Parenting Podcast: Step-Parenting through Bike Helmets
Good parenting is complex and challenging. Good step-parenting is differently complex and challenging. My step-son Ben made the decision to move from his mother’s home to our home when he was entering eighth grade. It was clear during his month-long stay with us during the summer before his decision to move in that the inquisitive, good-looking and friendly boy I knew was becoming a troubled adolescent confronting the dark side of his personal history as it related to his parents’ divorce along with the academic challenges that often emerge in eighth grade. I worried about him. I second-guessed my parenting instincts, thinking always about his mother who lived many states away. In the day-to-day of school, homework and family life I thought about my responsibility not only to Ben but also to his mother. While I was the “mother on site,” I was so very different from his mother in so many ways.
My guiding principle was this: As I strive to help Ben grow and develop into the man he will be, I must not let anything bad happen to him on my watch. In the end, I based my decisions on his health and safety and what was in his best interest. While this was my top concern, I still tried to protect Ben while also respecting his growing independence as an adolescent. Then we faced a dilemma in which Ben was making a choice that wasn’t safe for his body but which he felt protected his dignity among his peers.
When Ben living with us that summer, our city had no helmet law for riding bikes. His father and I insisted he wear a helmet, so he chose not to ride since no other kids were wearing them. I got it. Socially, the newest kid on the block had to fit in. But his dad and I knew that a simple mistake on a bike could lead to a head injury that would impact his health forever, or worse, take his life. What would you do? I went to the PTA meeting to ask about what others were thinking and learned a proposed law was in the works but was languishing in the city legislative system. I made some connections. His dad used his connections as the local rabbi, and I coordinated a few like-minded parents from our congregation and the community to put heat under the process for the proposed helmet law. We got it presented and passed within six months.
Ben watched this from afar. He thought we were crazy. When the law passed, he was embarrassed that his parents were the ones leading this action. He still would not be the one to wear his helmet first. But, eventually he did. And I think he learned some valuable lessons. Dr. Ken Ginsburg created a framework for raising resilient children based around “seven C’s.” He explains it in this week’s Jewish Parenting Podcast and defines resilience as having the capacity to thrive not only when times are bad or tough, but also when times are good and going well. The seven C’s are confidence, competence, connections, character, control, coping and contribution. I see the seven C’s in this helmet episode. I think when Ben saw us get that helmet law passed, he could have learned that competent and confident people use their connections to take action that will control their environment, cope with the reality at hand and, ultimately, make a contribution that benefits the whole community.
The summer after eighth grade, Ben decided to sign up for the city’s teen volunteer summer camp working with other like-minded teens on making the city a better place to live. He worked with groups of all ages in agencies across the city. He had fun. He developed his character, competence, connections, and confidence while contributing to make life better for the whole community. Later, he became the social action chair for his youth group in high school, continuing this legacy in iterative new ways with others in his youth group and region of NFTY.
Ben is now a happily married resilient adult and step-father of Brendan, an eight-year-old inquisitive, good-looking and friendly boy. He would not think of letting his son ride his bike without a helmet.
Jane West Walsh, EdD, R.J.E is a Jewish educator and (step) Savtah of six wonderful children.