The toddlers who lined up at the edge of the swimming pool were learning a life lesson: Jump in and your mom will catch you. Or maybe she won’t. Either way, you’re probably not going to drown. I watched the “Mommy and Me” swim class as time after time the little ones leaped into their mothers’ arms. The smart moms hesitated just a split second more with each jump, first catching the children before their toes hit the water, gradually building to a head-dunking plunge and underwater save. The toddlers squealed with delight and scrambled back to the edge for the next leap.
And then there was that one mother who couldn’t bring herself to frighten her precious one. With every jump, Mom caught Precious in mid leap and placed her back on dry ground. It wasn’t long before little Precious was having none of it. She stamped her feet and tried to push her mother away from the edge. She darted back and forth looking for an unguarded place to jump. Mom finally let Precious get in the water, gripping her tightly and saying over and over again, “It’s too deep. You can’t touch the bottom.” Precious tried to squirm out of her mother’s arms, all the while shouting “No! No!”
I and a few other seasoned mothers watched from a distance, shaking our heads. “Just let her go under,” we all muttered.
“Just let her go under.” Words to live by.
And yet, why is it so hard to do? Sending a disobedient child to bed without any dinner. Refusing to make the midnight run to Walgreens for poster board. Requiring children to make their own school lunches. Letting the forgotten backpack sit at home all day. What is the worst that could happen? The child who goes to bed hungry eats a big breakfast. The procrastinator gets a lower grade on the poster project. The school lunch doesn’t meet federal standards. The school day is a loss because of the missing backpack. The best outcome is that the child learns quickly the consequences of poor choices.
The principle is familiar to anyone who owns a cat. Cats love to drink from a fresh, running water source. If you are so foolish as to once turn on the tap for your kitty, she will never again touch standing water. Never. You’ve lost a battle you didn’t even know you were fighting. It’s the same with delivering a lunch to school because your child forgot. Do it once and you are doomed to do it again and again.
Would that I had understood that principle when missing lunch was the only thing at stake. Failing at age 5 was so much safer than failing at age 25. And yet, the principle is the same. It is never too late for a parent to step back and let a child fail, but it is one of the hardest things for some parents of adult children to do. We all know better than to run to the rescue, but there are those of us who can’t help ourselves.
A few weeks ago I failed in this crucial parenting test. My college son let his apartment lease expire because he didn’t read the fine print. With a week to find a new home, he let the clock run down. I watched from afar, telling myself to mind my own business, but the prospect of my baby being homeless was too much. I finally cracked, got on the phone and found him an apartment.
Just enter my name in the Mom’s Hall of Shame. It’s a crowded place, but there’s always room for one more parent who continues to make mistakes with adult children. It’s not to be confused with the Mom’s Hall of Fame. That one is full off parents who can’t relate to the rest of us: “Why did you worry about that?” “I never would have interfered.” “My children are completely self-sufficient.” “I sent mine to the toddler swimming class alone.”
Not all parents are cut from the same cloth. Some of us are natural-born worriers and that leads to meddling that we can barely control. Still, we keep trying to mind our own business because we know it is crucial for the development of our adult children. Sometimes we succeed. Often we don’t.
There are some cases where a parent must weigh in to avert, when possible, tragic and irreversible mistakes – marriage to a grossly inappropriate partner, associations with drug users, a pattern of alcohol abuse, potentially criminal behavior. Most everything else falls into the category of “Just let her go under” – choosing a frivolous college major, taking a dead-end job, staying out too late, getting a tattoo, pursuing a low-wage career. Your impulse will be to stop your adult children from taking any time-wasting detour. Suppress that impulse and let them experience the consequences of their choices. By continuing to run to the rescue, you send the message that the water is too deep for them, and they will never learn to swim.