Wednesday, March 17, 2010

     "Why don't you take our tickets for the hot air balloon ride?"  My friend asked me while I sobbed next to her on the couch.  "Take Aidan too.  It might be good for both of you."  I took the tissue she offered and dried my eyes.  Maybe something spectacular like that would be the remedy to what had been ailing us.  For the last few moths, I hardly recognized my sixteen-year-old.  He had gone from a happy, chatty boy to one who had anger outbursts that rivaled the super-souped-up-steroid-heads that "wrestled" in the WWF.  (What?  I see them when I change the channels!)  Now, Aidan didn't talk much, but when he did it was only to belittle or complain.  No matter what I tried, yelling, reasoning, grounding, talking, even bribery, I couldn't seem to get through the high wall of rage that he had built around him.  I knew that adolescence could be tough, but I never imagined anything like this.  Despite all of the parenting books and articles I had read, I was running out of tools to reach him.
     The next morning, as we climbed into the balloon's basket, I smiled cheerily at my son determined to make the most of this experience.  I was hoping that I might break through the tension that was always present.  As we lifted off, the pilot began to teach Aidan the ins and outs of balloon flight, and though it didn't occur to me then, I would eventually realize that the basic principles of flying a balloon could be applied to parenting.  I think of it as "parenting in-flight," and since I was having such a hard time connecting with my child, I found these flight techniques useful suggestions to add to my parenting tool box.

Principle one:  Heating and Cooling Keeps the Balloon Steady

     In order to keep the balloon aloft, sometimes the pilot would pull a lever and blast a high flame up into the balloon's belly to heat the air.  The noise was deafening for a few minutes and then he'd let go of the lever and we'd drift in absolute silence.  When Aidan asked about the use of the flame, the pilot pointed out that there had to be a limit to the heat otherwise the balloon would fly too fast and too high.  It would be hard to control.  It was just as important to let the air in the balloon cool a bit.  The balance between heating and cooling kept the balloon steady.
     The same could be said for parenting, I guess.  I have to remind myself constantly, expecially in angry moments that I must make conscious decisions about when to heat up and when to stay cool.  With Aidan, I had fallen into that trap of yelling as loudly about the toilet seat being left up as I did about the two zeroes he had in his math class.  (In my defense, do you know how horrible it is to be jolted awake in the middle of the night when your tush falls into the toilet!!??) I try to think before I speak or scream.  I am amazed at the effect that a quiet voice can have on my adolescent.  One morning instead of yelling at him for not being ready on time, (a daily activity,) I instead calmly stated, "It really frustrates me when you aren't ready by 7:30.  When you are not ready, it makes everyone else late."  To my surprise, the next morning, my son was waiting for me in the car at 7:30 sharp.  Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, there HAVE been days in which he has been late again.  But as long as I use that quiet explanatory voice when reminding him, we at least have got it down to a 50/50 situation.  That is not to say that there aren't times when a show of emotion like anger or strong disappointment isn't necessary, but I know I had to decide on what was truly important for me as a parent.   (For instance, I think that my neighbors five doors down heard me when the last report card arrived!)  Now that the amount of yelling has decreased, instead of Aidan thinking, "She's yelling AGAIN!"  He thinks, "Oh, she's angry.  She must mean business!"

Principle Two:  There is no Way to Steer a Balloon

     Below the balloon, the chase car zoomed along.  "Where will they meet us?"  I asked.  "Wherever the balloon touches down." responded the pilot.  He explained that even though you could control how high or low the balloon flew, there was no way to steer it.  "A pilot can never control the direction of a balloon.  We're at the mercy of the wind."  He smiled.  "So just lean back and enjoy the scenery." 
     This principle of balloon flight was probably the hardest to apply to my parenting.  I tended to want to control everything about my son to steer him toward success.  I decided when he did his homework, who his friends were, what time he went to bed, even what jacket he wore to school every morning.  As I look back on this behavior, there were several well-meaning motives behind it.  Of course, I didn't want Aidan to experience failure or hardship, but there was also a selfish motivation for my controlling behavior.  Having been raised in am image conscious family where LOOKING good was the only way to live, and residing in the small town in which I grew up and now teach in, I didn't want others to judge my parenting.  By making sure that Aidan looked good and did the right things, I'd kept the small town gossip mill churning out fodder about others and instead of about me or my family.  This is still a powerful force within me and so letting go of control is a work in progress.  But on a cold morning last week, I saw the power of relinquishing it.  As we headed out the door, I felt an icy blast of blustery winter wind.  My instinct was to tell Aidan to grab his jacket, but instead I pursed my lips and kept quiet.  By the time we were in the car, I was pinching myself to keep from commenting on his lack of proper attire.  But as I turned the ignition, Aidan said, "Can you wait mom?  It's cold and I want to grab my jacket."  Victory!  I had never been so thankful for the mercy of the wind.

Principle Three: It Takes a Team for a Successful Landing

     When it was time to land, I could see the balloon team, including my husband, waiting in the distance.  After landing, we all stood around and watched the balloon deflate.  The basket was unattached and what lay before us was a mass of silk about forty yards long and thrity yards wide.  Having trouble folding bed sheets with elastic at the four corners, I wondered how in the world the team would ever gather up, let alone fold, that much material.  But to my surprise the task took about five minutes to complete. With each team member and passenger placed at strategic locations along the deflated balloon, and following some simple commands from the pilot, the balloon was folded into three sections and rolled up in no time.
     It is no surprise that teamwork is a wonderful way to take the pressure off me as a parent when I am stressed.  Understanding this has done a world of good for both me and Aidan!  I now use people and organized groups to help guide my son to a "successful landing."  My parenting team comes from many different places, especially willing friends.  For instance, when Aidan was required to do an in-depth project for his Young Scholars class, I enlisted the expertise of a very bright friend of mine.  He graciously volunteered to work with Aidan on the project.  Aidan received an "A," but more importantly he established a bond with a trusted adult who made Aidan feel like he was a worthwhile companion.  To this day, Aidan admires this person.  He values his brain and uses him as a role model for his future.
     Before we went on the balloon ride that morning, there was much work to be done.  We had to unpack the van, lay out the balloon, attach the basket and hold tether lines as the balloon inflated.  Like life with a teen there was also an abundance of moments that were awkward and difficult.  For instance, there is absolutely NO graceful way to climb into a four foot high crowded basket, and there is even less of a chance to gracefully climb out of the basket with a whole team watching.  But once up in the air, the peace and the spectacular view made everything worth it.  It was definitely a moment  not to be taken for granted.  And I think that this is the most important lesson I learned from my balloon ride.  No matter how hard it is to parent my adolescent, I should never get so bogged down in the process that I forget to enjoy the ride.