The other day, my daughter Nicole was scratching a mark on her arm. It was a raised bump which looked slightly larger than a mosquito bite. She took a break from itching to ask me, “Mommy, did you chip me?” Images of my kid as a chipped tea cup raced through my head.
I cautiously asked, “What do you mean by chipped?”
“You know,” she continued, “Like when dog owners put a locator chip in their pets so they can keep track of where they are.”
I was floored. My ten year old thought (and worried) that perhaps the mark on her arm was where we had somehow secretly inserted a tracking device (aka a chip) so that in addition to supervising her in the traditional way, we could digitally be up in her business at all times. My husband, David, whose humor can sometimes be drier than a Santa Ana during fire season, responded without hesitation, “Yes, we chipped you in the hospital the day you were born and have been tracking you ever since.”
Nicole looked worried. David laughed in a rather maniacal way and walked out of the room. Nicole turned to me and whimpered, “Mommy, really?” I assured her that even if the technology was available, and honestly I don’t know if it is for humans – if so, I know a lot of women who would use it on their husbands before their kids – we would never consider “chipping” her. I wondered how long she had worried about the possibility and what in my behavior as a parent had made her think that I would ever go to such extremes to be aware of her activities.
For years, I have thought of myself as the parent who supervises, but also trusts my child. Not a hover parent, constantly into their children’s business, orchestrating every moment of their waking hours, but a parent who was engaged and involved, but who also taught their kids how to function on their own so that they could be trusted to make good choices when I was not with them. But her chipping question made me wonder if my perception of myself as a non-hovering parent was correct. If she thought I would go to such lengths to know what she was doing, maybe I was being overprotective. Or perhaps it is just as she gets older – by her own definition, now a tweenager – she is pushing the boundaries of what she wants to do and what she can do. Or maybe it is a little of both. Regardless, I’ve been feeling for a while that I have to readjust, rethink what I’m comfortable with her doing now, when and with whom. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it until she asked me the chipping question. Now I know I have to loosen the strings of attachment and let her go further out into the world on her own – and that is never easy, even for the most casual of parents, let alone one with (dare I admit it) hovering tendencies.
So as I head into the new year with a tweenager on her way to middle school and a second grader who has firmly crossed another growth milestone and no longer needs or wants my assistance with things I’d come to love doing for her – picking out clothes in the morning, combing hair and styling it with bows and ribbons – I have to learn to let go more, do less. I get knots in my stomach at the idea of them walking around the block without me. They’ve never been to sleep away camp and or been left with their grandparents for more than a day or two and the idea of sending them alone on a plane has never been under consideration. But soon, Nicole will be taking a school trip from L.A. to D.C. in the spring and the kids will be unable to contact their parents by phone for a week. She will be on her own with fifty fifth graders and a few chaperones and as much as I want her to go and know she will be fine, my impulse is to keep her from going, from being so far from my supervision. The school says part of the reason the kids and parents aren’t allowed to call each other during the trip is that cutting them off cold turkey helps to keep the kids from being homesick. But I bet it also helps keep the parents, many who are letting their kids go away on their own for the first time, from going crazy (and consequently making the teacher/chaperones crazy).
It’s ironic in a way. When your kids are at home (making you nuts) you want them out of the house. When they are away, you worry and want them to come home. Then they learn to drive, go off to college, graduate and move away. All the things you hope and plan for them. And yet with each step, each stage, there is a part of you that is hesitant to let them do it. It’s want you want for them, but what you don’t want, too. Growing older, being more independent and going out on their own is what (in theory) as a parent you try to prepare them for. But the reality of letting them out from under your supervision is a lot harder than the theoretical letting go. Both my daughters complain that their friends get to do more than they do. Some of that is normal kid manipulation to get what they want and I bite my tongue to keep from snapping back with the standard parent chestnut, “If your friends were allowed to jump off a cliff would you do it, too?” But I realize that some of their complaints are justified and that perhaps I have been slower than others to let them do more. So for me, I know that 2011 has to be the year to let the helicopter I thought I didn’t own come crashing to the ground.