One of the last nights before my stepdaughter headed off to college, I was sitting on her bed as she snuggled in for sleep. The conversation turned to sex and boys, as she confided that a girlfriend of hers planned to buy and carry condoms with her everywhere in college: “Just in case.” She clearly thought that was a wise, adult plan.
I took a deep breath. We’ve been having honest conversations about sex ever since she was a tween, and asked about the birth control pills that I took every morning. But the older she got, the more space I tried to give her to form her own values and make her own decisions around sex, instead of imposing my own.
“Do you think you might have a sex emergency? I mean, where you would miss the opportunity if you and the guy had to stop and go to the pharmacy for birth control?” I asked her. “What would that mean about your relationship?”
She paused and thought. After a moment, she commented that she did hope to have sex only after deciding with the young man in question that the two of them were both ready. In that scenario, it might not be so crucial to save the 20-minute trip to CVS. Indeed, it might be a good reality check to put a step in front of consummation.
I exhaled. It’s not that I didn’t want her carrying condoms in her purse. I just hoped she’d think through all the implications before jumping into sex, for her physical health as well as her emotional health. We’ve had some late-night conversations about the risks to both. I expressed confidence in her readiness for college life, and told her that she would probably pick the wrong guy once — or maybe twice. I said: “You’re going to make mistakes. Just try to make them mistakes that won’t follow you for life. No baby, untreatable sexually transmitted infection or criminal conviction.”
She laughed, and I kissed her good night. But it wasn’t really a joke. Even with careful thought and planning, she was sure to make some bad decisions. After all, the majority of college students drink, engage in sexual activity and do foolhardy things on that heady fuel of alcohol and hormones. It would be naive to think she’d be any different. One recent study found that 87 percent of college students are sexually active. (I took comfort that 85 percent reported they use birth control every time.)
When she was younger, my husband and I let her climb high on jungle gyms and cut vegetables with the sharp kitchen knife. We’re in the “Gardener” camp of parents, those who believe our children learn as much from their mistakes as their successes — if not more — and that trying to protect them from life will just hinder them from developing independence and true self-confidence. They might get a scrape or cut, but with the right preparation and practice, they will gradually learn to master each new challenge. Don’t we all remember the lessons learned from missteps more keenly? If you’ve ever driven to the Verizon store for repairs, only to find that a hard reset restores your phone to perfect operation, you will never forget to try that trick before getting in the car.
This approach is truly tested as our children grow into young adults. The mistakes that a teenager can make — with alcohol, drugs, an automobile, a missed AP test, unprotected sex — seem more dire and the consequences too severe to be borne. Headlines about increasingly competitive college admissions and the high suicide rate among teens stoke our fears. Yet I would argue that it’s even more important to keep our meddling advice out of the picture and give our young adult children the chance to fall flat on their faces.
I’m not saying to remain uninvolved. Often, people create a false dichotomy when it comes to parenting, that either you’re a micromanaging helicopter parent or you give your children unlimited freedom. Rather, I see parenting as a flexible process. You discuss risks and dangers with your children as you set limits, giving them the information they need to stay safe and showing them the path to independence. Then as they outgrow the limits, you expand them. For instance, when our younger children started wanting to roam around the neighborhood, we built on the discussions we’d already had about how to stay safe without a parent present, and asked them what-if questions about different scenarios they might encounter while out alone. As they grow, we expand the boundary of streets where they may walk and bike alone, while reinforcing their ability to think critically in an emergency situation.
As much as we might want to protect our grown children from heartbreak and romantic mistakes, the same truth holds in this arena. I wouldn’t appreciate my faithful, responsible, devoted husband half as much as I do if he hadn’t been preceded by at least one philandering boyfriend who took me for granted. I have no doubt that my stepdaughter will appreciate her future husband all the more because of the not-quite-right men she dates in college and her early 20s.
It’s hard, as a parent, to bite my tongue when I see my beloved child headed into challenging territory. After all, I’ve accumulated decades of life wisdom that I’d love to pass along to her. But she has to learn her own lessons. Pushing my advice on her would just hurt our close relationship, if she feels I don’t trust her ability to decide for herself. It would also rob her of the precious opportunity to explore and define her own values.
All it takes is faith in her resilience and our relationship. When she inevitably stumbles or faces a roadblock, I hope that she will use me as a sounding board. Even if she doesn’t, I trust she will find the right path for her.
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