When Getting Fired Is Good News

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Once a year, I head to a different kind of back-to-school night: our school’s drug and alcohol homily for parents.

Thank goodness the school offers this parenting supplement. Otherwise, I’d know nothing. Most kids at our school are smart enough to avoid blatant intoxication in front of adults. But with several drug and alcohol awareness nights under my belt, as well as three teenagers, I have learned the pitfalls of ignoring, dismissing, and encouraging chemical experimentation.

These days, I mostly go to pick up a few new tips from the expert, Brenda Conlan, whom all the kids reverently call “The Drug Lady.”

Conlan’s expertise is talking to children and parents candidly about how to prevent substance abuse. But underneath lies a broader knowledge base: she understands teenagers. Which is funny, since she doesn’t have kids herself. But she grew up in a large family and she meets with adolescents around the world almost 300 days out of the year. Let’s just say her expertise shows.

This is how Brenda opened her talk this time.

“Now, you parents don’t look very happy right now. It’s probably because you have kids in ninth grade or thereabouts. Teenagers — that’s a hard time for a parent. Because after more than a dozen years of being your kid’s fulltime manager – cook, maid, playdate coordinator, educational guru, chauffeur, etc, in charge of EVERYTHING – you recently lost your job. Your kid fired you, right?”

Every single parent in the audience laughed.

Although my youngest is only in 7th grade, she axed me this year. Unless I get very snippy, I have little sway over her decisions. What and when she eats. Who gets invited to sleepovers. Whether or not she studies as much as I think a Latin test merits. What leggings she wears. What boys she texts back or ignores. Which sports she plays.

The list of what I no longer control or influence seems endless.

And yesterday this precious child hung on my every word and treated me like the supreme goddess of the universe.

The Drug Lady offered a reassuring explanation: getting fired has nothing to do with us parents.

“Separation from parents is developmentally normal for kids. Your child is growing up. Becoming his or her own person. They need to fire you to develop on their own.”

After adding that we should accept that we’re never getting that manager job back, she offered what all parents of teenagers need most – hope for the future.

“If you are very lucky and patient, you will be rehired by your child. This time as a consultant. And you know what consultants do best? They listen.”

It is hard to listen to my kids at this stage of parenting. I’m used to being the one doing the yapping. Plus teenagers aren’t known for talking much to their parents. When they do, they say inflammatory and idiotic things.

Such as:

“Grades don’t matter because I’m going to marry a man with a lot of money.”

Or

“Sexism is exaggerated. Men today are far more discriminated against than women.”

Or

“Now that I’ve been accepted into college, I’m not going to school anymore.”

These days, even when my kids spout off like this, I try to take Conlan’s advice and just listen. Sure, it’s a hard transition. Biting my tongue hurts when my 17 year-old obfuscates about exactly where he will be at 10 pm on a Friday night. Or when my 16-year-old pooh-poohs my dating advice. I worry (silently) as my youngest forgets to study for an exam until the night before.

But the time comes as a parent to back off. In my experience, kids decide when – not us. And this time comes long before many of us are ready for it.

Stepping back seems particularly hard where I live, Washington, DC, which like most American cities, serves as an incubator for over-involved helicopter parenting, a place where Child Protective Services recently investigated two parents for giving their children “too much independence” by letting them walk home by themselves from a nearby park.

I cross my fingers that all the time, love and sheer nagging I’ve invested in my kids during their first dozen or so years will be enough.

I hope Brenda Conlan’s prediction comes true for me: I want to be my children’s consultant for the rest of my life. I’d love it if they turned to me for occasional guidance, insight, comfort and companionship. Just as I turned to my parents in my late teens, 20s, and 30s.

I’d call my dad when the furnace in my first house blew at midnight. My mom gave me a fat check when I was going through my first divorce at 27, without a single “I told you so” or expectation that I would pay her back. My parents were the first people, besides my second husband, I told when those three pregnancy tests came back positive. But I rarely, if ever, called them two days in a row, about anything, after I turned 18.

The good – but slightly bracing – news about being fired by your kids?

You have a lot more time for your own life.

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