Parenting’s Scariest Possibility

A reader says, “I find the prospect of my daughter driving, and of her being a passenger while other teenagers are driving, very scary. I’ve read that the Pony Boyreasoning part of a person’s brain is not fully developed until the 20’s. Here in Bloomington, several teenagers have died in car and motorcycle accidents during the past few years. Most of these accidents involved reckless driving and/or mind-altering substances. Since it’s probably not feasible or emotionally healthy to put off a child’s driving until the 20’s, it seems like we parents must teach our children as best we can about good decision-making and try to deal with our own fears as well as we can.”

This touches on parenting’s darkest shadow—the potential loss of a child.  And I wanted to respond to this question today, June 17th, as it marks the 35th anniversary of my best friend’s death.  Jon was not yet driving (his funeral, the next day, was on my fourteenth birthday), but he was nonetheless a victim of reckless behavior—hit by a motorcycle while walking his bike across an intersection.  His parents, holocaust survivors, came a long way to have to face the death of their son, and I must say that the experience left me depressed, cynical and a precocious existentialist for many long years.  It also left me prone to a lot of very bad decisions in my teens—the very sorts of things we most want our kids to stay clear of.  So, what to do?

Firstly, the reader is correct in noting that the brain is not fully developed until the early twenties, and this means that the child who has excellent judgment at one moment, may fall into a hole of poor judgment in the very next moment.  The adolescent brain is a bit like Swiss Cheese, and the holes are where the problems happen.  In middle school it just means blowing an algebra exam; but in high school it can mean crashing a car.

For this reason we want to set our limits tight enough to account for the moments of impaired judgment.  This means curfews for kids, it means setting limits on with whom, when and where they drive.  It means emphasizing that we parents think that no drinking and no drugs is a good plan for the developing brain.  Now they may break our limits, but if our base line is zero, they can rebel with half a beer.  If our limit is pot and alcohol is okay, then pretty soon they’re doing coke, etc.  (See former post on Three Dog Night for insight into how to admit past behavior while still helping kids say, “No.”).

While it is all too obvious, our fear of losing a child underscores the supreme gift that our kids represent.  This is good to keep in mind during the many moments where they try our patience and give us their unwanted feelings.

Anxiety is, in a sense, the awful past projected into the future.  Thus if we have had losses, or lived a reckless adolescence (most likely because we needed limits and understanding that we may not have gotten), we may be at extra risk of fearfulness as our kids navigate that age.  While being oblivious is not good, being over-protective (because of our own fears) can also be stifling to our children.  It seems that we, with our developed brains, are well served to think through our limits and our positions, and then present them with a minimum of fretting. 

Our goal is to be worried to the extent that it helps our kids take appropriate risks, and not to be so worried that they rebel and think we are just ridiculous and infantilizing.  Perhaps a good rule of thumb would be to conjure what it felt like to be sixteen and seventeen and then honestly think about how we wished we had been parented; what the right mix of trust and respect as well as face-saving limits.  Strict parents can be a great excuse for kids to opt out of dangerous activities that they neither truly want do engage in, and yet don’t want to appear as “uncool.”  I would say that the brain is developed when it realizes that it’s cool to treat one’s self and others with kindness and not put one’s self, or others, at risk of pointless harm.

Driving is both potentially dangerous, and also touches on the issue of us parents relinquishing control.  Driving means, to some extent, driving away from us.  Driving touches on danger and our fears of loss, but it also touches on our feelings about separation and individuation as our kids find the world opening to them and we must wrestle with the choices we have made and where we are at in our lives at the moment.  Perhaps this is a time for a road trip of the mind for us parents?  Maybe there are places we want to go, in terms of geography, but also in terms of feelings?  Maybe there are things we want to do related to self-expression, or more intimate and nourishing relationships that we need to have with our peers who can relate to what we are going through.  Our kid’s growth creates space for us; we can sink into despair or embrace change and thus learn and grow too. 

Finally, back to safety for our kids.  It is crucially important that while we say “No to drugs and alcohol for our kids,” (and keep an eye on our own behavior in this area), that we also make it clear that if our children “mess up,” they get a free get out of jail card regarding a ride home from us—at ANY TIME and without retaliation.  Of course we will later want to process and understand the choices made, lessons learned, etc.  But we never want our kids to be so scared of our consequences that they would sooner risk literally being “grounded” in death before facing our wrath.

Beyond doing everything that we can to keep our kids safe without suffocating them, we are left with little more than hopes and prayers.  Let’s dedicate today to gratitude for every child who is safe and alive—and also to sending love to every parent who has ever lost a child.  There but for the grace of God go every one of us.

Namaste, Bruce 

p.s. I love you Gita & Marcel


One Response to “Parenting’s Scariest Possibility”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Speaking of loss I’m at an age were many of my peers are losing their parents which brings up a whole other set of questions. So to your “grown up” readers I say enjoy all the life that is around you young and old.

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