An Ode to My Parents| 696 words
Sometimes I talk to my friends about their parents. I generally come away disoriented. I didn’t regard my parents as particularly exceptional; they were adequate at the task of raising me but not exemplary. However, what little I know about how parenting seems to work suggests that adequacy is exemplary.
Most people’s parents do things that are crazy to me. Some of my friends’ parents don’t let them talk to their friends online. Other parents don’t let their children leave the house. Some parents track their children’s phones. Some parents decide their children’s class schedule. What. Hello? HELLO? Did you know that children are also human beings with agency and preferences? I’m sure children know this, but maybe they forget when they become adults.
I’m not claiming that my parents never did anything that I found objectionable. When I think of the handful of fights I’ve had with them, probably about half were caused (whatever that means) by me, and the other half were caused (whatever that means) by them. However, my parents were remarkably adequate at treating me like a human being in that they took efforts to encourage my interests and let me explore the space of possible activities. Here are some stories. All are recollected from my memory and are thus contain non-trivial mistakes.
When I was around 8, I switched from getting my haircut at a barber to my mother cutting my hair. The barber cost about $10, so I argued that I should get paid $5 when my mother cut my hair. My mother agreed, and so for several years afterward, I got $5 every time my mother cut my hair. I’m not sure how important this moment was for my development, but it is emblematic of the overall relationship I had with my parents. I was able to negotiate with them and expect them to follow through on our agreements instead of imposing their will on me.
When I was maybe 10, I received a solar panel electronics kit as a present. As I was playing with the kit, I idly wondered how the strength of the solar panel varied with its angle relative to the sun. My father, who helped me construct the kit, heard me and said, “why don’t we find out?” I spent the next few hours adjusting the solar panel to various angles and recording data with my father, who helped me make some plots. This moment is representative of a broad pattern my parents had of encouraging and facilitating my curiosities.
When I was maybe 16, I wanted to learn how to throw knives, so my parents bought me a set of throwing knives and helped me buy some wood to make a target. This sequence of events felt pretty normal to me, but my friends tell me that most parents don’t let their children set up a knife-throwing target in the backyard. Note that my experience as a boy scout probably made my parents more comfortable with me handling knives than most parents are with their children.
When I was 20 and in college, I flew a few hundred miles to a workshop. When I told my mother, she was upset that I didn’t tell her beforehand. After I explained that I didn’t think she needed to know where I was at all times, she requested that I tell her the next time I traveled more than 50 miles from my college. That seemed reasonable to me, so I indicated I would attempt to comply.
My parents were predictable. I could negotiate with them and expect them to keep their agreements. I could predict when they would punish me and how severely. I have a good understanding of the conditions under which they would support me.
I want to conclude with advice for parents that would be happy if their child ended up like me, but I don’t really have anything to say. Duncan Sabien and Jeff Kaufman say things that make sense to me, but it all feels incomplete. All I’m comfortable saying is that, on the margin, parents should probably let their children do more of what they want.