When I was in junior high, I knew a girl named Debbie. While the rest of us wore old jeans and rock group T-shirts, Debbie wore dresses and anklets. Debbie's house was on the path home from school, and we were often witnesses to her mother as she flung open her door, threw out her arms and proclaimed, "Debbie, darling!"
I always said I'd strive to be the cool parent. How hard could it be? I remember being a kid. I remember my parents pulling the stodgy card and saying "no" when other parents were saying "yes." Well, things were going to change when I was the parent. I'd be the cool parent, the one my kids could call with any request, and I'd make my decisions fairly and logically.
Witness a recent conversation with my firstborn, who called me from her friend's house:
11-year-old: Mom, is it OK if Brittany's mom drops us off at Starbucks for, like, an hour?
Me: Drops who off?
11-year-old: Me, Brittany and Courtney.
Me: What about Brittany's mom?
11-year-old: She'll leave and come get us in, like, an hour.
Me: Eh, you know I'm not crazy about that.
11-year-old: Please Mom. Pleeeease. Please be the cool parent. Pleeeease.
Me: Honey, I'm not ready to send you to Starbucks without an adult. What do you think you're going to do at Starbucks?
11-year-old: I don't know. We'll probably walk around and go over to Petland, too. (Because I'm sure the Petland employees are just dying for three unattended tweens to coo over the puppies and kittens.)
Me: What does Courtney's mother say?
11-year-old: She says it's fine with her if it's fine with you. Please be a good parent. (Now the stakes are higher: I'd be a good parent AND a cool one.) Please.
Courtney's mother was, fortunately, not fine with it. No adult, no Starbucks excursion. This meant I had to have an awkward conversation with Brittany's mom, who seemed to have no problem dropping the kids off at Starbucks. I stressed that this is our hang-up, and our daughter is the one who isn't ready for solo trips yet.
The story has a happy ending, at least for the 11-year-old. Courtney's mother decided she needed to do some shopping over by Starbucks, so she took the girls and supervised them from a respectable distance. Crisis over, for now.
But it will come up again. And the 11-year-old will point out that at least one of them will have a cell phone and can call if there's an emergency. I'm not sure she understands that this isn't a case of worrying about bad guys snatching them out of Starbucks. It's not even a case of having pity on the merchants, although this is certainly a factor in our saying no.
What it comes down to is that this is our time to set boundaries. We might not always be right, and we'll probably err on the side of being overprotective. But we want the 11-year-old to be pretty sure that there are things she can and cannot do right now, and we want her to know that there are limits to every good thing, even the emerging freedom that she can taste but not quite indulge in.
She's growing up. But we're growing, too, growing into parenting and trying to figure out how to keep her safe without becoming Debbie's mom. I've given up on being the cool parent - my wardrobe precluded that, anyhow. I'd rather keep her safe, and smart, and happy. I'd rather be uncool.
And I hope when she's old enough to go to Starbuck's alone, I'll recognize it and let her go. Even when it hurts to let go.