This past summer, as my daughter Grace approached 10, my parents spent a lot of time with our children, and on the hinges of these experiences a door swung open. My father, in particular, shared with me—more than ever before—his views on our children, Grace and Whit. One night after dinner, he offered that if he had any concern about Grace, it would be that we seemed awfully close. He warned me about the dangers of over-identification and of being too intertwined.
I frowned at him. His concern mirrored one of my deepest ones. But then I pointed out the adventurous way she went to sleepaway camp before any of her friends, without a wingman from her daily life.
Steepling his fingers, Dad leaned back in his chair and nodded. “I guess you’re right, Linds,” he said pensively, fingers under his chin. My father’s recognition of this aspect of Grace’s personality told me a lot: It reinforced all the ways we are similar and his profound understanding of my joys and concerns. But it also reminded me that the high value I place on independence is something I learned early on in my own childhood. It brought to mind an experience in my own fourth-grade year that has come to loom large in my understanding of my father and, frankly, of myself.
We were about to start ice skating in gym class and had been told that a parent had to write a note giving us permission to skate without a helmet. Mortified at the notion of skating in a helmet, I pestered my mother all evening to write the note.
Finally she turned to me, holding up hands covered in some kind of food she was mixing in a big bowl. “Ask your father,” she sighed. I trotted down the short hall to the living room, where my father sat in a pool of light reading a thick history book in German. He agreed to help me and stood to get the thick fountain pen he preferred and a piece of paper. I watched over his shoulder as he began writing in brown ink: Recognizing that risk is an inherent and important fact of life, we gladly permit Lindsey to skate without a helmet.
I begged him to write a normal note, but he refused, chuckling at my horror. He shrugged and said I could turn in that note, or I could wear a helmet. Furious, I stalked upstairs to my bedroom and probably put a Peter Cetera 45 on my record player. I can still feel the way my cheeks burned with embarrassment the next morning when I handed the note to my gym teacher.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that my father was teasing the school for what he viewed as a silly rule (and one that frankly surprises me, too, when I think back to the early ’80s, which were defined mostly for me by riding around in the open trunk of a Volvo station wagon, no seatbelt in sight). I’ve also been able to see that this small moment spoke loudly about the way that my parents prized independence and believed in moving boldly forward into a world that is full of risk and adventure in equal measure.
There is no question that I have utterly internalized this value. I am proudest of my children when they display self-reliance and independence. Watching them be brave swells my heart even more than does watching them demonstrate skills or talents. Sometimes I worry that this sends a bad message. Am I pushing them away too fast, too early, too far? Am I overly emphasizing independence and autonomy, and causing them to doubt the closeness of their bond with me? If I celebrate too noisily their willingness to walk away from me, will they learn not to come back? This is one of the central tasks of parenting: Each day, we navigate the line between closeness and separation.
There’s something else, too, about autonomy: Somehow, it is inextricably linked in my mind to a kind of perspective about the world. I want my children to know that while they are the most important thing in my world (along with their father), they are not the only thing. Somehow, putting them in that murky space beyond what is absolutely comfortable—outside the circle of my arms—feels like both the only way for them to grow and a reminder that there is a huge world outside the space of our little family. A world in which they are simultaneously tiny and masterful. A world in which they can survive turning in an embarrassing note to their teacher and then skate away, without a helmet on.
I remind myself of this when I worry that I’m fraying the cord that ties our hearts or when I feel judged by the world for a choice I’ve made. I believe absolutely—to my marrow—that to teach my children to be independent is to teach them to exist in the center of their own lives, but not to confuse that for the center of the universe. I don’t want to raise children who think that anyone else’s world is going to revolve around them. Because it won’t, and it shouldn’t. By teaching them to wobble on their own feet—literally and figuratively—I am teaching them to trust themselves, to know their own power, to understand their agency in their own lives.
Ultimately, doesn’t trusting our children as independent individuals require us, as parents, to trust ourselves? We have to believe that they will behave in responsible ways. We have to be confident that we’ve shown them the boundaries of appropriate behavior, whether that is looking an adult in the eye or being careful about fast-moving cars when crossing the street. It has taken me a long time to realize that I do trust myself; the way I behave with my children demonstrates to me that I do.