When push comes to shove

I missed the memo.

Surely.

The one that spells out, in detail, what being a “good” mother is.

Specifically, I missed section 4, clause 28b, which states: “Push your child to excel. Push for constant busyness, excellent grades, a multitude of extracurricular activities. And it is not enough for those three conditions to simply be present. There must be 1-2 standout activities which will propel your child head and shoulders above the rest of the pack—or you have failed. Miserably.”

Oh, and then—crow about these items to all you meet. You are your child’s best public relations representative.

Wait.

Or is he yours? Does a successful child a good parent make?

Now you’ve got me all cranky.

Ladies and gentleman who have spawned at some point over the past few decades, I have news for you. News a wise few of you already know. And the rest need to hear: Your children have their own lives. Their own interests. And they are children. Hence, allowed and encouraged to have something we call childhood. It’s a lost art.

iStock_000015943946SmallYou had your chance to excel at something. Maybe many somethings. You had your chance to be cheerleader, or class president, or head up the Young Republicans.

In fact, you probably still have a chance to excel at things in your 20s, 30s, or midlife—wherever parenthood finds you.

So, go do that. And leave poor little Johnny or Susie to find their own lives in their own time.

Sorry, folks, but I get a little cranky at the start of the school year. Something about all those preening parents elbowing each other to get their child top billing, first string, special consideration.

I don’t mind the simply proud parents. Those who will, when asked, quietly and with a genuine smile, tell you about their child’s successes. Those who seem happy because aren’t we all when our progeny hit a homerun? We love the joy it brings to them.

What I mind is the narcissistic parent who, instead of earning his or her own accolades, relies on a mere child to deliver them. Newsflash: “I parented a star quarterback or honor student” says little about your talents. And a lot about someone else’s. Step back and let that someone else claim their own glory. And go get that promotion, start up a new hobby or take that trip. All will give you something to crow about and will keep the rest of us from having to tape your mouth shut at school functions.

I was recently at a social gathering during which I was cornered by a mother whose son has just begun high school, as mine has. They go to different schools but she was keenly interested in what level of classes my son was taking, what activities he had joined, etc.

funny dog fight - bulldog puppy barking at motherI was a bit vague at first, as I don’t like trotting my son and his interests/accomplishments out like a purebred at a dog show. I see him as a small person, finding his way. Making mistakes, muddling along, sometimes hitting a homerun, sometimes not. And I think most of us appreciate not doing all of that on a very public stage. Teenaged years are hard enough without your mother putting it all on display for anyone who asks (says the blogger who walks a very fine line).

This mother persisted with her questions to the point where she asked: “Well, surely you have him entirely in advanced classes, right?”

I sighed. You see, my son comes from a gifted school. So everyone thinks I must be Type A Mom, pushing my little genius toward a future that involves saving the world before Sunday dinner is served.

She had pushed me to the limits of my patience. I knew I was going to walk away. My only decision was how much to say before I did so.

I decided there was much to say. And at the time I could still say it patiently. So I did.

“No, he is not in all advanced curriculum. I let him choose, with the guidance of his previous teachers and counselor. I do not believe children who are pushed by external forces are those likely to be happy, healthy and successful. It has to come from him. He asked to ‘have a life’ in high school. So, in his areas of interest, yes—he chose advanced courses. In areas he will not pursue, he did not. And yes, he is excelling right now. He is pulling great grades. He is happy. He is relaxed. Those are my goals for him—but now that I’ve let him own his path, those are also his goals for himself. Which is really what matters.”

Silence. Dead, disapproving silence. I was not pushing my child. This was a lack of parental supervision. I was shirking my duties. How well I could read her thoughts in just those few seconds. And the beauty? I didn’t care. I was able to smile, tell her I needed to go say hello to someone else and walk away. Not angry. Not bitter. Actually, feeling a bit sorry for her and extremely sorry for her son.

Since my child started high school, I’ve heard from at least a dozen parents about how their children are staying up until 11 p.m. each night doing homework, after a rigorous practice/rehearsal/you name the extracurricular activity. And they say this so proudly.

When did your child not having any downtime become a badge of honor?

Not in my book, sister.

Over the past month, I’ve heard about the varsity athlete who won a full ride to Prestigious University and shocked his parents by turning it down. Said he never liked the sport, was forced to play it and was done doing it for their sake.

I’ve also heard about the “stellar” student, Ms. Popularity, who developed a little drinking and self-mutilation habit on the side. Too much freedom too young came at a price. Her mother was not popular and gave her daughter many freedoms at a young age so she could be one of the cool kids. Except the pressure to be a cool kid, just like the pressure to be a star athlete, might be a bit much when you’ve only been on this earth for a bit over a decade.

I’ve seen the kid who went to Top Notch elementary, middle and high school only to end up at Top Notch college and fail her courses. She realized when she got to campus and out from under her parents’ thumbs that she had never really had a life. She had scheduled activities and lots of homework. Many curtain calls and student council meetings. But no real life. Of her own choosing. So she chose to party and sleep through classes. Her parents, $60,000 poorer, paid the price. As did she, in a much different way.

I don’t take these cautionary tales lightly. And I try to parent accordingly. Every once in a while, I get it right.

My son and I are very different. Whereas I was a student council maven, he’d rather crawl under a rock than give a speech. I am ok with this. He is not me. Speeches are not mandatory in my home. Some of the most brilliant engineers I know can’t give a speech to save their lives. And that’s ok. If they could, they probably wouldn’t be such talented engineers. The skill sets are very different.

I have not always been so zen about my son and his efforts. Sometimes it’s hard not to go into cuckoo mommy mode. But I’ve gotten wise very fast over the past several years. So when he came home, excitedly telling me he had joined the Anglers Club, I simply smiled. Fishing is one level of hell for me. Not enjoyable. But my soon-to-be-Eagle-Scout loves the outdoor life. Loves roughing it. And fishing is a joy for him. So be it.

I’ve gotten to the point that I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner. What will he choose next? Where will his road take him?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating abdicating parental responsibility. I’m just saying that at a certain point, we’d all do well to realize that raising a highly successful CEO who suffers from depression and anxiety is not a laudable act. Raising a happy plumber who supports himself? That is. At its base, good parenting is about—is my child healthy and happy? Most days? Am I teaching him or her to be self-sufficient? Kind? Loving? Wise? To learn from the inevitable mistakes?

If he can do all that and buy a Porsche, hallelujah. Icing on the cake.Rude Teenager Plugs Ears

Instead, it feels to me like a mad rush on the part of many parents to have the Olympic athlete, the valedictorian, the standout. There are so few of those. That’s why they stand out. And, quite frankly, if they do stand out—it says everything about their talent and very little about yours. Don’t pat yourself on the back. It’s not your glory in which to bask. It’s your child’s.

I will love my child whether he is the standout or the shrinking violet. I will allow him to be who he is. Not push for who I’d like him to be so the world will judge me as a “good” mother. Good mothers all over the world sit in principal’s offices, getting bad news. And in the stands, applauding a particularly good play. The difference between the two is not always the mothering. It’s the child. And where he sits in life. As well as the journey he came here to take.

Which has very little to do with advanced classes.

I hope that poor woman at the party switches to decaf and finds a hobby.

More for her son’s sake than hers.

You want a trophy? Earn one.

Don’t birth one.

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. I needed this. Funny you mention the public stage bc T just stepped off one, the annual jam his music school puts out and perhaps precisely for the sweet, buttery encouragement from Mom to relax, he rela-a-a-axed. So much so that on stage, he zoned in and out, missing his cue to come in on time (along with the others). I can’t tell you how frustrated and disappointed I was. Even mad. Not bc I couldn’t wave my trophy child before people but simply bc he didn’t perform to ability. So much talent. So much confidence and belief from his instructor. And my son did not come through….for no good reason. He barely practiced, told me he knew the material. Instructor confirmed that he indeed had memorized the repertoire. But T does not have the work ethic to do justice to his gifts and all the support he enjoys from his parents and instructor. So it’s a fine line. I appreciate your position, one that comes from your own security. But I hail from a whole other world (called NYC, aka East Coast) where people are serious about their output and am a product of immigrant values. If you’re going to do something like stand before a crowd and ask people to look at you and give your their time, you’d better show up, and by that I mean come having done it all up nice and tight.

    Shoot.

    1. candidkay says:

      Ah yes, NYC. I am sure New York City makes the competition in my son’s midwestern gifted school look tame:-). And don’t get me wrong-I can be zenlike many times but there are also times when I want to throw up my hands because I was raised in a family where the + had the following an A. But the one truth I cannot refute is that the only achievement that means anything for our children is one that comes from their own soul and self-motivation. Perhaps that means they will achieve less but I have to believe that what they do achieve will come from the soul and bring joy.

  2. willowmarie says:

    Here! Here!

  3. Great post Kay, I feel sorry for those children who are pushed so hard they never get to find out what their real passions are – or lose the passion because they’re pushed so hard.

  4. Oh you should come to my school and see parents of like first grade upbraiding their students on not getting the best in class! First grade and they expect him/her to outsmart others and that too in studies and extracurricular!!

  5. Roy McCarthy says:

    Love this post. Be there for your children and care for them unconditionally. Ensure that they are aware of opportunities but allow them the choice of taking them, or not. Above all, don’t push. You’ll end up with balanced adults who have found their own level which where they will be happiest.

  6. drranjani says:

    Great post as always. It is not easy as a caring parent to let our kids play out the life they are meant to live specially when it starts spinning away from the way you have lived yours. But therein lies the learning for us.

  7. suemclaren24 says:

    Another right-on-the-mark blog. How nice to have common sense in print. Well done. And Thank You.

  8. I often thought I was a “bad” or “lazy” mother because my daughters never did much in the way of extra-curricular activities. One of them loved sport, so she played – tennis, basketball, soccer and more – but she never really wanted to be top of the game (despite wonderful natural ability that she didn’t get from me!). But then I saw the girls who were being pushed off to dancing classes, piano lessons, and all manner of other things designed to keep them busy (or free their mother’s time up) and didn’t see them benefiting at all really. My girls are now in their 20s, happy with their lives, and have never once said “I wish you’d made me…” And the sporty one – she just announced she’s playing basketball again in a social team! They’ll do what they love, when they want to…and I cherish the time we and after school just hanging out together, “doing nothing”. You are spot on (again!).

  9. Anne says:

    Wonderful advice –

  10. Marie says:

    This is a conversation I would like to hear more parents sharing; one that interrupts assumptions and challenges ideals. Your wisdom may have been lost on one mother, but I hope your words found an accidental audience and informed a new perspective.

  11. Hobbie DeHoy says:

    Yes! It’s so important to see your children for who they are. My own two are very different; and they are having two very different school experiences. Children have their passions and they will pursue them if you get out of their way with what you think they should be doing. We are a houseful of introverts and do a lot less driving around than most families… thanks for the affirmation!

  12. justme3362 says:

    I love this. You’ve said it better than I could have. Let’s start a movement!

  13. Brilliant. I see/hear some of the same things in my small town. I’ve said so many times to my husband, “If these damn busy body moms would find something to do with their life other than organize fundraisers and see who can scream the loudest in the stands, maybe they’d stay off their own kids nerves.”

    Mean? Maybe. But come on. Get off their back.

    Brilliantly stated.

  14. Amy says:

    I agree with every truth-filled, wonderful, spot on word you’ve written here, K.! I hereby award you with my Good Mommy stamp of approval!

    As I was reading your post, a favorite quote kept coming to mind. Here it is:

    Do not ask that your kids live up to your expectations. Let your kids be who they are, and your expectations will be in breathless pursuit. ~Robert Brault

    I love that your son is going for his Eagle. Congratulations and all best wishes to him! Scouting is fantastic.

    1. candidkay says:

      I love that quote! And it’s new to me. Thank you for sharing it and for the kind words:).

  15. markbialczak says:

    You have this right, Kay. Your life. Their lives. When they mesh, beautiful. All of you, enjoy the individuality as well as the collective family strength. Bravo to you all as you enjoy the journey your way.

  16. Love this! I was a kid for whom school was pretty easy. Things clicked for me. I also played violin, having lessons on it and also in music theory at a music school outside of my regular school. I participated in town sports now and then, but was no means a big time athlete. So, in my ignorance, I expected to have a child somewhat like me, who didn’t struggle in school, who might like to play a musical instrument, and who might play soccer or baseball. Ha! My son is at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, and what an education I’ve gotten along the way.

    After having major fits over spelling tests in first grade, I now don’t waste any time on going over spelling words with him. Some things just don’t compute with him, and spelling is one of them. He’ll always have a problem when it comes to there, their and they’re. He has less than no interest in any activity that is formally organized, such as sports, karate, and boy scouts. Academics in general and being in school don’t agree with him, so I push him to be there and try to support his interests at home. (And no, homeschooling is not an option for me). As for his future, college may or may not be in it. Perhaps some sort of technical school might be a better match for him. There is no doubt that he’s highly creative and quite bright, and no matter what, he’ll make it.

    1. candidkay says:

      I love the acceptance in your words. They come along to teach us some things, just as we teach them some things. No cloning allowed:).

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