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The Art of Letting Them Learn to Fly Free, Safely

I spot her sipping coffee in the parents’ lounge at our local elementary school. Her forehead is creased, her eyes clouded with worry. Our daughters were once classmates here; now they are in their first year of high school.

“How’s it going?” I ask. OK, she says. Her daughter’s made friends, her grades are good. But things are beginning to get . . . well, complicated. Scary, even. At least from a mother’s perspective.

Her daughter went to a party last weekend, at the home of a schoolmate she barely knew. There was the typical teenage fare--loud music, dancing, plenty to eat. Then the mom went out to pick up more pizza, and returned with a case of beer . . . which she handed out to 15-year-olds. And somebody brought out some marijuana and passed a joint around the room.

My friend heard this not from her daughter, of course. But third-hand, from someone who knew someone whose teenage daughter still talks to her.

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She confronted her daughter and raised the roof. Tell me exactly what went on, she said.

Nothing, mom, her daughter told her. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke any pot. They’re nice kids. Really. They didn’t put any pressure on me to do anything. It wasn’t that way.

It doesn’t matter, her mother replied. You should have told me, should have left the party, should have called me to come and pick you up and bring you home. You’re grounded, young lady.

Grounded, her daughter protested, for what?

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For being there. For mom not knowing. For making her wonder how in the world she’s supposed to keep you safe.

It is a brave new world for our ninth-grade girls, full of football games, homecoming dances, Halloween parties at the homes of new friends whose families we do not know.

And they are bound to stumble into temptation, no matter how we try to shelter them, no matter how small and secure the school, no matter how suburban the neighborhood.

We may talk to them of the evils of drugs, the dangers of sex, the perils of bad associations. But the boundaries of their world have expanded beyond our vision. And the baby steps they’ve taken toward independence seem, suddenly, too much and not enough.

I redouble my efforts with my own daughter, broaching, again, the subject of drugs. “Puh-leeze,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I am not that stupid.”

And I believe her. But I also remember high school . . . too well.

I remember ditching classes, breaking curfews, spiking birthday party punch with wine. I know the power you feel, when confronted by suspicious parents, to get away with telling a lie.

Back then there was, it seems, more room for error, for the inevitable mistakes of youth. Even in the toughest urban schools of my day, we faced no AIDS or drive-by shootings, no deadly gangs or crack cocaine.

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There were tragedies, certainly--young lives lost or wasted, because of bad choices made. But we enjoyed the luxury of experimentation; we could trip over our own poor judgment, fall on our faces, and still stumble to our feet to face another day.

Today’s world seems harder, less forgiving; with many a dark abyss waiting to swallow even good kids who, for just a moment, wander astray.

Or maybe that’s just a parent’s perspective. Maybe my parents felt the same way as the curtain of silence dropped between us, and they were left to interpret the shadows and wonder whether the lessons they’d taught me would carry the day.

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It is humbling, parenting a teenager. You make rules you know will be broken, ache for confidences that will not come.

You realize that for all your worldliness, your lifetime of experience, you are just as clueless about their world as your parents were about yours.

But sometimes in the midst of it all, you see a clear path through the confusion, and your children’s own words become your clarion call:

They are chatting at the kitchen table, three girls in their first days of high school. I am listening from the next room, out of sight, out of mind.

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One has just had her first encounter with marijuana, offered by a sophomore friend she’d made. The others are stunned. “What did you say?” they murmur. Implicit is the burning question: How to turn it down and not appear uncool.

“I just told her I couldn’t,” their friend responded. “Because my father would kill me if he ever found out.”

And I think back to what a young man once told me when I asked how, growing up in one of this city’s toughest neighborhoods, he had managed to beat the odds and steer clear of gangs. “My mother wasn’t having that,” he said. “And I was more afraid of her than I was the gangs.”

And being grounded doesn’t seem so bad; less punishment than protection. A tangible sign of a parent’s love:

I will loosen the reins, but I won’t let go.


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