July 20, 2019

Giving Your Child an Inner Life

“So many of the worst nightmares of parenting start with a phone call: a child out of arm’s reach, not in the house, not in her bed. Or, in this case, a text on a rainy night from my daughter to my wife, who then relayed a command to me: go pick her up now. Instead of taking the subway to the Upper West Side, as I would have any other night, I got into my car and dashed up the West Side Highway. My daughter is in middle school; this was the first time she’d ever been to a nighttime party, at the house of a friend from school. A parent would be at home the whole time, we’d been told. How bad could it be?

“There was a boy making jokes about rape,” my daughter said, five minutes later, in the passenger seat. “We told him to shut the fuck up, but he wouldn’t, and my friend’s mom told her to try to work it out herself, which was completely unfair, and everyone was crying, and I just got tired of it, and I have a headache. That’s why I texted Mom.”

I take the blame for my daughter’s casual profanity. My wife is responsible for her emotional acuity. No one can say where she gets her unflappable, don’t-mess-with-me temperament. She is a chaos manager and an empath. But adolescence is a wet street, where skidding is likely and the car sometimes feels entirely weightless. Last summer, an older girl we knew of—a friend of friends—fell from a fire escape and died during a party. When I heard the news, I did the predictable thing: I measured the distance between my nearest child and this catastrophe. It felt very short. The pills in every parent’s medicine cabinet. A friend saying, “Oh, I know what this one does.” Another friend saying, “It’s no big deal, we go out there all the time, it’s just like having a balcony.””

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