not to eat all of your potato chips and beef jerky, and not to take that drink onto your freshly cleaned carpet. Whatever the rules are at your place, tell my kid to fall in line. I have a selfish motive.
This post originally appeared on Medium.