Had a great talk at…

Had a great talk at Truman College yesterday, my standard 'how I became a writer and dated white boys over my parents' objections' thing. Warm crowd, really fun, the samosas (from Tahoora) were excellent, and Leone and the rest of the staff and faculty were very welcoming. Great students, great time. (If any Truman College folks are reading this -- hi! Thanks so much for having me!)

Had some funny reactions in the Q&A, though -- Truman has a large immigrant student population, including a fair number of older immigrant students who are raising children in the U.S. More than one of them asked me about parenting, about whether they should be strict or more relaxed with their kids. Asking what's the best way to get kids to share their parents' values in the midst of an America that is telling them differently. Which is kind of funny, because of course, they were essentially asking how to make sure their kids didn't turn out like me. :-) When I asked one of them if that was what he was really asking, the room cracked up, but he didn't deny it.

I have a lot of sympathy for the question, especially now that I'm a parent. Often it's asked about sexual stuff -- dating before marriage, dating outside ethnicity, sexual orientation, choosing a marriage partner. Most people do end up partnering with someone eventually, and many parents want to take a hand in that. Traditionally in most of the world, it was part of a parent's job to make that decision for you.

On the one hand, I was raised in America, and unsurprisingly, I tend to think deciding whom to spend your life with should be your own decision. On the other hand, choice of partner is likely to have such a huge effect on your entire life, it's not surprising that parents have a deep desire to help you find a good, kind, worthwhile partner. One who isn't abusive, or a drunk, or deeply irresponsible, or or or... If I could guarantee my children happy marriages right now, that would ease some worry. A happy marriage can get you through a lot of life's troubles. I don't know how I would have survived all the stress of the past few years without Kevin. Sometimes I imagine him being hit by a bus or something, and I completely freak out. Just unbearable to even think about.

I don't really know how to influence your children's decisions. This is some of what I tried to say yesterday, though I'm not sure how clearly I said it:

  • If you attempt to control what your kids do, eventually, you'll likely fail -- when they become adults (or decide they're adults), if not before.

  • Trying to phrase things as requests, rather than commands, may produce a better result. It would have with me, I'm pretty sure.

  • Also, taking the time to explain why you think X behavior is dangerous, and why, if they love their parents, they shouldn't scare them that way, may be effective -- I think Ben told me he uses that kind of technique to convince his kids not to run into the road. People have used it on me to get me to wear my seatbelt. (I do it automatically now, but I hate the feel of seatbelts, and for a long time, resisted wearing them. And then a few people explained that I was being a big jerk, and scaring the hell out of them for no good reason. It convinced me.)

  • On the other hand, as a parent, part of your job is letting them take risks that scare you -- going up and down flights of stairs, crossing the street alone, doing study abroad programs. Hopefully, you've taught them good judgement (hold the handrail, look both ways, don't get so drunk in strange countries that you can't find your way back to your hostel...) But eventually, you have to let go, whether you trust their judgement or not.

  • Keeping the lines of communication open is key. You can't help them if you don't even know what kind of trouble they're getting into. So tell them what you think is right and wrong, certainly -- but also tell them that you're their parent, and you love them, and you'll support them and try to help them no matter what.

  • Choose your battles. I won't be thrilled if Anand comes home at fifteen and tells me he got a girl pregnant -- but one way or another, that's something we can cope with. It's survivable. Drunk driving, drugs, violence and gangs, suicidal depression -- those are the things that terrify me as a parent. Things that could get my kid killed. (Also, in the same category, signing up to go be a soldier, although I wouldn't necessarily stand in their way if it were something they really believed in. I'd just be terrified.)

That's all I got so far. Ask me again in fourteen years, when Kavi's taken up with some tattooed degenerate on a motorcycle. No guarantees on what I'll say then.

(For the record, I love motorcycles and always wanted one; ditto tattoos. I'm really going to have a hard time playing the 'I would never behave that way' card with my kids... At least I've never done drugs. Not serious drugs. And I've never had a cigarette -- that counts for something, right?)

2 thoughts on “Had a great talk at…”

  1. I’ve had lots of discussions about this topic! My thought is that your job as a parent is to work yourself out of a job. Share your values early on, let them know what you want for them to have, and let them know what they deserve. Then when the time comes to make a decision, they will know what they should be doing. And, already I see that they still want to do it their way. So, that’s when your job is not to “parent” but “support”

  2. This issue is precisely what stops me from becoming a parent. I’ve watched my nieces and nephews do idiotic things, including drugs, suicide attempts, dating a jerk who is now going to war. Even as an aunt, it’s enormously difficult to watch these mistakes happen. And yet, I get it, that kids aren’t going to follow my lead. Research shows that kids will follow their peers, so I’ll have all the work, and they will do whatever the other kids are doing. I know that’s pessimistic, and the reality may be 10% better than that, but I think the reality is often like that line from Namesake (the movie) about giving birth to strangers.

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