Learning to let the kids go

A month ago, I could go for days without checking my email or updating my Facebook status.

Now I’m online every morning, looking for that little green video-camera icon next to my daughter’s name when I log on to my Gmail account.

I’m trying to stay plugged in to a child who is 5,000 miles away, in a city I’d never heard of, in a country I knew next to nothing about.

My youngest -- the “Will I ever find an apartment in San Francisco??” daughter -- is studying in Aarhus, Denmark, this semester.


Moving her into a gritty Market Street neighborhood last summer provoked a bit of culture shock. But she learned to feel comfortable with the friendly panhandlers and the urine-scented sidewalks.

I can only imagine how different Denmark must be -- all cold and clean and blue-eyed blond.

So we Google Chat, we Skype, we video chat, we send long rambling emails. And when a day goes by without a message, I check out her Facebook page -- just to make sure she’s still alive. And her friends’ pages. And the pages of her friends’ parents.

If all that fails, I’ll post one of those pathetically plaintive parental requests (privately, so I don’t embarrass her): Inbox your mother, please. So I don’t have to worry about you.



Forty years ago, Valerie Fields was in my shoes, sending her two daughters to a foreign place -- even though it was only 30 miles from home.

Her daughters’ high school in Van Nuys was in the midst of an integration project, hosting students from Jordan High in Watts. Her girls wanted to join an exchange program that would send them to Jordan for summer school. They would live with families in a public housing project.

This was the early 1970s, an era of relative calm -- a few years after the Watts riots and before crack cocaine took hold. Still, the Fieldses wondered the same thing I would have wondered: Will my daughter be safe down there?

They couldn’t Google the neighborhood or post questions on Yelp. So they got into their yellow Cadillac and drove down to Imperial Courts.

“We visited each of the families in their homes, so we could see what we were getting into,” Valerie’s husband, Jerry Fields, recalled.

One daughter was assigned to a crowded apartment where a single mother was raising eight kids -- daughters, nephews, cousins, friends.

Jerry and Valerie Fields were horrified by the sight of two cockroaches skittering along the wall. But they were comforted by the woman’s burly, tough-talking boyfriend, who promised, “I’ll keep an eye on your girls.”


The second apartment was clean and quiet; just a single mother and her two daughters. “We thought that was a better situation,” Valerie said, “until we noticed needle tracks on the mother’s arms.”

They let their daughters stay and made them promise not to wander the neighborhood alone. “We learned later that they basically ignored us,” Valerie said.

Jerry remembers worrying all summer. There were no cellphones then, keeping parents tethered to kids. “But everything turned out all right,” he said.

It was “a profound challenge” for them as parents. They were, said Valerie, “old-fashioned liberals always preaching about good interracial relations.” Valerie spent 20 years working in Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration and was later elected to the school board. Jerry is a retired Superior Court judge.

Jerry remembers the moment when their daughters “came and told us they wanted to do this.”

“We had no way of saying ‘You’re out of your mind,’ ” Jerry said. “When your kids come in and challenge all that you’ve taught them since they’ve been little, how can you say ‘no’ and not lose your credibility?”


From Encino to Watts is not Northridge to Denmark. But worrying parents are the same.


Valerie and Jerry Fields worried about drug addicts and cockroaches, Crips and Bloods. I’m haunted by news of Natalee Holloway and Amanda Knox -- female students who disappeared or wound up behind bars during adventures abroad.

I’m proud of my daughter and excited for all she’s bound to learn abroad. But how does my parental push toward independence square with my long-distance hovering?

A talk with Jill Fields about that summer has convinced me I might as well loosen up.

Life in Watts was “a big adventure” when she was 16, said Jill, now a history professor at Fresno State.

“The most exciting time,” she said, “was one night when somebody had a gun.”

It’s good they didn’t have Facebook back then. That post would have sent her parents rushing down to Watts, ending their big adventure.

Maybe it’s time for me to quit scouring my daughter’s Facebook posts for signs of excitement like those wild Danish nightclubs and parties that last until dawn. And to trust that I have a daughter who is bold enough to have fun, yet wise enough to find something that feels like home.

Because what Jill Fields remembers most is not the excitement but the day-to-day experience of sharing lives and making friends.

At home in Encino, she had her own bedroom. In Watts, she shared a bed with two teenage girls, one of them pregnant.

“The material comforts were different, but the warmth of the family, the way they welcomed me, it was just lovely,” she said. The family was poor, but “the mother wouldn’t take any money from my parents.”

There were difficult moments -- like the afternoon on a school field trip when a classmate made anti-Semitic comments. “It was really shocking,” said Jill, who ran out of the room in tears.

A young black teacher rushed out to comfort her. He and Jill discovered they shared the same last name. “There was something wonderfully transcendent about that,” she said. “Our commonality was the point.”

That would stick long after the summer had ended.