The Anti-Helicopter Parent

I learned the most important lesson of parenting when I was a seventh grader. After an elementary life of academic excellence, I went through a rebellious streak. In a fit of principle, I decided that homework (especially in math) was no longer a requirement — it was simply a means to an end. Once I knew the material, I reasoned, it was just a waste of time to keep doing problems.

It was a great strategy with one fatal flaw — homework was graded.

As the quarters progressed, I did less and less homework. Although my test scores stayed consistently high, my homework grades went further and further down. By the end of the year, my grade in pre-algebra had dropped from an A to a D. I spent the two weeks between the end of school and our family vacation worried sick that my parents would get my report card and I would be left at home.

I shouldn’t have worried. When my record card arrived, my parents didn’t yell.

They listened as I explained my logic. They told me that I owned my academic success and that my actions were my own. They reminded me that all actions have consequences. They didn’t make excuses or tell me I didn’t understand what I was doing. They didn’t try to fix it.

In short, they let me fail.

When I look back at that moment now, as I have many times in my life, it is with amazing respect. Letting me fail couldn’t have been easy. I’d like to say there weren’t any real consequences, but the truth is that there were. I got kicked out of honors math and had to take pre-algebra — the exact same class — again. After that, I couldn’t take honors math and because my high school gave a 5.0 A for honors classes, losing the maximum honors load mathematically eliminated me from being valedictorian.

But the negative consequences were far overshadowed by the positive ones. I learned my lesson well, paying close attention to each teacher’s requirements in the future. I met my best friend in pre-algebra that ‘repeat’ year and we ended up being in math every year in high school. Graduating ninth placed me in the top ten, but didn’t put me in the pressure cooker that was the fight for first. I got into a good college and I left home knowing one important thing: No one was going to protect me from my own errors in judgement.

As a parent myself, I want to believe I am capable of letting my kids fail. I look back on that moment and wonder if I would have done the same thing. When it matters, when the stakes are high, will I have the courage to give my kids that lesson? Or will I want to fix it? Will I rationalize and tell myself that they didn’t know any better and bail them out?

I don’t think we really know how we will act, until we act. I’m just thankful that I know what it looks like and feels like to trust your kids to own it. To accept and acknowledge their growing maturity and to give them the right to make decisions and to take the consequences that come with it. To reject the helicopter.

Because I’ve made it clear, I’m only flying to college for parent’s weekend.

The Undo Button

I hate that moment. You know, the one where your stomach drops and you are sure you have made absolutely the wrong call. You zigged instead of zagging. You opened your mouth when it should have stayed closed, or closed it when you should have said something. You stepped out on the ledge, or stayed in the fort. You didn’t make that left turn at Albuquerque.

Whenever I find myself in those moments I mentally reach for an undo button, like the one I use so frequently in Excel. The button that allows me to quickly get back on track and leave that misguided moment behind. The button that lets me try things without consequences. To say, “well that didn’t work the way I thought” or “hmmm, maybe there’s a better way”. Click, click, click and you’re right back where you started, ready to try it over again. Do over — no harm, no foul.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have an undo button, it just has an “I’ll learn from it” button. The “I’ll learn from it” button feels crappy to press it because nothing really happens. You only feel better about pushing it years later with some time and tears behind you, when you’re talking to someone considering the same choice and you can say, “It’s up to you, but if I had it to do over again…”

But, I’ve found one thing I hate more than going through that moment: watching someone I love go through that moment.

Nothing prepares you for the out of body experience of watching someone you love make the wrong call. Seeing them realize they can’t change it and struggle with how to address it. Holding them through their tears and fears as their brain cycles through the what-ifs and the should’ve-beens trying to get everything back to where it was before. Reaching with them to try to click the undo button.

Click. Click. Click. But, the undo button doesn’t work any better when two people try to click it.

Harder still, I’m not sure you can give someone an “I’ll learn from it” button — I’m pretty sure you have to pick that one up for yourself. And, I recall that it took me several futile attempts to find an undo button before I bought into mine.

Of course, making the wrong call is a part of life. With time and space, I can’t think of any wrong calls in my life that haven’t turned into learning moments. I’m very comfortable with that. I just wasn’t prepared for the fact that I’m not comfortable yet watching the people I love struggle through it.

So, where’s the button for that?