It was nearly 9 p.m. when I got a text from my son who had decided, last minute, to come home from college for the weekend with his friend. A polar vertex had descended on the whole northeast and I was already headed up to bed. I stared at the text with a mixed set of emotions. Sure, it would be nice to see him. But leaving so late at night? That never seemed like a good idea.
At 9:45 p.m. I heard the chime of another text. Their car had broken down in Baltimore. They were in the midst of solving the problem and had pulled off to a side road to call a tow truck. But, in the meantime, he wanted me to know that he was not coming home now. And that it was cold in the car.
“Are you wearing a coat?” I asked.
He was not. I thought back to all those mornings that I sent him to school without nagging him to eat breakfast, wear a jacket, or remember his homework. I believed in letting kids learn through natural consequences. I believed that actually experiencing a little hunger or cold would be a better motivator than any nagging on my end, that my kids had to learn certain lessons themselves so that they would be memorable. I wanted them to learn to depend on themselves.
On some accounts, it failed to take hold. When they were little, some of the consequences were barely noticed. Recess at school was only 20 minutes and often, on frigid days, they didn’t go out at all. If they missed breakfast at home, lunch was at 11 a.m. If they forgot their homework the penalties were minor. Maybe it meant they would get a slightly lower grade or stay in for recess. They could survive without a coat, breakfast or homework.
By 11 p.m. the tow truck had still not come. They were still cold. He admitted to me, on the phone, that he never took it seriously when his grandfather scolded him about his lack of jacket-wearing in winter and asked, “what happens if the car breaks down?”
I sighed on the phone, relieved they were not on the highway when the natural consequences of poor choices finally kicked in. There are some things that are hard to teach as a parent, especially when the goal is to protect. I had never provided the experience of being stranded in a broken-down car, nor did I ever want to.
I faced the dilemma head-on this past spring when we got his brother honeybees for his birthday. He was turning 17 and appreciated things with purpose. However, he also suffered from pollen allergies and sneezed through the entirety of every single spring. For eight weeks each year, he was barely recognizable.
When a bravado appeared in him during a particularly allergic early April, I started to get worried about our decision to get him bees.
“I am going to walk into that hive and just smear myself with the honey when I get those bees,” he said between sneezes. He had long-known about the research that eating local honey can reduce allergies. It appeared that he was planning to take things one step further. I imagined him covered in bees, overcome with multiple stings.
When the day came to pick up the bees and transfer them to the waiting hives, I was apprehensive. The bee suit was still in the packaging and my son was still telling me about how relatively tame these bees were and how he wouldn’t be needing any protection. Where he saw non-threatening bees, I saw a still-developing teenage brain.
He mixed up the sugar water as I chopped potatoes for dinner. I thought about how, in one more year, he would be going to college and facing other decisions and risks. In one short year, I would not be able to intercede.
As he headed out to the wooden hive in the back I decided to follow from a distance and watch him spray them with the sugar water.
“It calms them down,” he said.
I looked a little closer and they were still actively trying to escape. Not a calm bee in sight. He sprayed them some more and tapped the container against the ground.
“They will fall to the bottom,” he said as he inspected closer.
I looked as well. Not too many bees on the bottom.
He followed the protocol one more time. I could tell that he was getting ready to take off the lid and dump them in the hive. I thought longingly of the bee suit in the garage. I struggled to not interfere. I struggled with my own belief in natural consequences and where to draw the line. He knew the risks. He had done the research. But still I was uncomfortable.
My eyes were intently focused on his hand as tried to pull off the lid, my heart pounding as buzzing grew louder. The bees knew something was up. Once the top was off, there would be no turning back. The bees would be everywhere. I spotted a split-second hesitation in his fingers as I held my breath, my own heart pounding. My mother’s instinct took hold more powerfully than I could control. I yelled to him something about the woman who sold the bees: “She said they swarm after trips in the car.” I was lying out of my own desperation to protect.
He stood up. Our primal instincts clashed – my need to parent and his need to be unafraid, to grow up. He let out a sigh, the sigh I knew meant he was about to take pity on my worry.
“Go get the bee suit,” he said with resignation to his younger brother.
His brother and I zipped him in as he muttered about my annoying interference. But, for that moment, I didn’t care. He headed back to the bees and fully released them. I watched as the bees, now freed, covered the white of his suit, swarming around him. I thought of his bare arms and legs under the white cloth. I wondered what would have happened had I not intervened.
Back in the house I resumed making dinner. A few minutes later he came in. A bee had stung him on his eyelid when he took off the bee helmet.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he said.
“Get some ice from the freezer,” I replied, grateful for the honeybee that stung him, the one that proved me right.
A month later I would again be grateful; this time for a set of railroad tracks that knocked off a muffler on my oldest son’s car. He would learn how to secure it with a coat hanger at midnight. My words, “please don’t drive so late at night” would suddenly carry more weight. And I would be reminded again that sometimes life is a more effective teacher than a parent. Even when it is hard to watch.
Even when it stings.