Parenting: Chaos and Control

by Sam Harper

boy portrait
© giuseppe porzani – All rights reserved.

I’ve never the uber-parent. You know the type. They schedule every minute of Junior’s day with viola lessons, physics camp and karate. They’re the ones following their kids around the pool, arms outstretched, whimpering “Not so close to the edge, please.” They have their toddlers on leashes in the supermarket. Maybe it’s my irresponsible fondness for the freedom I had growing up in the ’60s, a longing for the days when kids could walk to school alone, when there weren’t “play-dates,” but I like the idea of letting life wash over my kids. Scheduling, pre-planning, reality checks…feh! Bring on the serendipity, the intangibles, the poetry. What’s family without chaos? A life over-managed is a life spoiled.

Alas, times have changed. I can’t let my kids run free the way I did, so I adopted a “controlled chaos” theory of parenting wherein, within certain parameters, my children are allowed to design their lives. Accordingly, I recently let my two eldest boys (eight and ten years old) organize a weekend trip to the location of their choice. The only restriction was that it had to be within reasonable driving distance. They chose the Mojave Desert.

True to free spirit of the day, we headed off at six a.m. knowing only that we would be on the road for seven hours. We had no tourist guide, no weather information, and no schedule for our return, just a cooler filled with granola bars and apple juice, a California road map, the road and us.

As we blazed through West Covina, I flipped on the radio and heard the late Allen Ginsberg reading a poem. I was sad. This world can’t afford to lose poets. Perhaps in tribute to Ginsberg and all the beats who Kerouac-ed the road before us, I left the radio on…

The radio crackled and faded as we sped into the high desert. We opened all the windows and yelled into the roar of the cool wind. We counted the cars on a passing freight train, mourned the missing caboose. We gazed at “the world’s largest thermometer” in Baker. We stopped to watch tanks lurch across the desert from a Marine training ground, pillars of dust rising above them. At Kelso Depot in the center of Mojave we got out and felt the weight of the desert heat. We climbed sand dunes, and collected 100 pounds of lava specimens. We stood on the centerline of a deserted highway and sang “King of the Road.” Life washed over us…

A few days later, I came home from work and found my wife comforting our eldest son. “Why did I have to hear that story on the radio?” he asked me, tears in his eyes. What story on what radio, I wondered? During our trip to the desert, my 8 year-old had heard the facts surrounding the tragedy at Columbine High School.

Suddenly, the line between free spiritedness and irresponsibility vanished. Guilt consumed me. Why hadn’t I been more attentive to the radio? Why hadn’t I turned it off when the story came on? Our kids don’t need ’90s reality served up on quad speakers.

As our unsettled son slept between my wife and I that night, I vowed to be less the free spirit, more the uber-parent. But was that really the answer?

When I was growing up, Illinois Senatorial candidate Chuck Percy lived one town south of us. My father handled his election advertising, so he came to our house for cocktails one winter night. I was introduced and sent to bed. Some weeks later, Percy’s daughter was brutally murdered in their home. Because this murder brushed close to my family, my parents sheltered us from the screaming headlines, the detailed news reports, and the fact that the murderer was never apprehended. They made the effort to control the emotional trauma this event might visit on my siblings and I.

It didn’t work. At school, at my friends’ houses, at the variety store newsstand, the details of the murder found me. Unfortunately, I was so traumatized by the mystery and brutality of the murder, that I didn’t dare talk about it with my parents. Talking about it would animate details I desperately wanted to forget. I had to count on my parents to notice my new need to sleep with the light on, or the baseball bat under my bed. Alas, the era of the uber-parent had not arrived. The bat stayed under my bed until we moved from the Chicago area two years later.

My son still spends nights in our bed, too afraid to sleep alone in his own bedroom. Just as I lost a part of my innocence one winter day 30-odd years ago, a piece of my sons’ innocence perished in the aftermath of Columbine tragedy. To think that a particular parenting style will keep our children sheltered from the horrors of this world is ludicrous. The world finds a way in, even when the radio is off. The best we can do for our child is be present as life washes over him.

Copyright © 1999, 2005, 2012 Sam Harper. All rights reserved.