For the last decade, I've worked as a consulting psychologist for a canoe-tripping camp in Canada. Every summer, I listen to kids tell horror stories about their first five-day canoe trip -- getting stuck in mud, caught in thunderstorms, or attacked by mosquitoes. Having completed one of the scariest trips of their life, they look triumphant. But they also talk about having felt overwhelmed and unsure whether they'd be able to do it.
I always have two strong and contradictory thoughts: "I wish their parents could see them now so they could see their remarkable growth," and "I'm so glad their parents aren't here." Because I believe that the developmental leaps these children achieve in a week probably would not take place with their parents around.
Wonderful things can happen for children when they are away from their parents. This remains true despite the fact that today's moms and dads are spending more hours with their children than ever before.
For years, I've been asking audiences of parents a deceptively simple question: "What was the sweetest moment of your childhood?" I wait so they can come up with a memory, and then I say, "Please raise your hand if your parents were present when that sweetest memory took place." I have done this with thousands of people and the result never varies much: Around 20 percent say their parents were part of their sweetest memory and 80 percent say their parents weren't. When audience members turn in their chairs to see the result, they laugh self-consciously. As parents, we hope that we're laying a foundation of happy memories for our children. When we're confronted with the fact that our own best memories of childhood took place away from our parents, we're a bit confused. That's a slap in the face to dedicated moms and dads. Or is it?
When I ask those who said their parents were present to talk about their memories, they cite the kinds of moments parents work pretty hard to create: opening presents on Christmas morning, cooking Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by relatives, being together at the beach, having Mom or Dad read a favorite book at bedtime, playing cards or Monopoly, a family road trip. When I ask for the sweetest moments without parents, most people tell a variation on a similar story: They were away from adult supervision, outdoors, with friends, facing a challenge and doing something a bit risky.
At many points in our children's lives, we need to step aside, ask other adults to take over, and even send our children away in order to help them become loving, productive, moral, and independent young adults. For me, these four adjectives capture the universal goals of parenting. However, I have spoken with many parents who, out of the deepest love for their children, want to do more, not less, for them. They believe that the more time, energy, attention, and money they can devote to their children, the better.
During my parenting talks, I try to make parents laugh at their tendency to over-parent. I frantically rush around the stage snatching invisible items off the floor, doing an impression of a mother picking up her kids' clothes while complaining, "My children are so sloppy! I don't know why they never pick anything up." The audience laughs because they immediately recognize why the kids don't pick up their clothes. Mom always will.
Parents ask me questions about how they can help their child get over fears, learn to take risks, or become more responsible. No matter how loving the parents, it often seems to me that they are not going to be able to help their child through this challenge. Perhaps the child's friends or an uncle will give him the courage he needs. Here's a paradox: A 19-year-old camp counselor -- a stranger -- is often better at getting a kid to pick up his clothes than the child's 39-year-old parent is.
In the final analysis, there are important things that we can't do for our children, as much as we might want to. In order to grow in the ways they need to grow, children have to take the lead, and usually away from us.