Parenting by the Seat of Your Helicopter

When Peter Carter was in Grade 7, he took a train on a 1,300-km ride to visit his friend. When his own kids were teens, he’d be damned if he let them take the bus by themselves to school. He admits the helicopter flew furious when it came to his own parenting skills. But here’s why he didn’t mind.

Take it from Linwood
and me; the teen years are few and fly by fast.”

WHEN I WAS A MEASLY 12 YEARS OLD — between Grades 7 and 8—my dad drove me to the train station in my hometown of Sudbury, dropped me and my new Framus guitar off, and I rode the rails all by myself, more than 1,300 kms northwest, to visit my friend Clyde Donnelly. He lived in the remote northwest Ontario town of Sioux Lookout. It was a passenger train, by the way.

I can’t remember every detail of the trip except that it took almost two days. And I’ll never forget meeting an older—gasp!—teenaged girl named Maple with long brown hair who asked me to sing a folk song for her. Which I did. (I sound so suave and worldly. Weird, then, that I’d spend the subsequent 20 years mired down in so many friend zones. Hmmm.)

I had met Clyde a few months earlier, when I was living in Toronto and working as a page in the Ontario Legislature. You’ve seen pages on the news. They’re 12- and 13-year-olds dressed in smart little suits and they run errands for Members of the Legislature. When I was a kid, my dad read about the program in the local newspaper and learned that they accepted applicants from all over Ontario, so I wrote some letters and won a spot. That’s also how Clyde got to Toronto from Sioux Lookout.

The Legislature operates during the school year, so pages are lucky enough to get out of regular school. We made up for that by attending classes for five hours a week at the Legislature, but mostly, getting to be a page was like a free pass from class. Sort of heavenly, now that I think about it.

It gets better. When in Toronto, I lived with my older sister, Charlene, who was studying to be a nurse, and—get this—her two very hot roomies, Barb and Kathy. They were, what, 19?

Every day, I would get up for work and commute downtown on the crowded streetcar with all the big-city grown-ups and sometimes we’d have to do extra duties, so some nights, I wouldn’t get home until dark.

We got paid just like adults and, frankly, when I think of how little I was at the time, I find it hard to believe I did it. Just like I find it hard to believe I sang for Maple.

(I sometimes wonder what happened to ol’ Maple. Which reminds me of a story a friend told me about getting caught as a 10-year-old smoking in his friend’s family car. The buddy’s angry mom stormed out to the driveway in her nightclothes and leaned in the window to reprimand the boys. All my friend could do, he says, was stare at her partially open negligee. It wasn’t until he turned 60 and realized that she’s probably well in her 80s that he stopped remembering the night so fondly. But I digress.)

When my brother Eddie was in elementary school, he hitchhiked—with my parents’ consent—from a tiny town called Thessalon to another village called Chapleau, which was about 250 klicks north. He was going to visit his old friend Johnny Cosgrove. The highway was, and still is, remote, twisty and the terrain very wild. The trip went as planned and Eddie returned home, safely, alone.

At this point, you’re like, “Was Carter’s dad trying to get rid of those kids or what?”

The answer is, of course, no. My folks worried about us just as much as you worry about your teenagers. They just had precious little time to be with us. They also knew what we were capable of.

Elsewhere in this issue, I have an interview with the thriller novelist Linwood Barclay. I’ve been addicted to his books for a few years now but had no idea that we would spend so much time talking about what teenagers can do if we just let them have at it. (Barclay—one of the nicest guys I’ve met in ages incidentally—started running the family business when his father died too young. Read the story. It starts on page 12.)

Funny thing is, both Barclay and I, when we were raising teens, found ourselves taking what would appear to be the opposite position from our own parents. I drove my three to high school as often as I could. If I could carry their books for them, I’d have done that too. Still would, even though they’re in their 20s and have flown the coop. (I think empty nests are for the birds, by the way.)

I’ll be the first to admit it. I was a self-confessed helicopter parent of teens. And I don’t regret it one bit.

I did whatever I could do to spend time with them. Take it from Linwood and me; the teen years are few and fly by fast.

Many days, it wasn’t that the kids needed me; it was more like I needed them.

BY peter carter

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