I come from a family of fixers. If you have a problem, everyone in my family has an opinion about what you should do about it. Which is not always a bad thing. There were times when it was very comforting to have that constant source of feedback. However, as I learned later in life, it was also overwhelming to have all that external input distracting me from finding my true voice.
My boyfriend comes from a completely different upbringing. He received very little advice and input from his family. He was much younger than his four siblings and was mostly left to figure things out on his own. As a result, he developed a strong independent streak. He hates when people tell him what to do.
I don’t have any children, but my boyfriend has a 16-year-old daughter. We have been living together for almost three years, so I have gotten to observe his parenting style first hand. He has mastered the art of what I call “detached involvement.” He is present and provides a framework of high-level expectations for his daughter. And then he gives her space to figure out the details on her own.
He is the opposite of a helicopter parent. And so far, it seems to be working.
This summer, his daughter had her first real boyfriend. And her first real break up. Just a few days before school started, her boyfriend came over on a Sunday afternoon. She went out to meet him at the car and about five minutes later she ran into the house crying. We knew what happened without her saying a word.
She wanted to go over to her girlfriend’s house. My boyfriend asked her to take a minute to collect herself before driving. Then he gave her a hug and she left. He looked at me and said, “Do you think we should go to the store and get her some ice cream?” So, we did.
When she came home later, she turned on the episode of Friends where Ross and Rachel break up and we all watched it together. And she ate ice cream right out of the carton. She ripped up a few pictures of her ex-boyfriend and threw them in the trash. And the 3-foot-tall giant hamster that he won for her at the fair ended up in the dumpster.
Later that night, I told my boyfriend how refreshing it was to watch him parent that way. If that had happened in my family, everyone would have gathered around and asked me a million questions about the break up. Then they would have come up with their own ideas about why it happened, leaving me to wonder whether it was my fault or there was something I should have done differently.
As my boyfriend said, it doesn’t really matter why. At least the boy came over and broke up with her in person. It made us respect him as well, although we did not mention that to my boyfriend’s daughter. In that moment, I don’t think she would have seen it as a positive.
Not only has this detached involvement approach to parenting worked for break ups, but I am also seeing it play out as it relates to college planning. My boyfriend’s daughter is a junior this year, so college is just around the corner.
I remember the pressure in my family not only to get good grades, but to build our high school resumes with activities so we could get a scholarship to college. My mother told each of us that we had to play a sport because it would look good on our college applications. Most of the teams like basketball or volleyball required try-outs, and there was no way I was going to make the team. I had only one alternative. Running.
I joined the cross-country team and it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. Running in the rain and the cold. Running with shin splints. Running after school and getting up early to take the bus to the tournaments on the weekends. I hated it. To this day, my mom still tells me that it was good for me. And I guess I did lose five pounds. But it does not leave me with very positive memories of high school.
To be fair to my parents, their approach did work. I ended up with a full-ride scholarship to a local university, although I am pretty sure it was because of my grades and not because I ran cross country. Also, I think it was because I didn’t try to get into the best school that I possibly could. I purposely targeted schools that were offering scholarships to attract students like me, who had the grades to get into a much better school.
As you can imagine, my boyfriend’s approach to college planning is very different. He has never pressured his daughter to join any activities at school. Until last year, she really didn’t seem to have an interest. As they started to talk about college and research the application process, she recognized that participating in extra-curricular activities might help her chances.
She decided to join a group called LINK Crew where older students help younger students find their way around the building. And she and her best friend signed up to sell tickets and work the counter at the soccer games this fall. Then one of her favorite teacher’s asked her to help in his class during her study hall.
All of these are activities that she chose, and they are things she enjoys. And all these opportunities evolved naturally, based on her interests.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I don’t have children. I am just an “assistant” parent. I can imagine that if it were my daughter, I would be tempted to intervene and even interfere in her life.
It is natural for parents to feel a sense of responsibility for their child’s life and the decisions they make. When they are babies, parents need to play a more active role in protecting them and teaching them. But as they grow older, maybe it is better to give them some space and let them figure things out on their own.
While you may think that your kids are a reflection on you, they are actually just a reflection of themselves. Without realizing it, you may be the one thing that is standing in the way of letting your child’s light shine.
Maybe my boyfriend’s daughter will come back to him ten years from now and say “why didn’t you tell me?” but I don’t think so. She’s got a pretty fierce independent streak. Just like her Dad.