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.