My favorite back-to-school picture was when my kids were starting eighth, sixth and third grades. Decked in new clothes, they stood on the front step and gave the obligatory smile for the camera. Then they made goofy faces with crossed eyes, lolling tongues and awkward postures.
I printed the silly second pose and taped it to my freezer door. It still makes me smile when I go for the ice cream.
If I’d had a smartphone back then I’d probably have posted the picture to social media. This week, my newsfeed has been inundated with pictures of beaming or serious students wearing their back-to-school best and backpacks.
Posting those pictures is the parental thing to do, as popular and expected as birthday cake photographs or vacation shots showing just how much fun everyone had this summer.
Upon request, my daughter texted me a picture of her first day back in college classes. Knowing extended family would enjoy seeing it, she also posted it to her own social media account.
But I’m not sharing similar shots of my boys.
As kids always do, mine have grown a lot in looks and maturity since I snapped the silly picture that’s taped to my freezer.
They’ve also become more capable and more independent, just as they should.
That growing independence means more responsibility as well as more control. Each year they get to call more of the shots over their own lives because eventually they’ll have to call all of them.
When they were babies and toddlers, our parental style was that of benevolent dictators. We decided what they’d do and when they’d do it. They influenced our decisions, of course, by crying when they were hungry, tired, uncomfortable or unhappy. They also influenced us by learning how to ask for what they wanted and showing pure pleasure and appreciation.
“Please” and “thank you” are probably the most persuasive words in our family.
At about age 2 we implemented what my mom always called “the toddler’s choice.” Even children who can barely walk or talk want some control over their own lives. Since not having a choice can turn a perfectly pleasant child into a screaming mess and having too many choices can do the same, we’d give them limited control – with two options.
We’re going to go outside to play. Do you want to go to the park or stay in the backyard? It’s time to get dressed. Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?
They quickly learned to negotiate for a third option. “Go to the field?” “How ’bout the purple shirt.” As long as it was reasonable they’d get their choice.
While we’ve tried to progressively give our kids more and more control, I’ll admit we haven’t always got it right. I fought the “wear your coat!” battle far longer than I should have before I followed the sage advice from my mother-in-law.
When I finally let them live with the consequences of getting cold while looking cool it didn’t kill them to shiver on the way to school. They also didn’t get frostbite in those few blocks, and after a while the jackets and hats came back.
I’m still learning what’s worth trying to control and what’s not. Frankly, I think a lot of the decisions we make for our kids they should be making for themselves, with parental input as guidance instead of law.
If I had a do-over, I’d try to do “back off” better. I’d listen more. I’d guide more. I’d decide less. I’d give more than the toddler’s choice more often.
That’s because I want my kids to know they can use their voices to ask for what they want. I want them to know they’re capable. They should have the power to shape their own present and influence their own future.
I also want them to expect respect. The best way to do that, I’m learning, is if the most influential adults in their lives give them respect and the space to decide more and more of the details of their lives.
We’re long past the days of set bedtimes and snacks. We’re past the days where I know every friend and friends’ parents.
And while we’re learning to relax the areas where they need to ask permission, we’re increasing how often we ask their input, including asking permission when we want to pierce their privacy.
The kids used to beam with pride when I bragged about them to friends and extended family or shared tidbits of their lives on the Internet or with newspaper readers. Now they’d like me to be more circumspect.
Knowing they care, I’m careful what I share in this column. Sometimes I read them what I’ve written before turning it in, to be certain they’re okay with what I’ve shared about their lives.
I’ve also deleted pictures after posting them online when one of my kids asked me to. They have veto power over the pictures I post of them.
That’s why I’m not sharing back-to-school photos on social media, though they still let me snap those shots on the front step. When I asked this year if I could post a shot, my youngest child said, “Please don’t.”
I can respect that. Honestly, it isn’t a lot to ask.
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