Hey Ann. Madrigal Singers was rad. Don’t party too hard this summer. Ha ha just kidding.
I need to burn all my yearbooks.
Parents know that when they bring a baby into the world, the day looms when they must face their hypocrisy. Whether we forget to substitute “sugar” “freakin'” or “CheeseOnRiceOnACracker” for their non-pseudonymous counterparts, face questions about what precisely Daddy and I did to produce our children (and how often we do it now), or choose how much we will reveal to our children about our past and present substance use, we know the reckoning awaits.
My 11-year-old son begins 6th grade this fall. Middle school. Experimentation Ground Zero.
By his age, I’d graduated from The Exorcist to the goriest of horror/slasher films, tried my first puff of a cigarette, and officiated plenty of non-wholesome crank calls. The youngest of a blended family with four kids, I had minimum adult supervision and maximum hours of television, peppered with playdates I scheduled myself. I made frequent trips to the corner store to stock up on Jolly Rancher sticks, Tangy Taffy, and Mr. Freeze pops. What we now call a “free-range” child, I enjoyed my latch-key existence with four working parents. By the end of elementary school I rode the city bus, my bike, or my own two legs alone or with friends, transporting me downtown or to the mall to check out Sheena Easton’s new hit single 45 at the record store, ogle a Bruce Willis Moonlighting poster or two, and peruse the adult-only section of gift and novelty stores. Suffice it to say I explored my freedom, supported by parents who loved me greatly, if at a bit of a distance while they navigated second-marriages, co-custody, and careers.
How I grew into a member of the sugar-monitoring, screentime-rationing and “appropriate” content-judging parenting Gestapo, I cannot understand. I scan every grocery label, weighing my children’s weekly intake of red dye 40 against whatever lame vegetable-enhanced natural alternative exists. I enforce the two-hour daily pediatrician-recommended screen cap by kitchen timer like a world-class runner tracking her splits. My husband and I banned all bloody violent video war games from our home. If I’m honest, my son has never so much as walked unaccompanied to a friend’s house to play, nor has he ridden public transportation solo. He still asks me for permission to buy or even eat his candy. I know, I know.
I try to tell myself my parenting falls under the heading of conscientious and not “crazy-uptight-helicopter-freak-lady.” Recently I read an article recommending no sleepovers of any kind, mainly due to the risk of predators. My blood pressure started to rise, and then I remembered the story of my own baby sitter practically running from our home, so scared of whichever Nightmare On Elm Street movie I forced her to watch. I recalled my own fifth grade sleepover party where a creepy video store guy recommended the original Last House on The Left and my poor friend Deborah rocked back and forth with her eyes closed while the rest of us got quite the education about what happens to two teenage girls who go to Woodstock, try to buy pot, and get abducted and much (much) worse.
My own middle school experimentation and consequent high school rebellion—sneaking out of the house at all hours, Riding in Cars With Boys and everything therein–serves as rich source material for parental worry over my kids’ coming of age. Except, see, I turned out pretty well. Due to some parts luck and my own fairly good judgment, I survived relatively unscathed, having had plenty of fun and taken my share of wild child risks along the way. That good judgment likely stemmed at least in part from good parenting. My parents affording me space to take risks–trusting me to toe the line between dabbling and real danger–made up part of that good parenting.
Recently my 11-year-old approached me about our ban on war games—even at other people’s homes. He did not want to miss out on his buddy’s sleepover party, nor did he want our rules to compromise anyone else’s fun. I consulted my parent friends in a private Facebook group, and they came back with the answer I already knew; time to let go a little. Not all the way—maybe somewhere in the middle. Time to trust my kid.
With middle school on the horizon, I think we need to find our parenting middle ground. Yes, we need to continue setting the limits, but also we need to find where we can give. Do I want my kid playing first-person shooter games? No, and certainly not in my house. Will it derange him for life to play Mortal Kombat at a friend’s house every now and again? Probably only to the extent it deranged me to watch Freddy Kreuger’s victims writhing in blood on the ceiling.
Not unlike the way we about-faced from co-sleeping to crying it out when our 9-month-old son began choreographing his floor routine in our bed all night rather than sleeping, our ban on all toy guns slowly morphed into owning every Nerf and water blaster available–to the point where today we simply remind our boys to don eye protection before aiming at one another’s cranium. Adjustments in parenting are necessary, if we hope to keep up with our kids, hold any credibility in their eyes, and keep the honest dialogue flowing.
As my son enters middle school, rather than burn my yearbooks and all the inscriptions that are certain to reveal my own adolescent antics, maybe I should read them again and remember the freedom I had, how I experimented with it, and where and when I can gift that freedom to my own kids along with all of the guidance and limits we’ve worked so hard to establish. Last House On The Left, so help me, shall remain firmly in the vault.
Ann Imig is the founder of the live-reading series and video sharing company LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER, and the editor of the anthology LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now (2015 Putnam Books). A Stay-At-Home Humorist, Ann’s writing has been featured on CollegeHumor, Huffington Post, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She writes the popular blog Ann’s Rants. Ann lives with her husband and children in Madison, Wisconsin.
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