What Independence in High School Looks Like

This blog was published by Grown & Flown: "Mom & Dad, Please Stay Out of My High School"


My 15-year-old son won’t let me volunteer at his high school. It’s not that he thinks it’s too nerdy to engage in school events. He’s a super involved guy, who leads clubs and participates in an array of activities. He just resists the idea of his father and I being physically with him in that setting anymore. Dance chaperone? No. Volunteer judge? No. Audience member at student presentations? No, thank you very much.


We used to wonder if he was embarrassed of us. But that’s not really it. He brings friends over all the time, and he actually likes that they interact with us. We used to wonder if we made him too nervous. That’s not fully it either. For example, today he is giving a public presentation for Honors English, TED Talk-style, and asked us to please not attend. Turns out, he’s a little nervous whether we attend or not. So for the high school years, we have respected his space, feeling a little hurt, but mostly just stumped by his strong stance about our staying away.


Then I noticed something last week: his iphone desktop picture. I glimpsed the background image when he was opening a text. It’s a selfie of him and me on a family trip. That's what he sees every time he checks his phone (which is to say...quite often). My very maternal face is on his most precious device? This is big news and adds a new layer to the mystery that is his rejection of my school involvement.


Maybe, I thought, it’s not that he doesn’t want us to be with him at school as much he just doesn’t want us beside him, physically. Maybe he just wants to try doing these big new tasks, unencumbered by parents. He is testing his own skills, shaking off the training wheels, trying to go it alone. Maybe it’s just that school is his turf now.


I should know this. As a PhD in psychology I am aware of the myriad ways adolescents push and pull from their parents. They are like birds learning to fly, small hops from the nest, farther and farther, coming back frequently until they are eventually actually ready to soar away. I tell this to the parents of my own students--this is normal, this is healthy, this is necessary! But the psych theory doesn’t provide comfort when my son says, “no matter what you do, do not sign up to help in my class.” Um, ouch?


We’ve never been helicopter parents; his resistance to our presence at school isn’t due to our over-attention. Nor have we been laissez-faire parents though. We spent elementary school at nearly all parent-teacher conferences, most of the student performances, and volunteering on only occasional field trips, not every one. But the reduction of involvement in high-school is notable. First there are fewer opportunities overall. The openings they have though often remain open. Perhaps it isn’t so much that parents become “disengaged” when their kids become teens as it is my son’s case. They are asking for more freedom.


I still grimace a bit when my son heads off to an event he’s been preparing for over weeks, and he says he’ll just tell me about it afterward. But I think I get it a bit more now. Instead of interpreting his words as a rejection, I will hear them as an invitation:


Stay with me, mom, but stay here in my pocket, on my phone. Let me try independence now. Let me prove to myself that I can do it.


And this is an invitation I won’t miss accepting.


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© 2020 Tina Kruse