No packaging. No cookie cutters. Just us.

Heady talk in my house of late. Goals, life journeys, achievement, happiness, work ethic, flow.

My youngest is at that age, the one where we expect a man child to make life-altering decisions about his future. Don’t worry. I won’t bore you with the details of the craziness of college admissions. Just trust me—it’s insane. The cost, children barely a decade out of diapers building a résumé in an all-consuming way. So many not putting time or effort into what they enjoy but rather, thinking of how it will look to admissions officers. The artifice so many parents encourage astounds me. It’s all I can do not to become cuckoo mommy.

If you read my blog, you know we’re pretty down-to-earth in my house. We keep it real. As a mom, I watch my youngest try to figure it out and my heart goes out to him. How (and more importantly, why?) can we expect 16-year-olds to have the faintest clue as to what their life’s purpose is? For kids with a passion and strong proclivities, fine. But for those who are marinating in their own creative DNA—not yet sure if it’ll be business or medicine or teaching or data science—how can we expect a level of self-knowledge that many middle-aged executives don’t even have?

I tell him there will be no “packaging” of the people in this house. That he should just follow his heart, follow what interests him, and let the chips fall where they may. But in saying that, I’m breaking my own heart just a little—I want him to have every good opportunity. This kid has always been special. Different. The kid who used to read a book in the middle of a class party, oblivious to the chaos around him. Or perhaps because of the chaos around him. He is whip smart but doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. I say, “Follow what interests you.” His answer: “Right now, nothing interests me.” Keep looking, I say. Keep looking. Just stay open. The muses don’t speak to all of us at a ripe young age. The world’s timetable for decisions and passions and achievement has nothing to do with the divine one, in most instances.

He rolls his eyes and stomps upstairs. Then turns around and says, “I don’t have a sport. Maybe I should join the basketball team next year just to have one.” And I gently ask: “Do you really want to sit on the bench for a year just so you check that box? Your black belt in taekwondo will have to do.”

We both know he’ll look lopsided, you see. A lopsidedness I have loved and will continue to love even if he flips it on its head as he grows older. His own brand of crazy. He’s really academic. The shy kid who does original comedy. The one who can give a speech at the state capitol to his peers from every county without batting an eye even though I know his insides are roiling. These are his arenas. Complex calculus? Sure. Advanced chemistry and physics? Bring it on. Deciding what to have for breakfast or making sure his shirt and shorts don’t clash? Not so much. Mimicking Mother Teresa’s love for the disenfranchised? Not yet. I am hoping empathy grows with age.

And as if it’s not enough to have to figure out your future at this age, you also have to begin to figure out the opposite sex. I tell him girls get wiser as they grow. That the special brand of humor, honesty, respect and smarts he brings to the table will be oh so attractive to the girls who have learned what an evolved male looks like on the inside. But it takes a while, hon, I say. Just like figuring out your purpose in the world takes a while.

It doesn’t help to have an older brother who is black-and-white about the world and makes split-second decisions without second-guessing himself. And who has a confidence with girls that has always come easily. He may make mistakes but he shakes them off within the day.

I had a mother who thought her job was to shape perfection. Ouch. Love for achievement is a formula that’s made therapists the world over see job security writ large. So I don’t do this with my youngest—or at least I try not to. I know my job is to love him no matter what. To nudge and prod when necessary, but mainly to be a buffer as necessary from a critical world.

I allow him to take his knocks but help pick him up when he needs it. I remind him often that our internal compass is what matters. That had he lived in Degas’ time, he would have seen a modern critic exclaim: “Does Mr. Degas know nothing about drawing?” (A little tidbit I have to credit author and columnist Jerry Saltz for sharing.) That Stephen Colbert wasn’t always a name in lights and has plenty of stories from his time as a waiter that would make even the optimistic want to give up on the human race. That I can write the same speech or blog for one CEO and I’m a rock star. Another will look at it and exclaim it’s schlock. Which is the truth? Neither. In a subjective world, rarely is there an absolute that holds water.

I say, hoping he can still hear me, that we are shaped by journeys that take time, not by instant gratification. That the most interesting, amazing, loving people in the world have gotten that way because they figured out hard shit, not because they had everything handed to them.

It takes courage to face the world, lopsided and imperfect as we are. And I’ve never really been a fan of critics, those who poke holes rather than spend their time in the arena creating, inventing, building.

So I’m raising the latter. I’m raising creators, builders, inventors, makers. I’m trying to help my youngest ring-fence his own special sauce, what he brings that no one else will. The world tries to beat that out of us from a young age. And we know what the “perfect” package looks like. We’re just refusing to claim it as our truth in this house. We’re not cookie cutter. Never have been.

I’m trying to raise boys that won’t go down easy. God knows the world could use some original thinking right about now.

Wish us luck.


62 Comments Add yours

  1. da-AL says:

    sending you & your sweet family more than just luck 🙂

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you! We’ll get there, it’s just one day at a time! Loving the pic of you with your sweet dog.

  2. Ms D. says:

    Having taught high school juniors for decades before I retired in 2014, I know the college packaging syndrome all too well. Just say no. Your son sounds like the kind of interesting fella that many colleges would like to have — an individual, someone who can add unusual value to the group.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you! Isn’t it funny that being “unpackaged” is now what colleges want? And that there are parents working so hard to package their children to appear “unpackaged.” Oy. I hope you’re enjoying your retirement!

      1. Ms D. says:

        I taught AP US history so you can imagine how glad I am not to be teaching now 😳

  3. KRAG says:

    As someone who has reinvented himself several times over—veterinarian, physicist, musician, software engineer, novelist, to ??—I can only say that the broad-spectrum mind is a boon to any endeavor, and the best thing he can do is simply learn how to *think* (which, it sounds like, he’s got well in hand). But O! to have a parent that supports that malleability, that elasticity of mind! He’s blessed, and he’ll know it, in time.

    1. candidkay says:

      I love the “to??”
      Hope springs eternal with you😀. And it sounds like it is led to an interesting life. Thank you for the kind words about my parenting. I certainly hope he feels blessed, in time. When you’re a teenager, I think it’s hard to feel blessed. You generally feel put upon and just want to complain about having to clean your room😉.

  4. I remember a similar situation when I was younger having to decide for the rest of my life! Our children too! You would of thought the rules would of changed a bit seeing how a lot of miserable people chose the wrong direction! Thankfully there are a few of us who refuse to be led and stamp the ground and choose to live in the moment following the heart! I turned out fine, our children too and I’m sure your children having such a wise mum will too❤️ beautiful post Kristine, always love your humour🥰 sending love x

    1. candidkay says:

      It certainly does seem like they should give us a do-over every decade or so, right? Thank you for the kind words and for sharing, Barbara. It’s always great to see you here!😀

  5. Sometimes I see a teenager and just want to hug them for all I know they must be going through, to tell them that they’re great as they are and to not feel bad about themselves! A part of me envies those who knew where they were going and achieved a lot at a young age, but I also know that time brings out things that might not have been there when we were young.

    1. candidkay says:

      It’s such a tough time, right, Andrea? Finding themselves at a time when they’re least equipped to do it.

  6. Pretty great essay. “We are shaped by journeys that take time” — for just about everybody, this is very true. And for just about everybody, the journeys never really end.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thanks! Yes, those journeys. Never quite sure what is around the next corner . . .

  7. I have to say that I’m glad those days are over for me. That said, I’m very proud of my two university graduates and post-graduate. Wishing you and your boys all the best, Kris!

    1. candidkay says:

      I bet you are proud and glad they’re over all at the same time😉. It’s as exciting as it can be painful to watch our kids grow into who they are and see them not only succeed but also have to take their lumps. I’m glad that yours are happy and healthy, Jennifer!

      1. So true. Thanks, Kris! 😊

  8. Su Leslie says:

    I thought parenting was hard enough here, but your college system sounds incredibly complex. Your youngest sounds so much like my boy and I guess we were really fortunate in being able to encourage him to spend a few years between secondary and tertiary education to explore his passions (it helped he graduated high just before his 17th birthday), without it affecting his ability to study later. He’s nearly finished a degree that he’s hoping will “legitimate” the skills he’s mostly been learning on the jobs he’s worked at for the past few years.

    Could your son put University on hold for a few years and try other things?

    1. candidkay says:

      Our college admissions are so complex. And yet, people come from all over the world to American universities and colleges because they’re so well respected. It’s just a matter of finding your way through the system. I don’t think he’s lost enough right now that he needs to take a year or two off. He seems to welcome the idea of college. It’s just figuring out what he wants to do with the rest of his life that seems daunting. Which to me is ever so natural at the tender young age of 16. I am sure he will get there. That said, I think it is wonderful when kids want to take a year or two that they are afforded the opportunity to do it. It sounds like that was the perfect fit for your son. I’m so glad you were able to give him that!

      1. Su Leslie says:

        I think the whole idea that there can be something you “do” — professionally — for the rest of your life is archaic. I won’t see 50 again and I’m still trying to figure it out.

      2. candidkay says:

        Right? I truly think we should be given the opportunity to either continue with what we are doing or reinvent ourselves every five years or so. I think so many people in the world would be much happier knowing that they are not locked into something that may not work over the long term.

  9. Roy McCarthy says:

    Ugh, as you know Kristine, I just posted about my experience at age 17/18. At least there are more decision-making tools at his disposal these days.

    I was going to suggest you stand him in front of you and give him Polonius’s precepts speech to Laertes as he waved him off to France 🙂 But no, just knowing that you’re there for him if necessary seems about right for that young man.

    1. candidkay says:

      😂 I’ll channel Polonius. And yes – I do think it was kismet that you had posted about your experience at a young age at the same time that I had written about what my son was going through. I think finding yourself and what makes you happy is a timeless pursuit. No matter how advanced our society gets, it’ll still be a task waiting for all of us.

  10. aprilgarner says:

    I so relate to you on this one. It took way into adulthood for me to realize trying to cram my unique self into that cookie cutter was a recipe for unhappiness. I try to counteract all the “what do you want to be when you grow up” talk my boys hear at school. I hope they realize it’s okay and normal not to have it all figured out by the time they get out of high school. Thank you for writing this. It’s good to know there are like-minded parents out there.

    1. candidkay says:

      I think there are more of us than we realize! Parents that bring sanity to the table. Some of the most interesting people I know had to meander a bit to find their way. It’s hard on parents at the time but it pays off in the long run . . .

  11. Inkplume says:

    I love this piece. You sound like a very wise, very loving mother and your sons sound like fine young men in their own unique ways.

    1. candidkay says:

      Aw, thank you. Kind words! I don’t always get it right (just ask my sons) but I try. I certainly do try. They’re growing into themselves, as we all do–strengths, areas to work on, all of it. Time is flying . . .

  12. mydangblog says:

    Absolutely, Mama. All we can do is love and support them as they try to find their way through it all. My daughter went into uni thinking she knew what she wanted to do, switched programs after the first two weeks, then in her last year, has now decided she wants to be a vet tech, so two more years of college. Sometimes it takes a while:-)

    1. candidkay says:

      It feels like college should be an exploration of all sorts of topics for kids who really don’t know what they want to do. Instead, we force them through a set pattern of classes that less allows them to explore their interests in more grades them on their knowledge in a variety of areas. I’m glad your daughter has figured it out! We don’t always make it easy for them.

  13. Kathy says:

    What a beautiful mama you are. Turning him back to trust again and again. Turning yourself back to trust again and again. When our oldest started college they told us that the average college freshman will change his/her mind SEVEN times before graduating! So be sure and tell him that statistic if you think it will ease his mind.

    1. candidkay says:

      Seven times! Oh my goodness. I would not have predicted seven times🤦‍♀️. Thank you for the encouragement. Yes, I keep turning him back to trusting himself. And I keep telling myself to trust in the universe and the process. So far, so good.😀

  14. markbialczak says:

    Think you are doing an awesome job parenting in the toughest of times, Kay. Good wishes to your youngest, who will find his path through the bumps and bruises of an unforgiving society as long as he stays true to the soul that’s been nourished so well so far.

    1. candidkay says:

      True to his soul! Yes. I tell him off and to stay out of his head and listen to his gut. Gut feeling, for me, is the way my intuition speaks to me. As long as he stays in that lane and true to himself, you’re right, he’ll soar😃. Thanks for the kind words, Mark!

      1. markbialczak says:

        From following your shares here these years, Kay, I think you are steering in the right direction, my friend.

  15. Robin says:

    Yes, the world needs original thinkers. That’s for sure. I love this post and all that you expressed regarding motherhood and letting our children be who they are. I went through something similar with my youngest son (who is now 35 with a lovely wife and two beautiful sons of his own). One of my regrets was nudging him strongly towards college when he had no idea what he wanted to do. He is so very smart (and sounds a lot like your son), but he loves to work outdoors and with his hands. After going through several majors, we picked one for him based on what we knew he loved, so he wouldn’t just up and quit (he already had accumulated debt in the form of student loans). We told him to try geology. He loved it. It’s not what he ended up doing in life, but it’s still (always has been) a passion of his. I think he would have done just as well apprenticed to carpenter since he also loves working with wood (he makes beautiful furniture, after teaching himself some woodworking skills).

    1. candidkay says:

      I love that he figured it out and then it all worked out. I think that happens more often than not, despite the tire visions some parents have of their children absolutely tanking. My eldest son was a crash course in how not to impose my own views on a child’s. I have always been somewhat headstrong and he makes me look like a shrinking violet🤨.

  16. We now have three out of the house and into adulthood. They’ve all chosen different paths and all doing “their” thing. And we love that about them. And similar to your son, we had one that just couldn’t decide. He took awhile to find his way but he’s figuring it out. As my hubby says, “He’ll land well.” And that’s what we believe. I think it’s great how you’re encouraging your son. Culture and society definitely try and pigeonhole us into their little box. It’s sad because there are so many creativity and meandering fields to explore. Here’s to not having it all figured out! 😉

    1. candidkay says:

      I always love to hear from those further down the road then we are :-). Gives me hope! And at least he knows he wants to go to college. I think it’s much harder for kids when they are on the fence about that. We will all be better off when we realize there are so many roads to a happy, healthy life!

  17. Jane Fritz says:

    I agree with Gabriela; they’re lucky to have you as their mama! Your son will figure life out for himself, and he’ll be just fine wherever he goes. It sounds like he’s comfortable in his own skin. Bravo. He shouldn’t be pressured by a superficial vetting process to compromise or conform.

    1. candidkay says:

      Aw, thank you, Jane! I do believe that he will figure it out. And I really do hope that he realizes how unique he is one day. And it matters very little to me if anyone particular college does. He will do well no matter where he goes and I want college to be a happy life experience for him. It’s become too much of a grand race or competition for kids his age. We really need to dial it back.

      1. Jane Fritz says:

        I agree about the dialing it back wish. I had forgotten. Even way back when I was applying – and that’s a LONG time ago – the whole thing about prestige and which school you were getting into was big. I ended up deciding to go to McGill; that’s how I ended up living my life in Canada. And here that whole thing about which school you’re going to is far less pressured. And the costs and the quality at every institution are very similar (and less expensive, though a lot higher than they used to be). Yes, I had forgotten. Anyway, if he believes in himself, it’ll work itself out.

  18. Dale says:

    I hear you loud and clear, Kristine. I have one who whizzes through life, going to get what he wants and having a grand time of it… the other one? Not even close. And has made a decision that will not be easy moving forward. All I can do is be there and support and listen and encourage… When you don’t fit into a box, it’s always more of a struggle. I like to think, though, that once they find their place, they will be content.

    1. candidkay says:

      And it’s the ones that don’t fit into a box that save countries, economies, businesses, the arts—you name it. They just have a more winding path.

      1. Dale says:

        Exactly! And their winding path also gives them all sorts of outside knowledge that can be used in whatever career they end up in.

  19. Kudos on your parenting style Kristine. I wish I had been given that kind of support and encouragement. Our culture puts too much pressure on figuring out our work and life paths when we’re still so young. Many of us need to explore and experiment to find our way, not lock into a path simply to look good or get in a school.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you! I don’t always get it right but I keep on trying. No magic formula, right?

      1. Nope, and I finally gave up looking!

  20. KDKH says:

    I know what you mean, having raised two sons like that. I had one intelligent and tender-hearted son with the same dream for many, many years who abandoned it at the top-tier engineering school because it didn’t fit in. I worry about that one. His dream school beat his dream out of him with all their analysis and intellect. He has a prestigious degree, but graduating in the middle of COVID when new jobs are scarce has made it worthless for now.

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. It makes me think of the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell‘s “David and Goliath” That makes the argument for kids not going to the best school that they get into. For the very reason you’re describing with your son. I am trying so hard to help my youngest just learn how to find joy in the journey in the every day moments. The pressure so gets to these kids and when you’re constantly building a resume, you’re rarely building a life. I want him to be happy and healthy. Those are the most important things.

      1. KDKH says:

        My son did nothing to cultivate a resume. No sports or clubs. Very introverted. But he is so damned smart that the top tier school took him. Because it was in our hometown and he wouldn’t have to leave the area, I supported it. We asked him to live in the dorm, so that he could build relationships there, but then he was home on weekends the first two years and he and I had lunch together once a week near my office. I thought we were prepared, but I guess not.

      2. candidkay says:

        I’m so glad he was just himself. I understand that many colleges want to create balanced classes overall, but I don’t think it’s realistic to think that every man or woman applying is going to be of the renaissance variety. And have very nice that you were able to have lunch once a week together! I can’t even begin to think about a time when my son won’t be a regular presence in our home. It just makes me tear up. As much as I know he will need to spread his wings :-).

  21. nimslake says:

    I love that his interests are not enough, he measures himself. But I hope the finds the internal Visionary he is meant to be in due time…his time. Hug him for me…I hope he and your elder son are rocking the world as they are meant to as well.
    No, definitely not cookie cutters, and that is as i
    Hugs 🤗

    1. nimslake says:

      …as it should be…(oops) I
      Hit send before done! ,🤪

    2. candidkay says:

      That internal visionary can make an appearance at any time :-). The sooner the better, and this mama’s opinion. That’s one of the challenges of motherhood, right? When we see the promise and the wonder in our children but we cannot direct them to where they are meant to go. Thank you for the kind words! Hugs right back at you.

  22. When our Daughter reached 16 we hired a college coach. This is a person who helps the child select interests and to focus on the college choice and the things needed for the best schools. The coach stays with the process from start to finish. The beauty is the coach is the one that takes responsibility for motivating the child. Results were choice of six acceptances, scholarship, and finally today a manager in a top financial firm. No nagging, no deadlines missed, and the best part she did it on her own without our angst to get in the way. The coach even helped with elective courses, athletics, community service ideas, and the final submission paperwork. Just an idea.

    1. candidkay says:

      I do know several families that have done this, if only to keep peace in the house. Wink, wink. It sounds like a real win for your daughter! And like she parlayed it into a life she likes. I do think the coaching bit for college has changed over time and become a cottage industry–and unfortunately, many are pushing for an ideal that’s become less than realistic.

      1. Yeah that is true too.

  23. silviamwynter says:

    Bravo for seeing your sons for who they are and for nurturing their unique and beautiful spirits. I, too, have two sons who sound very similar to yours and who share that night and day difference in terms of how they interact, experience and are impacted by the world. My two are adults now, but we all struggled with the same transitional issues and decision making moments that often left my sons, my youngest especially, feeling subpar when faced with his own sense of different-ness. Your unconditional love, support, and gentle guidance as “cuckoo mommy” will get your son over whatever hurdles come his way.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thanks for the encouragement. No map for guiding young souls into their own life, is there? I love hearing from parents like you who are further down the road and can remind me that we all get there. And most of us get there intact. Phew.

  24. Amen to the world needing original thinking. They are lucky to have you as their mama.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you:). Not sure they would always agree but on the whole, we do OK:). And I can’t wait to see the original thinkers who are going to rise to the challenge in our country–for healing, unification, new ways of doing and being.

  25. Masha says:

    OMG I’m cracking up, love your writing and your thoughts about life. I’m sure it’s not easy to raise kids in this world with craziness, with perfect instagram pictures that tell you how you should be…I admire your stand on not wanting “cookie cutter.” but giving them the opportunity to grow into their own. Love this piece. xoxo

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh, it’s definitely an interesting age in which to be raising humans, Masha. Thanks, as always, for your encouragement and kind words. Here’s to the mamas and papas who are keeping it real . . .

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