At coffee with a friend last spring, she looked across the couch at me and said something about how I was really, really restricted as a teen. I think her words were "not allowed to live." And you know, she was right. I was, in many ways, not allowed to live. I was expected to live my mother's life - or at least the life that she had wished she had had, colored by her warped child-of-narcissist adult point of view. She was never a normal child, so how could she conceive of what normal and healthy adolescence should be?

A few days later, my husband reviewed our collection of Monty Python DVDs and reported to me that while we owned The Meaning of Life, we do not own The Life of Brian or The Holy Grail. Thinking about this transported me directly back to my days as a high schooler involved in the theater group. There were some kids who were clearly theater kids, and there were some kids who were involved in theater routinely, but were somehow not really part of the theater group. I was one of those. I remember that during my senior year, I was finally allowed to join the end-of-run cast party, held at one thespian's home (I never saw his father, I still have no idea whether or not his father was even present). We watched various episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and it was completely, utterly, mind-blowingly new to me. It was a sense of humor that was completely different from anything I knew. And I loved it.

What I didn't know at that moment was that the reason this humor was so new to me was because it came from outside of my family paradigm. It was something that appealed to me, as an individual, as a member of a community that existed separately from my family. I was seventeen before I discovered this.

When do children normally start experiencing life independently from their family? I don't know, because my "normal" is different from the "normal" of my peers. All I know is that many of them seem to have been experimenting, exploring, testing the waters of individuality many years before I even started dipping my toes in. While they were figuring out who they are, what they like, how things worked for them, I was isolated. I was kept at home, allowed out for specific, strictly-supervised activities and nothing more. By the time I started exploring, they were all so far ahead of me that it made it nearly impossible to catch up.

My oldest son is not quite a "tween" yet, but I can already see him starting to stretch his individuality a bit. Even though I've been working on my initial, pre-programmed "nip it in the bud" reactions to my kids for almost ten years now, I'm still finding new things that make me balk and feel like digging in and saying "no" just because, I don't know, it seems like I should shut this stuff down? How stupid. And yet how conditioned I am (and most of us are!) to think that we should say no, no, no to most requests from kids. My son asks for small things and my immediate impulse is to deny his request, and I have to force myself to slow down, think about whether or not it really matters, and say yes. We're talking about little things like wearing daytime clothing to bed instead of pajamas. Meaningless stuff...except that it's not meaningless to him. It's his first steps toward figuring out how he likes to do things, what other things feel like. He's supposed to be doing this at this age. He needs "little things" to explore right now, and we have to support him in figuring out how to make decisions about what to explore now, before we get to bigger explorations like sex and drugs and driving and such. Thinking about my son and his non-pajama sleepwear reminds me of the time when I was a teen and I wondered what sleeping in the nude was like (I had heard that some people did it), so I tried it. My mother woke me up in the morning, noticed the lack of clothing on my shoulders (the rest of me was under the covers), chastised me for not wearing a nightshirt, and let me know in no uncertain terms that this would not happen again. Why? What did it cost her for me to choose how much clothing I wore while sleeping? How was a decision about my body hers to make at all?

I don't want to make all of the decisions for my children. I want them to be able to explore who they are in both little and bigger ways while they're still living in my home and have the safety net of mom and dad to fall back on. I hope I'm able to remember this as they get older and more separate from me.


  1. What a great, common sense approach. Really, does it matter what we wear to bed??!
    I also was very restricted as an adolescent. When I left for university at 16 I was totally unprepared for the world "out there." "No" was ALWAYS my Psychob's answer to anything-before I could even get the request out of my mouth. BTW, that's a great way to make sure your kid never bothers to ask for anything-and not just material stuff by any means: Questions about the world, how it worked etc. were foreclosed.
    I sure wish you had been my mom.

  2. You sound like a great mom! I wish you had been my mom, too.

  3. This is something I have noticed that my SO (who is no longer in contact with his NM) struggles with as well. There are certain things he absolutely will not budge on (such as "gender-appropriate" behavior; he is South American, after all) but most of the time, I can talk him into accepting our children's desire for individuality, or he talks himself into it. This post has helped me to understand my husband's motivations better. Thank you.

  4. Awww, thanks TW and Bess! I hope that when my kids grow up, that they feel like I'm a good, nurturing part of their lives. Goodness knows I mess up plenty of times - I just hope the balance is good!

    Anna, I think it's hard for many men, especially those brought up in homes where gender norms were rigidly defined, to accept any kind of variety in the actions that their children take. I know a man who grew up in a Hispanic community with very "traditional" gender roles, and he is married to a woman who is much more liberal in her views. It's incredibly hard for him to see things like his son playing with a kitchen set, or watching a cartoon that he thinks is "for girls." His wife doesn't want to squelch her son, but also wants to keep the marital peace. Recently they had a breakthrough - he wouldn't get the "girly" cartoon for his son to watch...but the son figured out how to get it on his own, and watched it secretly, and then lied about it. The father realized that his son felt ashamed to be watching a show he really enjoyed, and that he had to lie to his dad. This made a huge impact on the father, who has since decided that a cartoon that brings his son joy is not really a threat. I'm so happy for his son, and for him!

  5. I love this post, Claire. How wise you are becoming. Why say "no" about things of no or little consequence? I think letting him use daytime clothes as pajamas, and such like, is also a good way to nurture creativity. Letting kids figure out how to do things differently gives them a stake in outcomes. I think it's a loving thing to do.