Two distinctly different pieces of paper taped inside one of my kitchen closet doors recently caught my eye. It is amazing that I could see anything in that mess, actually. I long ago ceded that 10 by 6 foot cave to the coats-snow boots-dirty laundry maelstrom of life with three teenagers, four cats, and a 75 pound shaggy black dog.
However, since the kids open these doors 20 times a day, the closet doors have evolved into a makeshift bulletin board capturing our family life. There is a hodgepodge of pictures, memorable sports tickets, an honorable mention in an art contest. That kind of thing.
One old, ragged piece of red and white construction paper is taped at toddler eye level. When he was about five, my sports-obsessed son, who is now 17 and 6’2, decorated this poster with crude Magic Marker renderings of tennis racquets, basketballs, and an intricately stitched football.
The headline proudly reads: Steiner Family Rules.
There are 10 kind and gentle family dictums, such as:
4. Try not to hit or fight with others.
5. Be honest and truthful.
10. Try not to blame; people make mistakes.
Such wise and wonderful words! What a lovely mom I was! Raising the future leaders of the free world and the next Wimbledon champion!
Taped over the Steiner Family Rules is a more recent clipping from the Washington Post. This one is above my eye level so that the children who now dwarf me might actually read it. I put up this article a few months ago with key sentences underlined in blue marker. You can sense the desperation, the total lack of appropriate parental restraint, in my frantic underlined warnings and gratuitous exclamation points.
A few inches from the cutesy Steiner Family Rules, this headline reads: Teens Driving Their Peers More Likely to Die in Crashes!!!
These two adjacent signs, separated in age by over a decade, capture the slippery slide of my parenting standards, which occurred as gradually as boots sinking into quicksand.
The Steiner Family Rules now go something like this:
Please Don’t Die or Kill Someone Else! Please Don’t Do Anything That Would Land You In Jail. Try to Graduate from High School If Possible. And along the way, Please Do Not Get Pregnant or Get Someone Else Pregnant.
This is the cruel paradox of parenthood. When our kids are little, our standards are impossibly high. (Was I really expecting toddlers to be truthful?) Our standards for older offspring – kids who can drive, vote, change the world, make a baby – are ridiculously minimalist.
As our kids grow up, shouldn’t our standards grow with them? Instead, worn down by endless fights over who gets the last piece of bacon, I’ve given up battling over stuff like making curfew, using condoms, and studying for the SATs. I have settled for: Please Don’t Drive Drunk in a Blinding Snowstorm With Six Friends Smoking Pot in My Car!
Maybe it’s normal and healthy to lower our standards as kids grow. Maybe it is our only choice: our tacit, helpless acceptance that we can no longer micromanage their world. We cannot keep them safe, so why even try? Better for our own life expectancy to turn a blind eye to our kids’ idiocy. Go to bed early and trust they come in by 11! Deny that the driver running the stop sign
was my own son. Ignore the repeat accusations by teachers that the former presidential hopeful is simply not handing in her homework.
Biologically, culturally, this steady dissolution of standards makes zero sense. Mother Nature has gotten our parenting instincts backwards. And where, now that I need it, is that ridiculous cultural pressure to be the perfect mother?
When kids are little, we should be hard-wired to worry about immediate risks: please, don’t suffocate your baby sister with that pillow; no, you cannot stick your head in the toilet bowl; absolutely no fires inside the house. Instead, I worried about which flash card to buy, and whether organic carrots were really worth the extra dollar.
Now that my children are bigger, more coordinated, and more independent, I wish evolution had equipped me with a few pithy tricks and higher-level gimmicks. All those ridiculous daycare-is-evil newspaper headlines should be replaced with scary admonitions for parents of teenagers. We parents need reminders that the schools and the streets – and indeed our country’s future! — are only safe if we police our own children as vigilantly now as we did when they were in diapers. I need a parenting prep book for: How do you convince 17-year-olds it’s a fine idea to wear a seatbelt even when Mom isn’t in the car to check? How to impress upon kids that drinking half a bottle of Mexican tequila, on an empty stomach, before walking the gauntlet of
teachers at the upper school formal, is NOT?
Murphy’s Law trumps all my best parenting rules and intentions. Over time, as I’ve become a more experienced parent, and the stakes for my kids have gotten higher, I’ve somehow become a worse parent. I’m more tired, more jaded, more complacent, more accepting, more “eh.” Maybe I am happier, yes – maybe my kids are, too, since I’m not nagging and micromanaging them.
But I have a hard time arguing that I am a better parent today. My fault? I’ll take a pass. Maybe it’s Mother Nature’s fault, or our culture’s failing. Either way, back to Steiner Family Rule # 10. Try not to blame. No one is perfect.