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Parental Indiscretion: No Kidding Around


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Illustration by Kristina Micotti

When I was a kid and we went somewhere as a family, the first priority for me and my sisters was to escape our parents. If we visited friends or relatives, we’d immediately take off with the kids of the other family until it was time to leave. It didn’t matter if we had absolutely nothing in common with the other kids; social assessments were suspended in the interest of the mission at hand—exploring the woods, doorbell ditching the neighborhood, playing table tennis (or later, spin the bottle) in a basement rec room.

At home, we were no more eager to hang out with our parents. Sun or snow, we were out the door to play right after Super Friends on Saturday and after Mass on Sunday. Although it was reasonably pleasant spending time with my parents, I can’t recall ever choosing to do so if there were an alternative. And there was always an alternative.

This doesn’t seem to be the case with the current generation of kids. When we have fellow parents over with their kids, we have to beseech the children to go play in another room. They’ll disappear briefly, then drift back in to listen to the adult conversation, offering their own opinions on sports or politics. We recently got an air hockey table—a device I strongly suspect was invented to help kids kill time while parents watch presidential debates—but after a game or two, they’re back in the living room with us, rolling their eyes at Trump or trying out their best Bernie imitation.

By escaping our parents’ watchful eyes, we were discovering the lines and contours of our own forms. There’s something about being left to your own devices that helps you understand who you are.

I’m not against this cultural shift. I remember traveling in Italy in my early 20s and admiring that the culture was so family focused that teens seemed to be not just tolerating, but actually enjoying their parents’ company.

But in another way, it nags at me. I’ve been trying for some time now to figure out why I’m not grateful that my kids aren’t as mischievous as my generation was. Then it hit me: Running around looking for fun and/or trouble is, at its core, a quest for independence. By escaping our parents’ watchful eyes, we were discovering the lines and contours of our own forms.

There’s something about being left to your own devices that helps you understand who you are. I hung around some pretty defiant kids, and there were decisions to be made: Join the activities and feel guilty, or decline and feel left out? When you get caught, do you cover it up or take the fall? What’s a believable explanation for why my friend is raiding the refrigerator at 2 a.m.?

It’s not that I want the kids to make bad decisions; in fact, I would prefer, faced with the chance to go along with a bad idea or opt out, that the kids forgo the mischief. But I want them to navigate those choices, not be good kids by default. A little mischief couldn’t hurt.

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