Balancing Act: Our kids’ days are risky, ever-changing things. A parent’s mission? Be the safest place they know

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My son’s English teacher has been running her fifth-graders through a very cool exercise.

She puts a statement on the wall and the kids have to place a card next to the statement that says “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree” or “strongly disagree.” Then they discuss their answers as a class.

One of the statements was, “Every American has the same freedoms.” That one got a fascinating conversation going on our ride home from school last week — about whether having the same freedoms is the same as having equal ability to exercise those freedoms. From what my son said, it got a pretty great conversation going in the classroom as well.

One of this week’s statements was “It’s easier to be a kid than an adult.” (Or something similarly worded. I realize I’m getting the paraphrased version several hours later.) My son picked “agree.” (“We get recess!” he told me.) I picked disagree.

A few weeks ago, I was watching my daughter take diving lessons. It’s a new sport for her. Everyone else in her class has been at it for longer — years longer in a couple of cases. She’s determined to catch up.

I sat in the stands — dry, warm, fully clothed — marveling at the sheer number of times kids try something new on any given day. The number of times they put themselves out there to possibly fail, to possibly get rejected, to possibly get hurt, to possibly love something, to possibly find a match, to possibly feel like, finally, they fit. It’s really something.

I think we adults, on the whole, do less of that. I sat in those stands wracking my brain for the last time I tried something utterly new and wholly unfamiliar. I tried to calculate the number of risks I take. The number of times I step out of my comfort zone. The number of times, in an average month, I walk in a room full of people socializing and don’t know a soul. Not that many.

Adulthood inoculates us from a lot of that. Maybe that’s for the best. Living in a constant state of heightened risk and burgeoning identity and fluctuating friendships wouldn’t lend itself to a lot of what adulthood requires, particularly the parts of adulthood where we’re caring for others.

But I think it’s worth remembering, as we care for those others — especially if those others are kids — how bruising all that new stuff can be. How tender a person can feel after trying something new, possibly failing, possibly getting rejected, possibly getting hurt, possibly falling in love.

I want to remember it as I set the tone in our home.

Family therapist John Duffy, my pal and my podcast partner, writes about the vibe in our homes in his new book, “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.” In early therapy sessions, he asks the kids he works with, “As you cross the threshold, do you find home to be more of a refuge or more of a stressor?”

“Too often, the answer is the latter,” he writes. “Home feels tense and stressful for a lot of of teenagers. Some kids tell me their parents don’t get along. Others tell me it’s too noisy at home, and others too quiet. Some feel judged whenever they are home. Some feel they are under constant watch, and some feel invisible.”

Duffy encourages parents to check that vibe. To try, where we can, to fill our homes with laughter and conversation. To do a little less policing and a little more relating. Even when our kids are pushing our buttons, pushing our boundaries, pushing us away.

“Your job is to hang in with her, even in the awful moments,” he writes. “How mighty and noble and warrior-like it is as a parent to stay in the game, and hang with your child, in the face of a slammed door, or rejection, or a wretched attitude. Because when they come to you, they let their guard down. They vent. They transfer, or download, a day’s worth of stress and fear and identity traffic and anxiety into the safest place they know: you.”

The safest place they know. No matter how many new things they tried — and succeeded or failed at, lost or gained — that day.

What a lovely, lucky mission.


(Contact Heidi Stevens at, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)


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