We want to protect our kids from pain, disappointment and loss. But sometimes we shouldn’t.
The sun was rising over the Powhatan Springs soccer field, and my running shoes were soaked with dew. Nearby, a maintenance man stared as I paced and repaced the area where my tween daughter had felt a tug on her ear at practice the night before. He clearly thought I was bonkers. Sometimes I agree.
That year, almost all the girls on my daughter’s house league team (which I co-coach) got their ears pierced. Mine was no exception. I advised her to wear only silver and gold posts, because chances were that she had inherited my sensitivity to cheaper metals.
Her grandma, who lives in Ohio, wanted to be part of the action and went online to buy earrings. Somehow, Grandma said, the only ones she could find with the requisite posts were small opals, which shone like pastel rainbows. I thought they were extravagant and unnecessary. (Heck, they could pay for malaria treatment for 25 kids at the school in Uganda that our family supports.) I asked my daughter to put them away, but she adored them and took to wearing them more and more frequently. There were other battles to fight, and I didn’t pick that one.
So after practice on that June evening in 2011, while she was in tears, I quizzed her on the details. Exactly where had she been standing when she felt that pull of an orange pinnie? I berated myself for not being firm on when and where she could wear the earrings, for not secreting them away so they couldn’t ever be lost. I should have seen this coming.
The next morning I returned to the field on a mission. If bits of broken glass and drops of dew could catch the rising sun with such flashes, then surely that opal would shine like a star across the cropped grass. But after squinting at wet blades for 10 minutes, my folly became clear. Why was I wasting my precious time on her mistake? I had been far too willing to take on her failure as my own. I had given myself the quixotic task of looking for a needle in a haystack. An opal in the grass.
How had I come to this place where guilt and protectiveness took precedence over logic?
When my older son was in fourth grade at Arlington Traditional School, he forgot his baritone horn for the second time that year. Because I had a flexible schedule, I dutifully showed up outside his class, instrument in tow.
“This is the last time you’re allowed to do this,” his teacher said, as she took the handle of the instrument case from me. “Time to cut the apron strings.”
I remember feeling a wash of relief at that moment. The teacher had given me permission not to catch him every time he stumbled. She knew best.
Somehow, though, I managed to unlearn the lesson.
When I look back now over the hectic years of parenting three kids, I can see how and when my thinking changed.
The plume of smoke over the Pentagon in 2001 and the D.C. snipers’ reign of terror the following year—when my kids were 9, 7, and 4—yanked away any illusions of control I had. The enormity of what I couldn’t control made me cling more and more tightly to what I could.
Some days I obsessively checked the Weather Channel so I could know what to expect, so my world was more predictable. Always, I tried to anticipate what could go wrong and stave it off.
Parents everywhere have worries, although my good friends who raised their kids elsewhere—Richmond, South Bend, Cincinnati—never felt the roar of patrolling jets searing into their sleep in the weeks after 9/11. Or the suffocating anxiety of knowing their kids were taking school field trips to landmarks that were considered international terror targets. It was different here.
It is natural to want to shield your child from harm and disappointment. But as I stood on that soccer field, I realized my energy was misplaced; my time, ill spent. I needed to give my daughter the skills to navigate and defend against an onslaught of offensive players, but I couldn’t play the game for her.
We all want to be our kids’ heroes and come to their rescue whenever they hurt, in even the tiniest of ways. But that’s not always what they need. The better lesson for my daughter was that some things cannot be found when they are lost. Some things cannot be glued back together when they are broken.
She needed to experience failure and disappointment, so she could learn how to deal.
Good parenting, I’ve realized, is a nonstop balancing act between holding close and pushing away. She will face team cuts and rejection letters, teachers who don’t get her, and friends who don’t deserve the name. Who knows what else lies ahead? I certainly won’t always be there to rescue her. I shouldn’t be.
Amy Brecount White has spent many happier hours on Arlington’s soccer fields, coaching and cheering her kids on.