When Norbert Brown’s son asked why he couldn’t have sex with his girlfriend in the house, Norbert was hard-pressed to find a truthful answer.
If you are the parent of a young child, you have a fresh and recent memory of how holding that child for the first time, gazing into that baby’s face, is something completely different from the way you’ve heard that experience described or even the way you’ve imagined it yourself. It’s different in a fundamental, visceral way, the way that looking at a picture of the ocean is different from standing on the beach in gale-force winds.
Let me introduce you to the other side of that particular coin.
In his or her lifetime, that beautiful child is going to do things you don’t like and don’t approve of. Things that will make you cringe. They’ll take stupid and unnecessary risks, because that’s how they’re wired. They might smoke cigarettes; they’ll probably drink to excess sometimes, maybe even when they have to drive. There’s a chance they’ll experiment with drugs, possibly some you haven’t even tried yourself. They’re going to have friends you don’t like. They’re going to have lovers you would never have chosen for them. They’re going to have LOVERS. They might even buy furniture from one of those rent-to-own places.
Somewhere deep inside, where you don’t want to admit it, you know that it’s going to happen. But you have no idea what it feels like until you’re in the thick of it.
Your first experience is probably going to come when they’re teenagers. At that point these bad decisions will be YOUR PROBLEM. I don’t mean you’re to blame for them, but you’re still responsible for them, because this is YOUR child. Financially, morally, ethically —it’s on you. And, you have to do what you can to make these teachable moments—to try to ensure that today’s bad decision leads to tomorrow’s better one. Chances are you’ll weather that storm, and so will they.
Once they’re adults, they’ll still make some bad choices. Good ones too—but it’s the bad ones that’ll keep you up at night. Because the thing is, once they’re adults those decisions are not your problem anymore. You can no longer exert control, and your influence ebbs and flows according to your child’s whim. You’ll want to feel relieved that you don’t have to explain anything to a vice-principal, or make an awkward call to a fellow parent. But mostly you’ll just feel frustrated and powerless. Eventually, though, you’ll learn to live with the discomfort and get on with your life.
But the worst time is that no-mans-land between 18 and 22. In those years our country and our culture dictate that your child is an adult for some things, but not for others. In simpler times, one imagines, there was a clearer line: the young man set off to find his fortune in the big city, or the girl and her dowry headed off down the road to her new husband’s farm. One day a child, the next an adult. But today in America our kids go through the lingering suspended animation of college years and summer jobs, when they are adults on their own some of the time, part of your household some of the time, and deductions on your tax return all of the time. They will do what they want to do, you can’t control it and you really don’t want to anymore. But, well, they’re still IN YOUR HOUSE, playing the role of “son” or “daughter” in the everyday life of your family. And you find that—as liberal and open minded as you may have thought you were—you have rules, and you want them followed.
So it was that not too long ago that I found myself arguing with my then 18-year-old son, because my wife and I would not give him permission to have sex with his girlfriend in our house. We’re not prudish or naïve; we always knew that one day our kids would be sexually active. We’ve done our best to prepare them for it, to guide them to be responsible and safe and careful.
Still, if you were to ask me…Did I think my son was mature enough to be in a sexual relationship at the time? No, not really. Did I like his girlfriend? Um… I’d rather not say. Did I think I got a vote on either of those scores? Absolutely not.
But I did get a vote on what went on under my roof, in the home we’d created for ourselves and our family. And when I found that I was being asked to cast that vote, I had to say no, you may not have sex in our house. I had some trouble articulating exactly WHY I felt so firmly that that was my vote. But when my son pressed me for those reasons, I was a little surprised to realize that I felt the reasons were really beside the point—my rule stood because it’s my house and that’s my rule.
“Well where do you suggest we go?” he asked me.
“You’re a smart kid. It’s summer. It’s Cape Cod. You have a car. Figure it out.”
“So you’re asking me to lie to you.”
I had to think about that one.
“Not lie. I just don’t need to know. It’s none of my business.”
“But you DO know we’re having sex.”
“Then why do I have to hide it from you?”
“I just don’t need to be around it. It’s not appropriate here. In our house.”
“So you’re asking me to lie to you.”
“Alright, yes. I’m asking you to lie to me.”
Was I being unreasonable? Possibly. Hypocritical? You may think so. After all, I was the one who’d preached safe sex, and here I was drawing a line in the sand, preventing him from having sex in the safest place he could find. But although I was genuinely surprised by my own response, I knew I was being true to myself. It was one of those moments—like the moment when I’d first laid eyes on the little boy who was so angry with me now—when life simply did not resemble the picture I’d always had of it in my head.
I’ve thought a lot about why I responded the way I did, and it comes down to this:
When my young adult children make choices—whether I think they’re good or bad, right or wrong— I believe it is in everyone’s best interest for me to be neutral on those choices. If they ask my opinion, I’ll give it. If they get themselves into trouble I’ll always be there for them, even if the trouble is the result of a bad decision. Otherwise, I’m Switzerland.
But being neutral does not mean enabling any choice my kids make. It means being who I am, living according to the values and beliefs I hold. It means becoming part of the reality my children have to deal with as adults.
It’s an odd, uncomfortable place to be—for me and for my son. It feels like forcing a separation, like looking into the sleeping face of that beautiful child and deliberately, willfully, putting him down and walking away. And in a way, that’s exactly what it is.
photo: justien / flickr