The power of parents letting kids take control

A father remembers what it's like to be in the driver's seat as a teenager, and applies those lessons to his own kids.

By , Correspondent

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    The road outside of Bellingrath Gardens, located in Theodore, Alabama.
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Tucked within my nightstand drawer is a cheap little looking glass that I bought some three decades ago from a souvenir shop at Bellingrath Gardens, a botanical attraction outside of Mobile, Ala.

The trinket means nothing to anyone else, but I keep it as a reminder of a day when I gained a new understanding of my mother, an insight I’ve been using lately in parenting my own son and daughter.

As a new college student in the 1980s, I accompanied my mother on an Alabama road trip to visit my brother, who was serving an Army stint there. 

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On the drive home, as I took my turn behind the wheel, a big rainstorm dampened our progress. It was like steering through a car wash for an hour or so, and my mother, visibly tense, expressed relief that she wasn’t in the driver’s seat.

“I’m glad you’re driving,” she told me. “You’re much better at driving in bad weather than I am.”

Her vote of confidence signaled a small but profound shift in our relationship. After years of caring for me, she now fully expected that on this afternoon, I would take care of her.

In ceding a hard task to me, my mother seemed stronger in my eyes that day, not weaker. A typically strong and confident woman, she was simply showing the self-assurance required to pass some personal authority my way – and acknowledge that in a challenging situation, she didn’t have to be in the literal or figurative driving seat.

In a scene that would have seemed overwritten if it hadn’t actually happened, the sky cleared and the sun beamed just as a billboard beckoned us to Bellingrath Gardens. Walking the flowered paths that day, I felt as if I had stepped into some new territory of maturity, beginning the journey that, many years later, would lead me into the deeper but spiritually rewarding challenges of caring for my mother as she aged.

All of this came to mind a couple of weeks ago as our family spent a summer vacation in rural North Carolina. Will, my 13-year-old son, asked if we could go kayaking along the New River. As a middle-aged man with a paunch and poor athletic skills, I made a poor kayaking candidate. But the river was only knee-deep and the current very mild, so I knew the only thing harmed if we capsized would be my personal pride.

Thanks to Boy Scout camps, Will’s a pretty seasoned kayaker, so we rented a two-man vessel that allowed him to keep close tabs on his dad. We’d barely entered the river when our kayak ran aground on a bed of rocks. Many years of parenthood have conditioned me to take the lead in solving family problems, but before I could move to free us, Will motioned for me to be still. “Just stay put, Dad,” he told me calmly. “I know what to do.”

Nimble as a ninja, he leapt from the kayak, shoved it free, then resumed his seat and continued paddling us up the river.

Remembering my mother’s long-ago example, I ceded the captain’s chair to Will. “You’re very good at this, son,” I told him. “I’ll let you direct from here.”

He had his work cut out for him. We hit a few more rocks that morning, and even tipped over a couple of times. In each instance, Will sorted things out and kept us going.

“I’m sorry that you’re having to work so hard,” I told Will at one point. “You would have had more fun with a skilled partner on board.”

“Oh, no,” he responded. “Everything that happened today made it fun.”

What Will was feeling, I think, was what I had sensed on that Alabama drive decades earlier. And I think he respected me for admitting my limitations – and acknowledging his strengths. I’ve had a similar evolution while driving with my 18-year-old daughter, Eve. I now know that she has a much keener sense of direction than I do, so I leave the navigation to her.

This kind of power-sharing can be hard for parents. “King Lear” looms as our culture’s cautionary tale about what can happen when a father acknowledges that he’s no longer the supreme authority on all matters large and small.

But there are rewards, too, in empowering our children to develop and use talents that just might transcend our own.

I call these opportunities my Bellingrath moments, and I’m trying to see them – and embrace them.

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