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Lines of Separation 

According to Freud, infants don't perceive the boundaries between themselves and those around them; they have no sense of themselves as individuals separate from their caregivers. I suspect that blurring of identity goes both ways, perhaps especially for mothers, who so recently held their infants in their bodies. Mommy and Daddy know best, and for all that we're encouraged to watch our babies for cues that they're hungry or sleepy, it's still the grownups who call the shots. We control every aspect of our infants' lives, and we like to think that we know everything there is to know about them.

I vividly remember a disorienting encounter I had when Drew was a baby. He and I were at church, and a young woman I didn't know came over and started talking to him. She clearly knew him and he seemed to recognize her, but I didn't have a clue who she was. How did this complete stranger know my child?  It turned out that she was a friend of his nanny's, and that he'd been to visit her with the nanny. But it was an unsettling reminder that, even at six-months-old, he already had a life that didn't include me.   

The separation process that starts at birth only accelerates as children get older. As babies become toddlers they begin to discover their own identities, and to assert their wills on those around them. One of Alec's first complete sentences was "I want chocolate milk!" and he continues to practice the "I want" construction as much as possible. And as much as it infuriates me to hear it, my older kids have both used the phrase, "You're not the boss of me!" when they were balking at a particularly onerous request from me or Adam.   

As our children grow, the urge to protect them, and even to control them, persists. This is especially apparent in contemporary society. Not only are we more conscious of safety equipment and seatbelts, but we also limit our children's movements much more than in previous generations. I walked to school by myself when I was in second grade, but in many school districts it's now against the rules for elementary age kids to walk or ride their bikes to school without a parent. 

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And just as we want to protect our children's bodies, we also want to protect their minds. We're surrounded by things we may not want our children exposed to, from suggestive trailers that run before family movies to violent and disturbing images on CNN.  Every parent has to fight those battles and decide what's appropriate for her or his child, and no matter how carefully you try to protect your kids, inevitably you'll be faced with some awkward conversations.  Since Drew has learned to read, I've developed a dread of public restrooms. Luckily, he's usually willing to accept "something that grownups do" as a definition for the words he reads on the walls, and (so far) he hasn't felt compelled to repeat any of them at the dinner table. 

The desire to shelter your child is completely understandable, but at what point does it become unrealistic? At what point does protection turn into insulating your child from the world?  A group of parents recently sued a California school district for surveying their children about sex, claiming that they have "the exclusive right to talk to their children about sex." Across the country, fundamentalist Christians are demanding that school districts teach the so-called Intelligent Design theory instead of, or alongside, the Theory of Evolution, and that sex ed classes be confined to scare stories about sexually transmitted diseases and admonitions to remain chaste, rather than providing information about human sexuality and birth control.  Many parents, terrified at the prospect of what their children might be exposed to in the public schools, want vouchers so that they can send their children to religious schools, and some parents choose to home school their children to protect them from any contact with alternative points of view (although obviously this isn't the only reason parents choose to home school or send their children to private schools). 

Parents should have the majority of the decision making power about their own children. But as a society, we have a vested interest in educating and training children, and in introducing them to different people and ideas. There's something scary about the notion that parents should have the "exclusive right" to talk to their kids about anything. There's something disturbing about the insistence that parents should be able to dictate the exact content of their children's lessons, and that the most narrow-minded parents should set the limits for all the children in a school. These parents want to control, not only their own children, but everyone else's as well, not to mention all the adults who ever come into contact with their children. 

Part of parenting *should* be about control.  Children need limits; they need someone to keep them from eating all twenty pounds of their Halloween candy in one fell swoop and to make them go to bed before midnight. But parenting is also about letting go. One of the most important aspects of parenting is teaching your child to be an independent, responsible adult, and that's the part that I suspect some parents have forgotten. It's as if they equate parenting with programming a computer -- they believe that they can control the inputs so thoroughly that they can then control the outputs and determine what the adult version of their child will think, feel, and do. But the measure of your success as a parent isn't in how well you've indoctrinated your child, it's in how well you've taught her to think for herself. If you want that much control over your child, make yourself a puppet. I don't want Pinocchio; I want a real boy, smart mouth, rebellious streak and all.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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