On Being a “Ramp Agent” Parent

My husband and I are in what I consider to be the middle years of at-home parenting. By at-home parenting, I am referencing the idea that once you become a parent, you are always a parent, but it is only the first 18 years (22 years?) of each child’s life when they are at home and are your responsibility to one extent or another. After that, barring disability, illness, or unusual circumstances, they are on their own, more or less.

We have one child in high school, one in middle school, and our youngest will finish elementary school this year. The baby, toddler and early school years seem far behind. The empty nest is in sight, but is many years hence. We are just beginning to think about launching the first. But even that is more than two years away.

A long time ago, however, I began to talk about the primary purpose of parenting being working oneself out of a job. I wish I could remember the source of that idea. I’ve seen the concept many places, but I know there was something, way back when, that led me to that wording. At that time, though, I was smack dab in the middle of the early parenting years.

Remember the early parenting years? The ones that are extremely hands-on. The years when you are up at all hours of the night, routinely. The ones when you can’t remember the last time you got a full night’s sleep. The years with a baby on your hip and a toddler holding your hand. For me, smack dab in the middle of nine straight years of nursing. It is highly unlikely that I would remember a source like this from that time period. Suffice it to say, someone wise wrote something. I read it (probably while nursing), and I liked the way it helped me think about parenting.

Parenting is all about working yourself out of a job. Some day, it is my hope that each one of my children find me to be, in all practical ways, unnecessary.

Now, I can hear you hedging, or whining, or softly sniffling in the background as you consider this prospect. I will add that I do think parenting is a life-long endeavor. There are always ways in which my parents remain essential to me, and I believe I will remain essential to my children. They may need me emotionally. They may need advice from me. They may even depend upon me for childcare or assistance in other ways.

But in the basic matters of daily living: income, housing, financial planning, basic decision-making, meal preparation, (let’s jump back a few years now) bathroom management, personal hygiene, sleeping arrangements, friendships . . . it is my sincere hope that my children will not depend upon me for these things. It is my hope that I will no longer be necessary.

So, if this is the end goal, at age 18 or 22, what am I doing today to move toward that goal? I have often thought, in each stage of parenting, about how I am helping to prepare my children for independent living.

In many ways, this approach to parenting runs counter to a trend that has been given a name in today’s culture: helicopter parenting. I’m not one to tend to think in extremes. I am more inclined toward seeking balance. So, am I a free-range parent or a helicopter parent? Well, probably free-range if you force me to answer this question. When the children were younger, I would have called my parenting style attachment parenting. But any of these terms are limiting. For each of us, they call to mind certain things that we associate with that word.

You might associate attachment parenting with nursing a 7 year old. Well, I didn’t do that, but I did nurse my 3 year olds. You might associate attachment parenting with co-sleeping or family bed. Well, my kids have their own bedrooms. However, each of them slept with us for the first 6 months of their lives and were welcome in our bed until they no longer needed to be there, which for each of them was a different length of time.

You might associate helicopter parenting with always wanting to know where your child is. My kids are often out-and-about on their own with friends, but if they are, they have a cell phone with them. You might associate helicopter parenting with watching your child’s every action on the internet. Well, I do take a glance at all their e-mails and I am friends with them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

Helicopter parent? Attachment parent? Somewhere in between?

As we approach launching our first, I am thinking more about what parenting looks like on the other side of the high school diploma. We are working toward what parenting looks like there. For example, the high schooler has a debit card. He is free to use it as he sees fit, but he must ask permission if he is purchasing on-line or making a large purchase. If the money runs out, we don’t refill the account. He is learning to manage his money and make wise choices regarding spending.

In early 2012, Lenore Skenazy, of Free-Range Kids fame, pointed me in the direction of this article in Salon Magazine by Kathleen Volk Miller. The author is a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Perhaps equally as important, she is also the mother of two college-age daughters, which qualifies her to comment on what parenting college students looks like.

I absolutely love her perspective as a professor and as a Mom. I love her attachment to her girls, and yet I love how thoughtfully and intentionally she is detaching from them as well. Her intentional detachment is helping them learn to be self-sufficient, to be independent and responsible adults.

Whether this stage of life is already upon you, behind you, or even if it’s way ahead of you, what do you think? Do you like Volk Miller’s approach? Is it too harsh? Is she not helpful enough?

I like the analogy of a “ramp agent” parent. Guiding. Pointing the way. Refueling. Preparing for the next launch. What do you think? Does this capture it? Is there a better analogy?

Most importantly, what are you doing today to prepare for tomorrow? What are you doing today to work yourself out of a job?

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3 Responses to On Being a “Ramp Agent” Parent

  1. “My daughters are on the same campus as me, and I don’t even know what classes they are taking.” Ha! That’s me! You know I’m in this place, and I resonated so much with what the article said, Jennifer. It’s tough, sometimes, parenting college-aged kids. You have to step back, let them make their own decisions, and trust the work you’ve done already. We’re in a place of guiding, not telling, our girls what to do. It’s good, but it’s hard just the same.

    When you ask, “What are you doing today to prepare for tomorrow?” I thought not just about my kids, but about myself. This year, especially, I’ve realized that the day is coming very quickly that my nest will be totally empty. I need to start preparing myself now for what’s ahead, whatever that may look like. I need to make intentional decisions about my career, my marriage, retirement, etc. that will help me ease into that transition better than some mothers might. So it’s not just about preparing our kids for the future, it’s also about preparing our own hearts.

    • jennifer says:

      Thank you, Shelly. I love everything you’re saying here. I also knew you would connect with this professor’s story! You are often an inspiration to me, just a few steps ahead of where I am.

      • shellywildman says:

        Aw, thanks, Jennifer. I’ve always been grateful for the moms who are a few years ahead of me, too. Scary now, though! 🙂

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