Like any parent, I’m pretty sure I know my kids better than they know themselves. Didn’t I birth them, pack their lunches, dry their tears, listen to hours upon hours of their hopes and dreams? Surely between all that knowledge and the wisdom that comes from 50-plus years on the planet I know what’s best for them.
Well, maybe. I’m no authoritarian, but I’ve been known to strong-arm my kids on occasion. My oldest was recruited to the high school track team when the coach saw how fast she could sprint across a soccer field. After a few trial races with the cross country team, she wanted nothing to do with it.
“Just do pre-season conditioning,” I told her. “It’ll keep you in shape over the winter.” (And keep you out of trouble after school, I didn’t say out loud.) When conditioning was over I pushed her to try a couple of races. “You never know! You could be the star of the team!”
She stuck with it, grudgingly, and loved it. It was one of the highlights of her high school career. In fact, she’s been coaching that team for seven years, post-graduation.
Pretty good Momming, right? Obviously I know what I’m talking about.
Fast forward to her freshman year of college. It was a perfect storm of wretchedness. From roommates to classmates to civil unrest, she was lonely and miserable. After two terms she begged to come home. “Just stick it out,” I told her. “Your situation is different now, and maybe this last term will be the one that makes you love college!”
She stuck it out and hated it. Is it the worst thing ever that she spent an additional 10 weeks being lonely and unhappy? Maybe not, I know worse things have happened. But once we moved her home I realized what a toll the year had taken on her mental health, her physical health, and her confidence. Maybe I should have just let her come home when she wanted to.
So, yeah, I don’t always know what’s best for them, especially now that they’re young adults. As much as I try to respect their autonomy and let them make their own decisions, I recognize that there’s some part of me that’s always evaluating, that has an opinion. Usually I keep it to myself. (They might disagree, but I try awfully hard!)
And how would I not? They are the people I care most about in the world. Their failures are my failures; their pain is my pain. And yet… As well as I know them, I’m not omniscient. (Damn, it’s true.) I can only make my best guess, and sometimes I’m going to be wrong.
I’ve come to realize that not only do I not always know what’s best, it doesn’t even matter whether or not I’m right. It’s completely immaterial.
My kids are doing their best and making their choices. Unless those choices are likely to cause severe emotional or bodily harm to them or to others, it’s not really my job to calculate the probable outcomes of any decisions or behaviors they embark upon.
This is one of the hardest parenting tricks: to listen and encourage without editorializing. Take that job with low pay and no benefits? Sounds good, hope you enjoy it. Move in with the boyfriend with whom you’ve only had a long-distance relationship? Go for it! Call me if there are problems.
Fortunately my kids and I are on good terms — we talk about all the stuff all the time. They’re pretty forgiving when I cross the line or push too hard. They’re smart, kind, and capable. They know what they’re doing most of the time, and if they don’t? Oh, right. That’s how you become a full-fledged adult.
Julia Williamson is mother to two very nearly adult daughters. She’s a freelance writer, a decluttering wizard, and an inveterate optimist, regardless of reality. Visit her at thesunnysideofthestreet.substack.com.