No matter the age of your kids, you know when they shift gears. It’s the day you find them standing in their crib under their own power, the day they call you “Mom” instead of “Mommy,” or the day they get behind the steering wheel and drive away by themselves. It’s the moment they fall in love for the first time, watching them run through a shower of rice into their new life as a couple, or watching your son-in-law feel the baby move in your daughter’s belly.
I learned to drive in a car with a standard transmission. Figuring out the delicate timing of clutch and gas and shifter involved multiple engine stalls, plenty of embarrassment, and hoots of “find ’em, don’t grind ’em, baby,” from nearby drivers.
Somewhere along the way in our family’s journey we bought an automatic. A minivan, of course. Oh, the ease. It was like driving without thinking—lazy, casual driving. Driving that didn’t make my left quad quiver in traffic. Driving that was painfully similar to riding a kiddie ride at the carnival, complete with the screaming kiddies.
And then, after years of casual driving, I got back into a stick shift this summer. Suddenly, I had to concentrate on driving again. Failure to shift into the right gear at the appropriate time resulted in one of two outcomes: A wailing, whining engine with RPMs aiming for the red zone, or a gasping, sluggish attempt to move forward … occasionally in front of oncoming traffic. (Lurching across the highway with a semi headed your way will wake you up faster than any form of espresso.)
It’s the same with kids. Parenting each child is like driving a standard transmission in a different vehicle. The clutch is a little bit different, the brakes have their own unique response, the amount of pressure applied to the gas pedal to achieve the desired response is unique. What works in the sturdy farm truck does not work in the sensitive sports car.
Each shift—up or down—results in a change of velocity and a change in the way the vehicle handles. You simply don’t drive the same way in first gear as you do in fifth gear. Nor should you attempt to parent your fifth-grader or your fifteen-year-old the same way you parented that child at five. One of you will fry a few parts if you do.
In almost 20 years of parenting (times four, for the number of children) these developmental shifts have never been convenient, expected, or comfortable. Sometimes I shifted too soon (potty training, giving up the pacifier, and learning to read come to mind) and we ended up chugging along in slow motion for what seemed like an eternity. At other times, I’ve been oblivious to the need to shift gears until I (or my kids) are so tightly wound we risk blowing a gasket.
Those moments require adjustments. On my part. As the parent, it’s my responsibility to adapt, to change, to shift as my children grow and change and develop into responsible, mature adults.
It seems like it would be so easy just to downshift to a lower gear, to slow everything down to a more comfortable speed. (If you haven’t experienced driver’s training with your kiddos yet, believe me when I say there is a terrifying and dramatic difference between 35 mph and 50 mph when you’re sitting in the passenger seat.)
It might seem easy to slow things down, but we, as parents, have to remember: Sooner or later, that kid is going to end up on a highway somewhere, and they better know how to drive in fifth gear! Better to make the shifts with them, and teach them how to handle the new speed, than restrict them to “farm roads” until they’re out of your sight.