I like labels.
On my food. Not my children.
This does not bode well in an era when parents are finding the need to establish their children as a jock, brain, budding artist, chess champion—you name it—at an increasingly early age.
I talk to a lot of parents, partly because I’m a journalist with kids and partly because I’m a mom. As a journalist, people feel comfortable telling me their stories. And who better to talk to about your kids than a fellow parent? I love the stories. Until that pivotal moment when I realize Suzy or Johnny has just sealed a fate they didn’t ask for by showing talent or interest in just about anything at a young age.
I hear the sense of pride in a father’s voice as he speaks of the travel teams vying for his son’s soccer abilities. He does not, however, seem to notice the look of misery on his son’s face as he trudges off to yet another practice or tournament. I guess I don’t need to tell you that this dad was a high school soccer star.
I hear stories from colleagues. Of a mother who screened over 20 (!) preschools for her daughter, toting her spreadsheet along with her. One school was panned because in a three-hour day, they covered only 11 minutes of math. Another school was panned because they actually had too much hands-on work. How would Precious ever get into Harvard with a measly 11 minutes of math per day? Precious, you see, was already pegged as a brain at the ripe age of three.
We’ve all seen the unfortunate Little League player who has the overbearing father (who of course could have gone to the Majors if not for that blown knee) or the budding thespian with the pushy stage mom. Enough said.
Then there are the parents whose kids have not found their niche by the age of eight. These parents are easily identifiable by the wild look in their eyes on Talent or Field Days. You can almost reach out and touch their angst over Junior’s lack of focus/drive/passion/fill in the blank. You think Junior doesn’t feel that, too?
So here’s where you get to call me a hypocrite. My kids attend a school for the gifted. Now there’s a whopper of a label. Talk about pressure. But here’s the irony: I think they were accepted, in part, because of their lack of packaging and pretension. The psychologist who tested my youngest marveled at the frequency of his imaginative play, citing the fact that he plays “city “ and “restaurant” as items of note. Is it possible that letting my kids be kids (play in the mud, stay in their pajamas until noon, get bored and have to entertain themselves sans a screen) is now a distinguishing factor? Is this practice so unusual that it stands them in good stead? While that may be good for my family personally, it’s a sad statement on where we’re headed as a society.
I fight like mad to avoid my kids getting swept up in the storm of expectations. I’ve already met too many Attila the Mums—you know, the one who screens you to find out not only what your child is into but how many accolades he has acquired and if he’s taking lessons at one of the places on her “acceptable” list. Ugh. Please. My youngest just turned eight. I know Mozart was well on his way by then, but how many of us have truly birthed a Mozart? And what does it say about our self-esteem that we feel the need to do so?
Please don’t get me wrong, here. I believe in hard work, perseverance and excellence. But I also believe in joy, the key ingredient necessary for the aforementioned three to be worth it. A few of us have children who immediately show an intense interest and talent for something at an early age. And a lot of us don’t. I believe that smart, happy kids will rise to their highest self and talents with the help of wise parents. And wise parents don’t pigeonhole.
I see the challenges. Global economy. Elementary and middle schools that don’t measure up to those of our First World peers. Cutthroat competition. But pressured, miserable kids are not the answer to those challenges.
Childhood, to me, is a time to throw a lot of darts at the board and see what sticks. Some kids get lucky early on and hit a bulls-eye. If they have insightful parents, they’ll be allowed to pursue that area but continue to throw darts at other parts of the board. Just because little Henry can paint like Picasso at age five doesn’t mean he might not be happier being an accountant or a tennis player. But little Henry will never find that out if the minute he gets near the sweet spot, his parents cease all other dart throwing so he can “focus” on one area. Focus is good, but adult life is full of it. As a child, one has a rare opportunity to muddle through a bit. To do things because they’re enjoyable, not necessarily because you’re good at them. That’s a precious gift I don’t think any of us would knowingly deny our children. We just get carried away sometimes.
Wish me luck as we move ahead this year. Luck in staying grounded. Luck in loving these boys into the selves they’re becoming. Luck in knowing that not all of us become virtuosos at anything—nor should we be expected to—at a young age. Here’s to exploring, making mistakes and some humbling mediocrity on the journey. There’s time for specialization and mastery. Plenty of time.