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Air Traffic Controller, Part 2

I refer to my mother’s role managing four children in the mid-1950s as an air traffic controller. (See: Air Traffic Controller Part I.) In some circles it was even bad form for a mother to try to raise a child and work outside the home at the same time. Even twenty-five years later, when it was expected that women would pursue careers, mother was usually still the air traffic controller. My father, along with the vast majority of husbands, saw his role as bringing home the bacon. In this he felt strongly—even self-righteous. His wife should and must focus on making a home for the whole family including, but by no means limited to, the children.

He wanted his dinner on the table, and he wanted it simple and elegant. He wanted the house clean and tidy with “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Similarly, he wanted his children properly placed and fitted out. Just as each thing had its appropriate slot or box, each child needed to be in its appropriate slot. My older brother was slotted to be a lawyer like his Dad—taking over in the law firm—my younger sister was, with her amazing brain, slotted to sit at the right hand of her father, the genius, so that they could amuse each other on into his dotage, and so on. Making sure my father’s world turned out like this was one of the responsibilities of my mother, the air traffic controller.

Wanting to lead her own life (she did go to college, after all), and feeling the burden of taking responsibility for five other lives as well, it was a relief when any one of us could take care of ourselves. My mother, therefore, wanted to increase the number of things I could do for myself. From feeding myself (a big step forward), through doing my homework on my own, to getting into college, the more I was taking responsibility, the more time she had for others and herself. I remember one dramatic moment in the hallway outside her bedroom, when I said, “Mom …” and got the annoyed response, “Can’t I even go to the bathroom?!” “Of course,” I said, “You could have just told me.” (And I wondered why it wasn’t just that simple.)

A generation later, when I was looking after Brooke that Saturday morning in 1967 (see: A Child’s Genius), I wanted my child to be able to take care of herself in the world. Just as I wanted Brooke to be self-motivated, self-directed, and self-sustaining for her own sake, I also wanted it for my own reasons. I wanted to be able to pursue my life, too. I loved my daughter. I delighted in her, loved playing with her, and found her growth and development a never-ending, jaw-dropping source of amazement. On the other hand, she was not my work-in-the-world. I was a teacher at the time, and though I did not then know that education would be my calling, I knew I was supposed to pursue some calling and somehow make something of myself. I knew that being the air traffic controller for my children was not it. Although my behavior at that moment in Brooke’s development was wise, my motivation for letting her go was quite selfish.

Between the blossoming of my independence at age ten, and age twenty-one when Brooke was born, I must have gone on hundreds of adventures. The longer the radius of my world, the happier both my parents were. My mother was happier because fewer loved ones were on her radar screen; my father was happier because fewer loved ones were on his wife’s radar screen. (In his perfect world, he would be the only one on my mother’s radar screen.)

Between the ages of ten and twenty-one, I came close to being killed a dozen times. There was the time I found myself most of the way up a forty-foot cliff with no more toe holds going up and no apparent way of going back down. There was the time I almost ran the boat aground in the middle of the night on Narraganset Bay. There were innumerable times I got lost. There was the time I dodged a truck and ran my Volkswagen off the edge of a bridge in the hills of eastern Kentucky.

For every near-death experience, there were a dozen perils that I avoided. This makes well over a hundred things that my mother should have worried about, and I am sure she did. Nonetheless, she seemed to exude confidence that I could take care of myself in the world. Even when driving a car made the probabilities of death, murder, or dismemberment much higher, I was not aware that my parents worried much.

It must have taken a lot of discipline on their part. However, I now suspect that it was not pure discipline. Having one more of their offspring off into the world was part of their selfish wish fulfillment of having fewer blips on the radar screen. There are not many parents, today, who feel this way, or if they do, they keep it well hidden. Parents I know seem more like helicopters than air traffic controllers. They hover.

But just as letting kids go into dangerous situations may be (and definitely is) a dangerous way to parent, so also is hovering—but not for the obvious reasons. The world is different today from the way it was 1955, but is it more dangerous or are we just much more aware of bad guys from the nightly news (or people who watch it or people who talk to people who talk to people who watch it)? This is not clear. What is clear, however, is that hovering can do plenty of damage. For starters, it can undermine their sense of themselves as efficacious. So what is a parent to do? The next few columns of From the Principal’s Office will deal with this question. Feel free to put your own unique questions in the comment box.

Last Month’s column: Air Traffic Controller Part I

From the Principal’s Office: Lessons on Learning, Life, and Parenting is published bi-monthly. Each column is written by Rick Ackerly, a distinguished educator with thirty years experience in middle and elementary school education, who is currently the Head of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco.

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