Absence Makes the Kids Grow Independent

Category: Weekly Columns

House rules from mom and dad

My recent trip overseas resulted, as most such trips do, in many unexpected and enlightening experiences. It was an extraordinary adventure. What I truly did not expect was what happened back at home while we were gone.

Hotel Parents

I had made the decision to allow my sons to stay home alone during the duration of our trip. My younger son is 17 and he was alone for two weeks before his older brother – 20 – came home from college. They were together another three weeks before we returned home. What emerged from that time together was as surprising as any adventure I had during our visit to 13 countries and 20 or so cities in the Middle East, India, and Africa.

A dear friend of mine chastised me quite passionately about my leaving the boys alone, declaring that she would never do such a thing. Frankly, upon hearing her stark judgment, when I was already on my trip, I wondered if I’d been derelict in my parenting responsibilities. Then, I got the surprise of my life in a call and subsequent chat via IM with my older son.

Let’s set up context with some back-story. I was an only child, due to the death of two siblings, and all my childhood and later life, I longed for siblings. So, when I got married, I was determined to have at least two children. Had I gotten married younger, I would have likely had more than my two boys. My fantasy was that they would bond and have the longed-for relationship with a sibling that I didn’t have.

Like most fantasies, the reality was a bit different. They were as diverse in temperament, interests, and even looks as one could possibly imagine. The result was that they butt heads as good and hard as the giraffe we saw “necking” in South Africa (“necking” is the ritual fighting that male giraffe do when competing for a female in “estrous” aka “heat”).

Cartoon about independent living and fear

Prior to my friend’s dressing-down, my only concern about leaving the boys alone was their general disdain for one another. Would they fight and would I get those whiney complaining calls/emails about each other? I’d left them with plenty of resources in case of emergency and for daily living, from money to a list of adult friends and their phone numbers, all of whom were on “alert” to watch over the boys if needed.

So, when I did get that emergency call, I was shocked to learn that the details were a far cry from the expected bickering. It turns out that they handled an emergency together so very well that it led to a heart-to-heart, the details of which neither cares to reveal, from which they emerged tighter and closer than ever.

The details of that emergency frankly are irrelevant to this story. The upshot, so unexpected, was that my absence required them to be adults. My absence forced them to be independent, to face life square between their eyes, and to think smart and quickly and act accordingly. Together, they handled this emergency and emerged confident, proud, and vastly closer than had I been there to “rescue them.”

To be clear, this emergency did not involve any direct health or safety problem to them or our dog or our property. It involved a neighbor having a problem. To quote my friend Stan Lee, “’Nuff said” on that.

comic about kids living independently

The more I thought about what occurred the more I reflected on how valuable my absence turned out to be for my sons. Too many parents are protecting their children from life and not equipping them to handle life. My boys are physically and legally adults (at least my older one is “legal”) and it’s time they learned greater independence. My older son’s journey on that path had begun the year before when he went cross-country to attend college.

However, most colleges are really a surrogate home in which there are plenty of safety nets and the biggest thing students learn is how to party, binge-drink, and have serial sexual escapades. If they ever get in trouble, the school will rush right in and help out, especially at the expensive private universities where they have a great self-interest in protecting the income they derive from the students (and their parents).

Yes, my son grew in his first year at college but more often than not, I’d get calls and I’d help guide him through whatever problem he faced. At times, I made it clear that he had to handle a particular issue himself but I was available to consult and advise. On this trip, his access to me was limited and the immediacy of the problem was such that finding anyone else was not an option.

How do our teen and young adult children learn to fend for themselves if not given the freedom to fail? How will they learn if dad and/or mom are always there? I realized from this experience that many parents are forestalling the inevitable that life will provide by coddling their grown children for far too long. I’m glad I left my boys alone and I’m thrilled with the result. Who knew?

Note: A mea culpa is in order. Since I wrote this column, both boys have expressed quite emotionally that they felt abandoned over the holidays. Their cocky exterior, which I was eager to perceive, was simply that – teenage cockiness and this lame dad missed it. They still got some great lessons on their own, but I sure got a harsh slap in the face as well!