When my daughter started high school this year I made a vow to not be one of those parents – the type who micromanage every detail of their child’s life while on a perpetual quest to get them into “the” best college. I decided this was the time for me to back off a bit, to still monitor my daughter’s activities but give more latitude to let her make her own decisions and possibly, her own mistakes.
It’s been harder than I thought it would be however, because I’ve felt like I’ve been missing out on the little details of my daughter’s life. So I was very excited the other day when I made this discovery: I learned that if I don’t break the parental fourth wall I can find out all I wanted to know about my daughter’s day.
The fourth wall is a theatre term for that imaginary line that separates the stage from the audience. As any good actor knows, if you acknowledge your audience, you ruin the magic of the play. Likewise, I discovered that when I drive my daughter and her two teenage friends in carpool, I could be privy to their discussions as long as I kept my mouth shut. Somehow, my silence makes me virtually invisible, and that’s when the good stuff happens.
As I drive home each day, I am treated to discussions about their teachers, their grades and sometimes even their accomplishments. (Why didn’t my daughter tell me her art was on display in the library?)
I’ve learned fascinating tidbits about what was happening at school, “Did you know that Dylan had his locker inspected by police?” Really? Cute little Dylan from pre-school?
I’ve heard about feuding friends, “Elise and Becca won’t even look at each other,” and blossoming romances, “Did you hear that Brian finally got back together with Kendall?”
Wait, Kendall, my good friend Karen’s daughter? That Kendall? I wondered if Karen knew that her daughter had a boyfriend.
This one was just too much of a tease. I needed more information. I let myself get caught up in the girl talk and foolishly asked, “How long have Kendall and this Brian boy been dating?”
There was stunned silence. I had broken the fourth wall. The kids were shocked at the realization that I had heard everything. Apparently, they had completely forgotten I was there. How did they think the car was moving?
One of the girls muttered an answer and then all conversation ceased. The kids sat there stone-faced for the remainder of the drive.
For days we drove in virtual silence. But then, like teenagers in a chemistry class, they quickly forgot the lesson they learned and resumed their chatting.
I knew now how easy it was to break that invisible wall and realized I had to be more careful. I wore clothing that matched the interior of my car to help me blend in. I tried to stifle anything that could give away my presence such as a cough or an errant sneeze. I put my cell phone on silent.
Soon I was treated to the details of their days once again. Though I desperately wanted to share my information with fellow parents, I knew that would be a big no-no. I would not stoop to being a mole.
Sometimes maintaining silence was hard because I wanted to participate, “Yeah, he should have been kicked off American Idol weeks ago.” I knew that if I did though, I’d be back to square one.
Last week something happened that really tested me. With my cloak of parental invisibility firmly in tact, I drove my daughter and three of her friends to the big championship basketball game at school. As the girls piled in the car, I remember thinking how much things had changed: a minute ago I was buckling my baby in her car seat and now I was dropping her off with friends at a nighttime outing.
The girls were excited and the conversation was especially lively. Soon they were comparing how much homework they had left to do that evening.
The first girl lamented, “I still have math homework and an english paper to write. It’s going to take hours.” The second girl added an equally long list, and then my daughter complained, “I still have english, math and a science worksheet to fill out.”
The girls responded sympathetically. I started to nod as if I were in the same boat.
But then, I came to my senses. Why were we headed to this basketball game that wouldn’t let out till 9:30PM if all the girls still had homework to do?
I was dumbfounded by their collective bad decision-making. I continued to drive in silence, remembering that I couldn’t blow my cover. But, then, I couldn’t take it anymore. “So, just how much homework do you have?” I asked my daughter.
“Oh, uh, it’s not that bad. I can finish the science worksheet really quick and do the rest in study hall. I’m almost done, really,” my daughter backpedaled. She and her friends looked at one another guiltily as if they were beginning to question their own judgment.
I continued to drive debating my next move. Was my daughter exaggerating for me, or for her friends, or a little of both? Should I drop the friends and insist that my daughter return home to do her homework or let her off with a reprimand?
Ultimately, I let her go to the game with a firm directive that she had better get that homework done upon her return.
It was a tough decision. But, I remembered that my goal was to give her more space to learn to succeed on her own or learn the consequences if not. As it turned out, she ended up completing all of her assignments that night, quite possibly because I had shown the faith in her to do so.
Now, as I return to driving carpool, I keep my mouth closed and listen, and let the drama unfold in the backseat.