Stretch and learn

Our family’s go-to babysitter is headed to college next week, so we’re in the market for a replacement. When my wife saw a post on a parent list-serve pitching the experienced babysitting services of an incoming freshman at a local high school, she called the number listed. Turns out that number wasn’t the student’s—it was his mother’s, who also made it clear in the first two minutes that she would be doing all the vetting during this exchange.

He’s only available on these particular days and times. Can you accommodate that?

How old are your kids? He doesn’t take care of kids younger than two.

What’s the latest time you would need him to stay? I don’t like him to be out past nine.

I don’t think any of those are unreasonable positions to take. This is a 14-year-old kid, not a professional nanny. There’s nothing wrong with a 14-year-old who doesn’t even drive yet being unavailable during certain hours, preferring to work with kids of a certain age, or needing to be home by a certain time.

But is there any reason why he couldn’t speak for himself? He presumably knows his schedule. He knows the age range of the kids he feels comfortable caring for. He knows what time his parents would like him to come home. He’s got all the information necessary to take it from there.

He could have fielded that phone call. He could have answered questions and maybe thought of a few of his own to ask. He could have represented himself and shown his potential part-time employers that he’s exactly the kind of mature, responsible kid that many people look for in a babysitter.

But he didn’t get to do any of those things—his mother did them for him. What a missed opportunity, for him and for her.

I can see the argument that this is a parental judgment call. He’s not in high school yet. He’s on the step, but not yet through the door, of that transition when many kids’ capabilities surpass their dependence on Mom and Dad. Maybe this was the first phone call that came in and his mother wanted him to hear the kinds of questions she asks so he can learn to do that himself. It’s possible that he’s been allowed all sorts of opportunities to represent himself.

But no matter what the reason, I hope he’ll soon be answering his own phone calls, handling his own interviews, and learning his own lessons along the way. He won’t do it perfectly the first time. But he’ll get better with each repetition as long as he’s given the opportunity to stretch and learn.

Those kids—the ones who can think and act for themselves—are the high school students who will raise their hands in class, or call a local non-profit to inquire about volunteer opportunities, or sit comfortably and have a conversation with their college interviewer.

They later become the college students who will visit a professor during office hours, show up for the club meeting they saw advertised on a campus flyer, or seek out resources, opportunities, and mentors that are widely available for students who don’t just sit back and wait.

And yes, they become the adults who can navigate their way through life’s personal and professional complexities, where your success and happiness are driven a lot more by your work ethic, character, confidence, communication skills, and empathy than they are by your ability to follow directions and get an “A.”

Parents, as your kids progress through the teenage years, some of the most crucial lessons they can learn won’t be in the classroom, or even in their chosen activities. The teachings will come from the experiences around how they’ve chosen to spend their time. There’s a host of maturing opportunities around getting a job as a babysitter that have nothing to do with taking care of kids. Those same opportunities exist when they don’t get into a class that they want, or they run for a club office and lose the election, or they see an exciting opportunity but aren’t sure how to pursue it. That’s where life’s learning happens. And it’s important that parents let them enroll.

It’s a process, and you shouldn’t be expected to flip the independence switch one day. But just like when you teach them to drive, eventually, you’ve got to let them take the wheel for themselves. If you don’t, you’ll be driving them forever.

I think any student, no matter what their grades and test scores, can become someone who’s capable of making their way successfully. But they need their parents to step back and allow them the opportunities to stretch and learn.