"Don't:" That's the word I heard: "Don't." The parents next to me on the subway car repeated it in turn, one after the other, in a modulated, angry tone. It stood out from the handful of others sprinkled in-between in a flimsy effort at explanation. Their message was clear
My daughter and I were on our way downtown. Just one long ride, like any other, from Morningside Heights to Times Square. But for me, this one would be remembered.
As we clung onto the handhold loops dangling from the ceiling of the subway car, our attention was riveted to the family perched along that bank of seats intended for the elderly, the disabled, those in need. It was a family of four: two little girls, 6 and 9 years' old by my estimation, their middle-aged parents and an enormous, double, side-by-side buggy. It was midday so the car was fairly empty, they had plenty of room to spread out and make themselves comfortable.
Our ride was a long one, and my mind wandered to the mundane. I occupied myself with figuring out why they needed that huge buggy. The kids were too big. Where could they possibly take them that would demand they hop on and ride? What amount of walking was planned to justify lugging around such a cumbersome piece of equipment? Maybe they were on their way to pick up the younger twins? The thoughts that fill our heads on public transportation have no reason. They're a cerebral form of free fall.
Those tantalizing questions moved to the back burner as the drama before me began. The older girl wanted to stand up and hang on to the pole. She made her intentions quite clear both verbally and physically, raising her voice and popping up off her seat again and again to her mother's chagrin. I understood. She was eager to experience the feeling of being a little less situated and stable; she wanted a part of that 'danger' against which her mother was exhorting as the subway car careened around the occasional curve. Who doesn't crave that momentary feeling of flight? The mother was adamant. "Sit down." "No, you can't stand." "It's dangerous." "You'll get hurt."
But she was having none of it. She insisted in her effort to join her parents at the poles, popping off her seat the minute she was back in it. Soon enough her younger sister figured she was missing out on the fun and joined in what was turning out, for them, to be some kind of a game. As the subway car continued its path southward the situation began to spin out of control. The mother looked to the father for help. He seemed less certain of his wife's stance, I think he'd had enough of the effort and hoped she'd just cave and let them stand, but quickly toed the line. "Don't get up." "Sit back down."
It didn't work. Both girls were hell-bent on enjoying the thrill of the ride, even if it meant momentary disobedience. They were smiling like goons, just as excited at challenging their parents as standing up in a moving subway car. Having clearly lost their battle, the parents altered their course, the stream of "Don'ts," now adjusted to fit the new reality. "Don't press your mouth to the pole." "Don't lean too far over." "Don't grab the buggy." And after about ten seconds, "Okay, that's enough. Sit down."
It was endless.
There are so many parenting articles out there insisting on the need for limits, reiterating the parent's role in containing actions and ideas that can lead our children down the wrong road, opening them up to hurt and disappointment. I'm on board with most of them. Yet, watching that ridiculous battle for control waged before me in the subway car, the hopeless effort to extinguish a harmless, youthful notion, I appreciated the equally important ability, as a parent, to ease up on the reins, to step back and, yes, allow our children to simply live their lives; in effect, to permit them to take some modicum of responsibility for their own actions, no matter the cost.
What would have been the harm of letting those children stand up and join the fray, clinging to those appealing, cool metal poles like the other commuters beside them, allowing them precious seconds to feel a bit more adult, a bit more capable, a bit more in charge of their own lives. As the list of "Don'ts" and "No's" grew, I looked over at my seventeen year old daughter, equally captivated and horrified by the ineffective parenting before us, and wondered if I had known, in the past, and would know, in the future, when it was time to loosen up; to let her chart her course and fly.
As Israel prepares for Memorial Day, that twenty four hours devoted to the young men and women who've lost their lives in the name of their country either through military action or terrorism, I wonder a lot about all of the "No's," about all those times they weren't permitted to do something out of their parents' or teachers' well-intentioned fear that they might get hurt, that their actions would have unwanted repercussions somewhere down the road. I wonder if those whose lives ended, unnaturally, far too early, had the opportunity, here and there, to push a limit, cross a line, or take a chance. I desperately hope it was so--that at some point, they too were able to stretch their legs, strut their stuff, push their boundaries.
We only get one chance.