The story, at first, seemed to have a simple moral: bad parents. What else do you call adults who allow a 7-year-old to fly across the country?
After thinking about it, I have another name for them.
Typical of my generation.
No, most wouldn’t put their children’s lives at risk, but I look at the parents of Jessica Dubroff and in subtle ways, I see a mirror.
Like them, too many of us are bad at setting limits. Too many of us cannot say no.
Our own parents could. And did. But we vowed to be more reasonable. The byword of our youth was “anything goes,” and it seems that as parents, we follow the same dictum.
In the articles after Jessica’s death, I saw that her mother did not send her to school, or even give organized home instruction. Jesse, she argued, could learn better just experiencing life.
An extreme philosophy perhaps, but in extremes the rest of us can often glimpse ourselves. Here was a mother who rather than do the hard work of giving her children structure told herself that a lack of it was best for them. As for her father, who hatched this scheme, and let his daughter fly on two hours’ sleep and into bad weather, if ever there was a parent who said yes too often, it was he.
But in smaller ways, aren’t many of us yes-parents?
I have a theory as to why. People my age aren’t comfortable being authority figures. We don’t like saying, “Because I said so.” We prefer to be our children’s pals rather than their disciplinarians. It’s easier. But we forget something. Whether it’s bedtime or flying airplanes, we forget that it’s our job not just to give them what they want, but to deny them what they shouldn’t have. It’s up to us to decide between “Can they?” and “Should they?” I wonder how many of us realize there’s a difference.
Or perhaps we’re afraid of “Should they?” We’re afraid of the consequences: a child who grows angry and falls apart. It’s hard to be the bad guy, easier to be the candy man.
So we buy them what they demand and let them stay up later than they should because we’d rather be adored than cope with a mess. We don’t see that dealing with an occasional mess now is the best way to keep a child from becoming one later.
Of course, we’re good at rationalizing. We tell ourselves that a “no” will crush their spirit, their character; that if we let them push the edge, they will learn to fly, figuratively in most cases, literally in Jessica’s. But like all rationalizations, it’s a cop-out. You build character not by saying yes, but no.
Do you know what many of us do instead of saying no? Negotiate. We bargain. “Are you sure you’re not ready for bed?” We ask our children’s permission to let us parent, and if they don’t give it, we negotiate some more.
My own parents were hardly strict, but I don’t remember them negotiating. They drew lines. “Because I’m the mother and I say so.” How harsh. How stern. How appropriate. It did not leave us with the insecurity children feel when given more power than they want. It left us knowing where we stood. Which was a comforting place to be.
There is one other obvious moral to the tragedy of Jessica Dubroff, and many have already stated it: Her parents seemed more caught up in celebrating what she accomplished than who she was.
But don’t many of us? It’s too glib to explain that by saying we’re shallow people who see our children as trophies.
I wonder if instead it’s because, in some cases, sloppy parenting makes for sloppy children - demanding children - and it’s hard to celebrate the moment-to-moment behavior of such kids, so we push them to become little achievers. Those moments are easier to celebrate.
But what about other cases, and there are many, of unspoiled children who are also pushed too hard to be achievers? Is it that we’re too busy to celebrate the hour-to-hour moments of a child growing up nicely? Is it that we only have time, or only make time, to focus on their moments of performance? I wonder.
I wonder too if we hyper-program our children, from soccer to flying, because we have a fear of just letting them play. A 7-year-old girl should be able to lie on the grass and dream of being a pilot rather than be programmed to become one.
I’m not against activities. I plan to get my own children into Little League, soccer, maybe hockey. And in part, I’ll celebrate them for how often they score goals, how far they hit the ball. But I hope I remember to applaud them even more for how they treat their teammates and opponents. How gracefully they handle defeat. And limits. How decent they are moment to moment, instead of performance to performance.
Thankfully, there are few parents who would let their children take the risks Jessica Dubroff was allowed. Their bad judgment stands almost alone.
But when we ask why they did not say no, set limits, let their child be a child, we might want to look in the mirror.
And about smaller things but important things, ask the same questions of ourselves.
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