One of my key roles as parent is to contradict whatever my children do or say. If a child is feeling blue, my job is to cheer her up; if she’s inexplicably giddy, I make her empty the dishwasher. When math proves frustrating, I offer encouragement, a tutor and/or a guarantee that addition and subtraction are all you ever really need in life. But if someone’s gloating about a good report card, I find it necessary to remind him or her of a certain C minus. This is not to be cruel or oppositional, but to help them maintain equilibrium–a state that is often elusive in teenagers. As I see it, if a child is fearful, my job is to be reassuring; if s/he is reckless, it is my duty to instill mortal terror. For instance, when my 14-year-old son expressed a desire to climb Mt. Washington, alone, in February, I backed up my disquisition on hypothermia, frostbite and avalanches with weather reports tracking 90 mph winds and a -35 wind chill. Then, after I caved in and booked him on a guided climb with Eastern Mountain Sports, I acted suitably disappointed when they didn’t make the summit because someone in the group suffered leg cramps.
Here’s the problem: my 11th grade daughter has become adept at abruptly adopting my position, throwing me off balance and leaving me unsure which side I’m supposed to be on. She first hit upon this strategy a few years ago, when I suggested she bring her asthma inhaler to school on a pollen-filled May day. She refused, and came home wheezing uncomfortably. Before I could even open my mouth to say, “I told you…” she looked me right in the eye and said, between labored breaths: “Mom, you were right, and I regret not listening to you.” That stopped me cold. How do you continue to chastise someone who has just admitted not only that they screwed up, but also that your advice was spot on? She has used that line numerous times, always promptly shutting me up in the process. If the other members of my household were half as smart, they’d realize they could stand to gain a lot from uttering it once in awhile.
My take-the-opposite-tack approach is now being sorely tested by “the college process,” a name that makes it sound clinical, protracted and distasteful, like making sausage or receiving a hair transplant. My view all along, fueled by denial, application horror stories and my own rebellious streak, has been that it doesn’t much matter where my daughter goes to college. This perspective proved useful at the start, when she and her father were bandying about the names of all those ridiculously elite colleges on every Tiger Mom’s list. But apparently I was so convincing that now my daughter sees it the same way, and is planning to apply to a bunch of quirky, random places no one has ever heard of. Since she’s stolen my thunder, I find myself with only one alternative if I am to go on fulfilling my role as counterweight: beg for Brown.