These tween/teen years can be tricky parenting geography, especially with the oldest child (also fondly known as the beta child. Or the first pancake?). How much permission to grant, what are the kids ready for (and what are you ready for?), how to balance freedom & protection?
I was the oldest child myself--my husband was, too--and yet it was still really tough for us to gauge how to pace the unfurling of responsibilities and privileges for Lauren. I'm pretty sure she always felt we were frustratingly, agonizingly slow and out of sync and that she needed to yank on the rope for a bit more slack now and then. (And we probably were. We were young and new at this! She was our baby! There's no map involved in this whole enterprise.) In the meantime, we clashed quite a bit, Lauren and I.
So here's an idea we tried: When Lauren was around 10 or 11, we started a notebook conversation between the two of us. At the time we were in a rut: I seemed to be finding much more negative than positive things to say to her (and of course now I can't remember the issues or why they seemed so important to me...) and she was getting moodier in that hint-of-adolescence way. Our discussions didn't lead to broadening our understanding...more often (sadly) they shut it down. I had a bunch of blank notebooks so one day I grabbed one, wrote her a note in it, and left it under her pillow. And then she wrote back.
We could say anything or ask anything. We pledged not to correct or critique, and (my personal commitment to myself as the purported adult in this whole thing) I tried to say positive things each time.
And we kept it confidential, of course. I won't quote our exchanges here but I'm sure you can imagine them. Sometimes she just asked what a word meant, embarrassed to ask face-to-face. Sometimes I simply praised her efforts at trying something new. Other times we passionately defended our points of view or begged for understanding. Or forgiveness. Man, I love that notebook.
For a good stretch of time there it was a crucial thing for our relationship. Now and then I would get it back out again if we got stuck back in the pattern of frustration and clogged up communication. We both sound better in writing at those times. Friendlier. More compassionate and calm.
As a bonus, we have a terrific chronicle of our relationship during some rugged terrain. I look back and realize how ridiculous my expectations were at times. Lighten up, Annie, I remind myself. Most often, though, a look through the notebook increases my compassion for us both and reveals what I've hoped all along: we've both been doing the best we know how to do.