College break offers no break from rude reality of parenting


IF LIFE IS a series of compromises, parents make more of them than most people, I think.

Your life as a parent begins with schedules and milestones and timetables. You have all the books and the charts and the lists.

And pretty soon you are just hoping to get a shower or the newspaper in off the porch.

The compromising, the settling-for, has begun.

By the time your children are teenagers, you can't believe the ground you have lost. You can't believe what you will put up with. It is hard to remember that it all started when you relented and allowed your children to have soda or eat at McDonald's or watch TV during dinner.

The blink of an eye later, your child has a provisional license and legally must be off the road by midnight. But he is the designated driver that night, so he blows the curfew to bits while delivering his friends safely home.

What do you say when you scold him?

Your child is due home by 1 a.m., but stays all night at the party spot because nobody is sober enough to drive her home.

What punishment does that merit?

You find a condom in your daughter's purse, and you don't know whether to cheer for her or weep for her. Or for yourself.

Your teenager has never smoked cigarettes, and studies show that if he hasn't started by now, he mostly likely never will.

But he admits to smoking dope once or twice because, he says, a little buzz beats getting wasted on alcohol.

Which side do you take in this debate?

What do you say when you just said "No!" and it didn't work?

A friend gives her a box of condoms as a going-away-to-college gift, and you catch yourself thinking that it was such a sensible gift. Much more sensible than, say, an electric coil for her teacup.

Your daughter is an athlete, and you read in the news that her birth control pills may protect her from dreaded knee ligament tears.

You put her on those pills, you said, to clear up her face and to help ease her menstrual cramps, but who were you kidding? You heard somewhere that 80 percent of high school seniors are sexually active, and you didn't have the guts to play the percentages.

And then you stop yourself, stunned at the way all your absolutes have disappeared like the dew.

Our middle school and high school children are making choices about sex, drugs and alcohol that many of us, their parents, did not make until we were well into our 20s.

If we are lucky, they are candid enough to talk to us about those choices, to consult with us. If we are really lucky, they might take a little of our advice.

But when they finally leave the room and we are alone to replay the conversation we cannot quite believe we just had, we feel completely co-opted, compromised and demoralized.

And then it is Christmas break and they are home from college.

Having spent three or four months as subsidized semi-adults, they arrive home with dirty laundry and an attitude. They think they should be allowed to come and go when and where they please because that's how they have been living -- on your dime -- at college.

Any suggestion that they return home at a reasonable hour so the aging parents can sleep without dread is treated like an insult.

Any suggestion that, because they haven't been driving for three or four months and might be a little rusty -- even when sober -- is greeted with a roll of the eyes and a huff of indignation.

These same arguments, and many more like them, are happening in homes all over the land this month.

After the children storm out in a hurry or in fury, the parents are left to reflect on how powerless they are to do the one thing they were charged with all those years ago when they first became parents.

To keep their children safe.

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