“We already know all the rules,” my daughter Ella and her friends said in unison, their voices downcast as we talked about the overnight school trip. That morning I’d learned the rules, too, at a meeting for parents who volunteered to chaperone some 120 fourth-graders from Brooklyn to Boston. No handheld video games, charging pay-per-view movies at the hotel or buying kids a round of ice cream. Kids had to bring their own spending cash, and parents not going on the trip weren’t allowed to call and check up on their kids.
The list dragged on. Lights out at 10. No kids sneaking from one hotel room to another.
“And no parents ordering alcohol at dinner,” the teacher organizing the trip added, as parents in the audience exchanged looks of bafflement.
“I’d like to know what made parents last year so desperate they had to head to the bar,” another parent confided, laughing as he leaned over to suggest we should perhaps reconsider.
That afternoon, the Three Musketeers—as I called Ella and her friends—filled me in on one final regulation. “No Tamagotchis,” they groaned, huddling to connect their virtual pets one last time before the trip and hitting my soft spot as they did. Put me anywhere near a Pac-Man arcade game, and I’m still the kid begging for just one more quarter before we have to go home.
So I winked and told the girls they better not hide their toys in my suitcase. The hugs and “I love yous” that followed were none too inconsequential to a parent who’d signed on to serve as Trip Hatchet Mom.
Besides, while there was plenty of educational purpose to our trip, weren’t we also supposed to have fun? Bond, eat junk food and hide under the covers? Wouldn’t it be okay to bend the rules a little bit and turn a blind eye if the kids stuffed harmless contraband in my bag? Those were the thoughts I went to bed with as I waited for my 5:00 a.m. alarm.
No question I wanted my kids to respect authority, listen to their teachers and avoid harming other people. And no lying, cheating or stealing. But that still left plenty of room for them to learn how to think for themselves and not grow up walking in lockstep.
More than once we have shut the homework books in favor of late night visits to the ice cream store to soothe frazzled nerves. My teenage daughter once coaxed me into jumping into a city fountain with her on a blazing hot day. I hadn’t noticed the “do not” sign. But truthfully, I hadn’t bothered to even look for one. Only a few months earlier, her father and I had split up. And so the chance to honor the childhood spirit in both of us was more important that day than looking for a sign. And it made the decision to go with my gut the right one.
Besides, I could never find a parenting blueprint. That often made it tricky to figure out exactly when it was okay to bend the rules a tad or whether it was the spirit not the letter that counted. But my kids always knew that what worked for another family didn’t necessarily work for ours, and saying “no” when other parents said “yes” sometimes put me smack dab in that uncomfortable middle. I always figured that came with the territory. Let them moan and groan; we all got over it.
As for the Boston trip, we had a rousing mock debate about tea at the Old South Meeting House, ate some junk food and snuggled in our PJs in front of the TV.