But then I wondered if my mother was speaking from experience. I filled about two dozen journals from the time I was 11 until I reached my 30s.
Surely those journals reflected my memory of myself at the time: a strong student who wanted nothing more than to adopt a puppy, become a famous oboist and eventually own — and decorate — my own apartment? I recall my life as a mix of great grades, perfect attendance and innocent evenings with friends eating frozen yogurt and gossiping.
When I crack open my journals, untouched since I scribbled them more than a decade ago, however, they tell a different story. Reading through them now, at 38, has taught me an important parenting lesson: I made some awful mistakes when I was younger. I got some bad grades. I failed a few tests. Sometimes, I skipped school. Once, I skipped school to lose my virginity. I had a drunken one-night stand in college. I survived it all.
In the midst of reviewing my journals, I read “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff, which tells the true story of a moody boy who grew up to be a meth addict. As I was finishing the book, my daughter asked me if she could dye her hair red. When I tried to explain that her hair was lovely and natural and pure, she stomped out of my room, slamming doors and telling me how much she hated me.
So I turned to my journal. Was this normal behavior? Or was my daughter, like Sheff’s son, destined to crash?
There it was, in my diary from 1989. I was 10, and I wanted to dye my hair. I was allowed to do it. I was also allowed to pierce my ears five times (though that came in 1994, and I let those holes close in 2002), to have a sleepover at a boy’s house (1996) and to spend 6 hours on the phone once talking to a crush (1997, senior year of high school). This was back when we had landlines exclusively, and I was dominating the home’s only phone.
As a mom, I’ve been too obsessed with screen time to allow my daughter to spend more than 60 minutes a day on the phone. A whopping 6 hours? What would that do to her growing brain? Surely, that couldn’t have been good for me. But according to my 17-year-old journal, it was amazing, blissful and made me happy for three days . . . until that crush showed up at school with a hickey that I didn’t give him.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve pored over parenting books, I’ve examined parenting studies and I’ve followed the experts' advice to the letter. If the book says that it’s best for kids to only have 30 minutes of time with electronics per day, then I set a timer. When a parenting expert tells me that my daughter is too young to have soda, then she gets water or juice, no matter how many of her friends are gulping down pop.
Perhaps, though, the books I should have been reading all this time were my own journals, which give a more realistic picture and, more importantly, illustrate that bending the rules every so often won’t end in a disaster.
If I hadn’t been allowed to fail a test, I wouldn’t have felt badly about it, and I wouldn’t have studied harder in the future. If I hadn’t had my heart broken, I wouldn’t have realized that some men aren’t worth the tears, and that the really special men won’t break your heart.
I think I turned out fine. I’m happy, which is all I could ever want for my daughter. But maybe in trying so hard to protect her from failure, to make sure she’s on the right path in school, friendships, sleeping and every bite that goes in her mouth (she’s never had a fruit roll-up because I’m afraid of what it’ll do to her teeth), I’ve kept her from learning some valuable lessons about life.
It’s time I let her have her own childhood. At the very least, it will give her something to write about in those journals.
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago with her husband, two daughters, two cats and a dog. Find her on Twitter @daniellebraff.