• DD2 = Dear second daughter
  • DD3 = Dear third daughter
  • DH = Dear husband

The phone call

I woke up to the phone ringing. The bright digits of my old clock radio impressed the time upon me: 5:08 am. I got up swiftly, fully awake. Full of worry. “What’s happened?” I wondered.Β Our two youngest had bussed to Toronto for a Lana Del Rey concert, and my first guess was that they were in some kind of trouble.

“Mom?” It was DD2’s shaky, weepy voice. “I think I’ve got food poisoning.”

Not the worst of the possibilities that had flashed through my brain, but the floodgates of maternal compassion were set to open

“It started right when we got back from the concert,” she continued. “I had a stomach ache, and when I threw up I thought I’d feel better, but I didn’t. I just kept throwing up. I’ve been up all night. I tried to take a sip of water, but I threw it up right away… Just a sec. I have to puke.” I waited, cringed at the sound effects. “There’s nothing left,” she said when she returned to the phone. “But it doesn’t stop.”

Poor thing!!

The bus tickets

DD2 and DD3 were staying at their cousin’s apartment in Toronto, and there was no way they’d be able to use the bus tickets they’d bought for their return trip home later that day – a Tuesday. I texted DD3 and advised her to contact the bus station to see if it would be possible to get a refund or to exchange their Tuesday tickets for Wednesday tickets. “I’ve thrown up 5 times today,” she texted back. Two sick daughters!

I went to work and kept my cell phone close at hand. “If you need me, just call and I’ll take the day off and drive to get you,” I’d told them. Was it food poisoning? The flu? Maybe salmonella? It was so frustrating to have them five hours away!

They found out that they’d be able to get bus tickets for the next day at a 50% discount – $20 each. Not what we’d hoped for, but it wouldn’t break the bank. The concert and all other costs associated with it were on them, not us.

DH’s brick wall vs. my jellyfish

In her book Kids Are Worth It, Barbara Coloroso identifies three types of parents:

  1. The “brick wall” parent is domineering and inflexible.
  2. The “jellyfish” parent sets no boundaries and is infinitely flexible.
  3. The “backbone” parent asserts structure with a degree of flexibility.

Coloroso presents the backbone parent as the ideal. She advises brick wall parents to loosen up, and jellyfish parents to toughen up. Most parents are inclined one way or the other away from the ideal, but all of us can fine-tune our way to the structured flexibility of a backbone.

DH and I learned about Coloroso’s parenting continuum years ago, and since that time, he has been moving away from his brick wall as I have been moving away from my jellyfish. I don’t know if either of us has actually reached Coloroso’s backbone ideal, but we’re both closer to it than we were when we started out.

Bus terminal troubles

DD2 and DD3 stayed at my niece’s apartment for an extra day. My poor niece came down with the flu that Thursday – confirming that it was the flu all along. On Wednesday, our daughters weren’t yet well enough to eat, but they thought they could manage the bus ride home, and DD2 phoned Greyhound to confirm the time of departure and cost of the tickets.

“11:30. $40 each,” said one phone attendant. What about the 50% discount? “There is no discount,” she insisted.

DD2 phoned again. “11:30, and since you get a 50% discount, it will be $20 each,” said a different attendant.

When they got to the terminal, they explained their situation to one of the ticket-sellers. “You won’t be able to buy a ticket from us right now,” she said. “Our computers are down. Here’s a number to call to get your tickets.” DD2 phoned, explained her situation, was put on hold … Dial tone.

Back to the ticket-seller. “Try this number,” she said. DD2 phoned the new number and explained the situation yet again. “We can’t give you a discount” was the answer she got.

DH responds

Tired, hungry, and still sick, DD2 phoned home. DH runs his business out of our house, so he was the one to answer. He listened, commiserated … and coached her not to give up. “There must be someone there who can do something about this,” he said. “Find that person and explain your situation again. Emphasize the discount policy you were told about. And don’t be put off. Just stand there until you get your answer.”

DD2 soon phoned him back – gleefully. She had spoken with the attendant directing passengers for the bus they were hoping to take. She explained the sickness, the cancelled ticket, the mixed messages about a 50% discount, the downed computers, and the unresponsive phone service. The attendant considered, consulted, and came back to answer.

“There’s room on this bus. Go ahead. No charge.”

DH then phoned me to let me know all was well. Our sick daughters were on their way home, and soon I’d be able to lavish them with molly-coddling (which I did very frugally). DD2 had lost 15 pounds and DD3 developed a fever. Mollycoddling was definitely appropriate.

Good thing I didn’t get that call!

It’s a good thing DH received that tortured call from the bus terminal. I know what I would have done if I had answered: “Just phone that first number again and buy the tickets at full price. We’ll pay.” I’m sure it’s a response they would have welcomed.

But they got so much more out of DH’s response. It gave them the opportunity to …

  • … learn not to give up even after multiple tries.
  • … discover the power of negotiation.
  • … develop confidence in their ability to work towards a solution.

There are times to rescue young adult children, but more often, there are times to coach them. It’s not always clear which option is called for. DH coached in a situation that I believe would have led many parents to rescue. I think our daughters got the best deal from him.

What would you have done? Do you tend to be a brick wall or a jellyfish? Your comments are welcome.



Join the Conversation


  1. Oh man, this is a hard one! I’m usually the jellyfish and hubby is like DH, but then when I try to toughen up, he softens up, so we basically chase our tails. Thank God opposites attract though. Imagine 2 jellyfish or 2 brick walls! I am so glad it all worked out for your daughters, DH, and you. God Bless. πŸ™‚

    1. Oh you’ve got a funny way of putting it all: “so we basically chase our tails.” πŸ™‚
      I think that 2 jellyfish would probably be worse than 2 brick walls – though they both sound pretty awful. It is a good thing that opposites attract – but both sides have to be humble enough to work towards change when it’s needed.

  2. Well I’m not a parent so this one is hard. I will say though that there is something to be said about being comforted by a parent (and I’m the most vulnerable if I’m puking) but also something good to be said out being able to handle any situation that might be thrown at you considering it’s possible that no one will help you out with a bad/sad situation in the future. Hope your girls feel better. The stomach flu is the absolute worst!

    1. Thanks, Tonya. I think that the jellyfish and brick wall thing applies in other relationships besides parent-child. There are enabling friends and bossy siblings – domineering colleagues and neighbours who lack boundaries. In all relationships, I agree that people who are nauseated have to be treated with extra care πŸ™‚ The stomach flu truly is awful.

  3. Tough call. My instincts are usually to swoop in and try and save the day. I guess it would have really depended on what was ongoing on at the time. DH did a great thing, giving your daughters the coaching they needed, and the confidence to handle the problem on their own. I’m sure it will serve them well in the future. My wife and I are both somewhere in between the jellyfish and brick wall. Good cop, bad cop as we call it. We often sync up with each other to make sure we are on the same page, and the kids are not just to play a back and forth game between us.

    1. DH and I have definitely been played – ugh! Not so much now – but that goes without saying since our kids are all young adults now. I’m glad that you and your wife are “in between” the jellyfish and brick wall – not at either extreme. It is hard not to “save the day” when that’s your impulse! It was certainly mine, but the best thing was not to go with it. Thanks Brian.

  4. Ah! I have no idea what I would have done, as we’re just such young parents. But I have to say, even though my husband and I don’t always agree on how to handle things, it is so nice to have his opinion and guidance, especially in areas where I’d tend to over-react. It seems like one of us tends to get more emotional about certain things, while the other tends to get more sensitive about different issues. It’s good to have two parents working together in those moments!

    1. Yes, I can imagine that the thought of your kids going out of town to see a concert is really far-fetched at your stage of the game. Ideally it is a great thing to have the stengths of two parents complementing each other, and I’m glad that’s the case for you and your husband –
      especially with your growing family : ) Unfortunately, I know of a few instances when it’s better to have one good parent than two parents who just can’t make it work.

  5. I was going to say we take all three tactics but I think that actually means we try to practice the Backbone.

    My favorite thing to say to JB when ze is frustrated is “I know, you don’t like that, do you? What do you think you can do about it?” If ze comes up with a good solution, praise. If it’s a terrible solution, gentle disuasion (or exasperation) and making a suggestion of my own.

    And: “If you need help, ask for help.” because ze is a toddler and sometimes a new solution isn’t what’s needed, it’s the ability to ask for help and the experience to know when you should ask and how much you should ask for. I stopped putting on zir socks and shoes a long time ago because I know ze is perfectly capable of doing it when motivated but if we have to get out the door and ze is lollygagging, I will help with a little bit of the task (putting half a sock on, or one of the two) and tell zir to do the other half.

    It’s important to me that I do NOT swoop in and do it all, thus teaching zir that doing it badly or dragging zir heels will produce the reward of me doing the thing for zir. If you do it badly and come out with your pants inside out and your socks upside down, I’m still sending you to school looking like that. I’m not the one who has to walk around flaunting your lack of dressing skills, and it’s not going to hurt zir to learn to do it right next time.

    As ze grows older, we’ll have to work on continuing to ask questions instead of just snapping out commands because it’s so important that ze learns to think for zirself.

  6. You sound backbone all the way! “It’s important to me that I do NOT swoop in and do it all.” That has always been my tendency, but I’ve moved away from it. It felt cold at first, but enough time and experienced have passed that I’ve been able to see the benefits for the child (or adult child) when I avoid such swooping. Thanks, Revanche!

  7. Oh, man, I have no idea if I’m a jellyfish or brick wall. I probably swing back and forth between the two, but I don’t know that I’m the backbone lol.

    I literally clapped when I read what the attendant said! That’s amazing! I’m glad the coaching experience was so successful and positive. I would have been so upset in that situation.

    1. My big question is, “What would DH have done if the attendant had not charged for the ticket? Or had not given the 50% discount?” I’m so glad we didn’t have to find out! I love it that you got into the story so much that you clapped at the resolution:) Thanks, Femme.

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