On a cold winter day years ago, I came around the corner into my kitchen and looked out the window. Two of my wonderful cherubs (then six and four), who should have been in the front yard, were nowhere to be seen. I went to a couple of windows, assuming they had wandered over to the side yard, or perhaps were rolling down the hill into the small meadow. We were pretty far from the street (and separated from it by a patch of woods) so I wasn’t worried they were hurt, just curious as to where they’d gone. So I threw on my coat and headed outside to have a look.
As soon as I got outside, I heard the giggling. It was coming from the garage. I headed around the corner and found myself standing stock still in one of the open garage doorways. Sam was crouched in one of the window frames, giggling and facing outside, the window pushed wide open. The evidence was laid against the wall below him: A stepladder balanced precariously on top of a few boxes. The windowsill was about six feet off the floor.
He turned his head my way, smiling. I heard the crunch of booted feet on snow and suddenly his sister, Mac, was by my side. Her six-year-old self began explaining immediately.
“We made a snow fort outside so we can jump on it!”
I made my way over to four year-old Sam, plump and rather round in his coat and snow pants, and he happily jumped into my arms. I put him down, and I let Mac ‘drag’ me around the corner. True to her word, a big pile of snow sat there, just beneath the window. It was debatable, but I certainly could allow for the fact that it fell into the category of ‘snow fort’.
“What are you doing jumping out the window?” I asked with a little bit of incredulity in my voice.
“Um.” Mac hesitated, “You never said not to.”
Her demeanor, not even remotely tinged with guilt, was so unexpected that I started laughing.
“Oh! I guess I forgot to make the rule that you shouldn’t jump out of the garage window!“
And because I was laughing, she started laughing, and then Sam started laughing and I smacked them on their snow pants’ bottoms and they half-bounced, half-ran into the house.
I’d forgotten to make the rule that my four and six-year-olds should not climb up on a tenuous excuse for scaffolding, open the garage window, position themselves precariously on the ledge, and leap onto the pile of snow that they created on the driveway below.
My God. What else had I been remiss about? I mean, I had put a lot of rules in place, but which ones had I forgotten?
Had I ever told them not to climb onto the roof? What about forgetting to tell them not to jump off the roof?
I was pretty certain I hadn’t told them not to present themselves, nude and under the light of the new moon, to any devil-worshiping cult members. I mean, at four and six, they would certainly at least be considered as virgin sacrifices, right?
And, oh my God, they had newbabybrotherGabe (that was how they introduced Gabe at that point in their young lives)!
Maybe I needed to sit Mac and Sam down, and tell them that, should one of several black bears that had been spotted in Dunstable that year wander into our yard, it would not be okay to hand said bear their new baby brother in order to take a cool photo of them with Mac’s Fisher Price Camera. I mean, she really loved taking pictures of her new baby brother. Might they think of doing that? What did I know? I mean, I hadn’t made the ‘don’t jump out the garage window’ rule. Maybe I needed to make the ‘don’t hand your baby brother to a bear’ rule. Or not.
Then, the next winter – when they were much, much older – Mac and Sam came up the driveway from sledding, completely soaked from the chest down. They sort of skulked past me and headed upstairs to change. They were in their snow pants and jackets, so the soaked outerwear could have been melted snow. They seemed okay. It was only later on that they explained that they had fallen through the ice on the pond at the bottom of the hill. Luckily the pond was only waist deep (this I knew). When I asked them what they were thinking, they said that they remembered that there was a rule not to walk on any frozen lakes or ponds without permission, like, ever. But, they said, they didn’t realize that applied to Dana‘s pond. (Dana was our next-door neighbor).
So, in that case, I had actually made the responsible parental rule relative to winter ice safety. However, I forgot to add that it applies to each, specific, pond, lake, and puddle. What would that rule even sound like? “Okay, young cherubs, it is very important that you not ever wander onto a frozen pond or lake because even if it looks frozen on top, it might not be frozen deeply enough to hold your weight. You might fall through and that would be very dangerous. Do you understand? Okay, good. So that means don’t walk on Dana’s pond. And don’t walk on the pond near the library. And don’t walk on the river by Miss Kim’s house. Oh, and don’t walk on the town lake, like, ever. Oh, and someday you might get a friend who owns a house on Lake Winnipesaukee. Don’t walk on Lake Winnipesaukee in the winter. Hey, do you think either one of you will want to honeymoon in Iceland? Okay, even in Iceland, sometimes things aren’t frozen enough. Don’t walk on frozen lakes in Iceland, unless Dad or I say it’s safe. Got that? Okay. Mittens tucked into your sleeves? Go ahead outside.”
What the heck?!
I was completely at a loss. There were way too many rules to make anyway, and now I had to be all sorts of specific. I was a big picture gal. Details were lost on me. Maybe I could make huge, sweeping rules.
No, that wouldn’t work. Because even if I said, “Don’t die.” I would have to say “Don’t die falling through ice, don’t die by getting mauled by a bear, don’t die in a freak hang gliding accident using your brother’s Buzz Lightyear cape…” Oh my God, then I’d even need more specifics. “Don’t die in a freak hang gliding accident using your own blankets and sticks”, “Don’t die in a freak hang gliding accident using the dog’s sting ray toy”. The list could have been exhausting.
So I gave up.
My nearly perfect husband and I made a few rules, decided that we would choose our battles, and focused on the goal of creating humans of good morals and values (and good senses of humor to weather the slings and arrows that life would surely hurl at them once and a while).
Then we waited.
Because we knew.
We knew that the little kid misbehaviors (and, by the way, were they really misbehaviors if we hadn’t been specific enough with the rules? I’m not so sure) but anyway, we knew that the little kid errors in judgment would lead to teenager errors in judgment, and boy those were gonna present some pretty cool opportunities for creativity in parenting. So we waited.
And then my dearest daughter became a freshman in high school.
Now, I have to say that it is really hard to find something that she ever did horribly wrong. She was a really chill little kid. Her tantrums were absolutely silent. No, not kidding. Her tantrums as a two and three year old involved her throwing herself on the ground, spread eagle and not making a sound. There were several incidents of her doing this at the supermarket and at Target. People would just stare at me, standing there rather amused, and I would whisper that this was a tantrum and motion them to just walk around or step over her. When she was done, she would get up, brush herself off (true, as she did not like ‘crumby’ clothes) and we’d move on. My Aunt P. seemed very put out that I didn’t have a more difficult first child (I guess I was a little more of a handful, and she is a woman bent on revenge).
Anyway, Mac was fourteen and headed to high school and her best friend was Meaghan Foster (We call her ‘Fostah’ to this day. We love her.) Anyway, Mac and Fostah were two very good girls. They were goofy and sporty and school- oriented. This was the type of pairing that made parents smile. Now, that didn’t mean all was perfect. Mac was such a low-key kid, and if something was bothering her we would talk about it. But, as she entered her teenage years, it only made sense that she wouldn’t always talk about it with me. It’s an independence thing. But with Mac, she wouldn’t necessarily talk about it with anyone else. So holding it in would result in an uncharacteristic poopy mood. And, usually, after a few hours of this mood, she would share what was bugging her and we’d work it through.
My nearly perfect husband and I were not fans of MySpace, the kinda-sorta precursor to Facebook. Everyone on MySpace could see everything about every participant at any time. We talked openly with Mac about it, as many of her middle school and high school friends had a MySpace page. We wouldn’t allow her to have one. And she understood. She was allowed to go on AIM (instant messaging), however, and we had rules including “no computers in your room” and “If you ever quickly shut down your machine while we are walking by, you loose it.” (Remember, this was all pre-text messaging). Now, in and around here, Facebook was the newest thing. She described it as a ‘safer MySpace’ and said that a lot of her friends were on it. She and Meaghan Foster would talk about MySpace and Facebook at my kitchen counter (whilst consuming mass quantities of chocolate and ice cream). I had researched both. Meaghan’s mom also prohibited MySpace and Facebook. I was in a wait and see pattern. I told Mac we could talk about it in a few months.
A few days later, Mac started acting sort of poopy. And it lasted all day.
By the next day, I became more interested. She had another friend, who was always involved in some sort of drama or another, and I was thinking that maybe Mac was trying to help her with something (this always stressed Mac out. She couldn’t figure out why this girl was always having issues with other girls or boys). So I asked her what was going on in general again. She said she was ‘fine’. By day three, I asked her specifically about her dramatic friend. She said that everything was fine there. And then, on the way downstairs, I had a weird feeling. A mom feeling.
So I went to the computer.
And I hung out and I did some searching and poking and prodding and headed over to MySpace and didn’t find any evidence that she was there. (though a couple of other friends and young family members had surprising presences). Then I headed over to Facebook – which was so different than it is today – and KAPOW! There she was. And there Meaghan was. Oh wow. This was a major dis. So I sat there and thought about it. My first reaction was to march upstairs and have a chat right then. But I thought I’d give her another shot at talking about it. The problem was that the tension of keeping the secret was killing her. The pressure was building.
Later on that night, I asked her again what was bothering her (she had been snippy with her brothers). I got nothing. By the next morning, the pressure was building to dangerous levels. We could have had Dante’s Peak blowing sky high before long, and Pierce Brosnan wasn’t anywhere in Dunstable at the time. It would be bad. I decided to talk to her on the ride home from soccer practice later that day. So after we dropped Meaghan off at her house, I talked to Mac. I said she was acting awfully and her behavior was not okay. I told her that it was my experience that she only behaved like this when she was holding something in and not sharing. I told her if she told me, and it wasn’t good, that she wouldn’t be in nearly as much trouble as she would if she lied about something. So I was giving her the choice. Did she have anything she wanted to tell me, because I had a feeling she did.
She said no.
I pushed harder. I asked if she was sure. Because I’d give her a pass if she told me. But not if she didn’t. She said, “nope.” And as we pulled into the garage, and I shut off the car, I turned to her and gave her one, final chance. And that kid turned toward me, and looked me right in the eye and said that my feeling was wrong and there was absolutely nothing that she had to tell me. And so she got out of the car, and I got out of the car. And she walked in and went into the living room with her computer. And I walked directly to my computer. And I futzed around for a second, and John was looking at my determined self. And I looked him right in the eye. And I stabbed my index finger on the return key.
And friended my daughter on Facebook.
And John looked confused, and I counted down out loud, “Five…four…three…. two…” and before I got to “one”, Mac came flying into the room.
And she was crying hysterically and apologizing and was so upset. And she begged me not to tell Meaghan’s mom and sniffled and sobbed. And it was so hard not to smile and hug her.
She was a good kid. Her best friend was a good kid. So here were two good kids. Their crime was being on Facebook. Okay, it was also keeping the secret from their parents to be there. It wasn’t the best call. But they didn’t rob a bank, or leave to meet a stranger they’d met online, or done drugs, or got caught drinking. And, to be honest, I would have let her get an account if we had talked about it and she made a good case.
And that was exactly what I told her later on. I said I’d just wanted her to make her case and I wanted the opportunity to talk to her about keeping safe online before she went ahead and did it. I’m big on picking my battles with my kids. Too many rules mean more rules to be broken, especially for teenagers. I know. I was one. (I’m not making a judgment about any other family here. I’m just talking about mine.) So she wasn’t punished, but we did have a long talk about rules for online behavior.
“Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want printed on the front page of a newspaper”
“Be careful of the photos you share, because you can’t get them back”
“‘If it’s at all controversial, a misunderstanding, or negative; you call, you don’t type”
And probably more.
And the entire time we were talking, I was thinking of the time I caught her and Sam in the garage when she was six years old. And I was wondering, in the background of my brain, what I was forgetting to put out there as a rule. Was she going to approach me later and say, “But Mom, you told me not to put a naked photo of myself on Facebook. You never said I shouldn’t post a naked photo of Sam. Duh.”?
What? It could happen.
But, in the end, I decided not to worry. John and I decided long ago that we couldn’t focus on every single thing as we were raising our kids. We focused on morals and values. On raising good humans. Maybe six-year-old Mac didn’t understand the concepts of extrapolation and application of rules to multiple situations. But teenaged Mac would. I had to trust that.
I had to trust me, and I had to trust her.
It is an odd thing to watch your kids grow up. To move on from a ‘director’ role to one that is more ‘trusted consultant’. And that transition isn’t always easy, and it involves many steps forward and backward before equilibrium is reached.
But it is a cool journey, and has proven to be a wildly entertaining one at that.
I can’t wait for what comes next.
Thanks for readin’