Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Parenting Tightrope

He said the most remarkable thing.

He is Daniel Handler, who writes under the pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. He is the author of the 13-part “Series of Unfortunate Events,” tales that chronicle the lives of the Baudelaire orphans, Klaus, Violet, and Sunny.

Snicket is their uncle and narrator of all the stories; he is a scoundrel who wants only to separate the children from their inheritance. As the tales begin, he encourages us to do something better with our time; surely we can do better than to sit and read the sad tale he is about to tell. The books are wildly popular. Paramount Pictures made several of the stories into an Academy Award winning movie, “Lemony Snicket and A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

I was listening to someone interview Handler on public radio. The interviewer asked, “why orphans?” She wanted to know why children’s authors write so frequently about orphans. Handler responded, almost casually, “Because to do something extraordinary, one must be unsupervised.”

It immediately struck a chord. Instead of thinking about orphans, I wondered if the same were true for children with disabilities. Must they be unsupervised to be amazing? Children with disabilities are rarely unsupervised. Do we unwittingly, however lovingly, prevent them from doing something extraordinary?

The rules of parenting require us to be the spoilsport. It is our job to ensure our children are safe; no venturing into experiences we know they are not yet ready for. We monitor their television watching, choose bedtimes, encourage the consumption of vegetables, admonish impulsiveness, and promote their general safety.

When I think about my own childhood, I had a lot of unsupervised time. Farm kids usually do. I spent hours under the highway bridge pretending, roaming the woods and climbing the rickety billboard sign near our house.

When I visited my cousins in Chicago, the city belonged to us. We took buses downtown. We would pretend to be faith healers in Buckingham Fountain and then run off giggling when an adult would disgustingly admonish or look at us. We hung out in the bathroom at Carson-Pire'-Scott and spoke gibberish when patrons came in; we were certain they would believe we were immigrants from some exotic land. One of our favorite activities was going to an exotic land right there in Chicago -- Old Town. We sat for hours watching the hippies, just a few years older than us, with awe and wonderment.

If our parents knew what we were doing, they surely would have jerked our collars back to the safeness of our backyard. Yet, out side of our parent’s eye-shot, we began to define ourselves, not as our parent’s child, but people in our own right. Sure, much of what we did was childish, but we were experimenting… trying on different behaviors to see how they fit. We began experiencing the world. We got into jams and had to use our own wits to get out of them. That was extraordinary and it could not have happened under my parents’ watchful eyes.

Tom Sullivan, author of “If You Could See What I Hear,” was a rambunctious young kid who was blind from birth. As a young college student, his buddies taught him to drive. One night a cop stopped them for two violations: rolling through a stop sign and driving without lights. Tom’s explanation was simple, “Headlights; they don’t help me much. And I’m the only sober person in the car; surely you didn’t want one of them to drive, did you?”

His parents must have died a thousand deaths when they heard that story. Yet Tom went on to become a news correspondent for Good Morning America, enjoyed skydiving, and appeared in numerous television and movies including Airplane ’77. He also single-handedly saved his drowning toddler’s life after the baby accidentally fell into their pool.

We parents walk a tightrope. With heart and soulfulness, we work to raise good safe citizens. However, we have to find a way to balance our need to protect and a child’s need to be free. We have to trust our children, and give them space to be out in society, to experiment, to succeed and to fail. They need it to become the most extraordinary people they can be.


Tera said...

Great post.

The author of the Ballastexistenz blog wrote about this issue in a post called "How much can we [autistics] learn when safely supervised?":

Like a lot of people, I've learned a lot by doing stupid, reckless things. Some of them are even disability related :-).

Among other things, I have a visual-spatial impairment and get lost very easily, on my way to places I "should" know where they are. I also don't always see cars. Recently, I learned how to get a few places around town by myself, including how to cross busy streets at lights.

One of the places I know how to get to is the library (which is good, because it's free). The library is next door to a fast-food restaurant. The restaurant is across a busy street that doesn't have a light.

My mom told me, "Don't try to cross that street by yourself." (Your mom is still your mom, even when you're 27). But one day at the library I was hungry--perhaps hunger clouded my judgment, who knows?--and thought: "I'll see how busy the street looks. If it doesn't look too bad, I'll go to Runza for lunch."

So I checked out the street, didn't think it looked that bad, and told myself I was in no hurry. I crossed only when I thought it was perfectly safe, and made it across and back. My mom did gasp when I told her about it, but that was all.

It's not just parents who have to walk this tightrope, of course. All people do for themselves, whether they are disabled or not.

Big Noise said...

Thanks Tera... Have you seen this video? it relates and I LOVE it!!!

Betty said...

Wonderful. I am a 17 year old girl with a disability and I am constantly telling parents of children with the same disability to stop treating us like we are so sick, but not completely well either. It's hard for parents though, it seems. They either baby us, or make us too independent. I'm glad you and Lemony Snicket understand. I personaly love his books. :)