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Carry the bag: Having our kids handle what they can is an important life skill

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When my son was about 8 years old and weighed about 60 pounds, he did a baseball camp at the university close to our house. The coaches of the baseball camp worked with or were college players, and in the summer they offered camps for young baseball players with 15-pound backpacks.

This coach was firm and spoke to the point. He went through the expectations for the kids (yes, sir), the rules of the camp (yes, sir), and what they should bring (yes, sir). “And another thing,” he said, “if I see your parent carrying your baseball bag for you, you’re running laps.”

I thought about this as I walked to the car. Excellent, I thought. Finally, the stage of parenting where I don’t have to schlep a car seat, push a stroller, or unfold a pack-and-play for my kids. Finally, they carry their own stuff, however hot and sweaty they may be. He’s right, I thought. My kids should carry their own load. It’s good for them.

The lesson was repeated last year, as I was carrying my son’s giant lacrosse bag to the car after a game. “Ma’am, whose bag is that?” asked the coach. I told him my son had left with a friend and I was taking the bag home. “I’ll let him off the hook this time,” he said.

There is a mom in my neighborhood who is always walking with her kids or pushing a stroller full of them. I don’t know her, but the other day I saw her walking to school with her son who is a middle schooler. They probably had a half-mile walk to the school. The boy carried nothing, and she carried his backpack.

Seeing her got me thinking about the baseball camp rule. Should she be carrying his backpack? Should the kid be carrying it? Mine are old enough now that they have too much pride to be seen with me carrying their literal backpacks. But what about their figurative ones?

Twice this year already I have rescued my kids when they forgot something at home in the morning. Once, before I left for work, I got a panicky FaceTime call from the 12-year-old who left the house with his phone but not his backpack. His school is on the way to my job, and I met him in the parking lot and dropped off the backpack.

A week or so later, on a day off, I came into the dining room to see my 15-year-old’s school laptop charging on the table while he sat in first period without it. I knew he had a test the next period, for which he’d stayed up late studying. Between classes, I met him outside with the laptop so he could have it for his test.

So should we carry our kids’ backpacks, or should we make them carry their own loads? Should we take their stuff to them when they slip up, or should we let them have the failing grade? Where is the line?

The longer I go in my parenting, I find the answer is not that simple, and the line moves from day to day. Just like us, there are some days my kids are running at 100%. They’ve got their stuff done, they look amazing, and they are full of energy and well rested.

And, just like us, there are some days that they’re running at 50% or less. They forgot about an assignment, fought with a friend, put their shirt on inside-out, had a fever overnight.

The two days I recently helped my kids were, simply, days I was able to help when they weren’t at their best. Plenty of times, I was able to help my daughter, too, taking her dance clothes or something she forgot.

But there have also been times they called for help and I had to tell them, “Sorry — I’m at work. You’ll have to figure it out.” Or “this doesn’t involve me - handle it.” I still believe I shouldn’t be involved in their school stuff at the high school level unless a teacher specifically reaches out to me. I believe teens should handle what they can in preparation for the young adult years.

Most of the time, it’s good for them to remember their stuff and carry their own loads. But when they’re at 50%, I can help them carry their loads, too. Isn’t that what parenthood is all about?

As an adult, there are days at work that I’m completely overwhelmed and cannot take one more thing being asked of me. If a colleague offers to see one or three of my patients on those days, I will gladly say yes. Other days, I have the same number of patients but have it all under control. If a colleague offers to help that day, I can say, “nope, I’ve got it, but thanks.” The line moves.

I can make my own dinner every night, but when a family member is sick and someone offers to bring food, I’m happy to accept it. I can lift a case of bottled water, but the other day when my shoulder was bothering me and the Target employee offered to load the heavy bottled water into my cart, I was grateful.

So yes, it is important for our children to carry what they can, show responsibility, haul their own baggage. But some days, they will need us to help shoulder the load, too. And that is OK.


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