Monday, April 26, 2010
Predicting the future could be a gift or could be a curse. I'm a bit of a control freak, so I'm glad I can't predict the future because it would drive me crazy that I couldn't control what was going to happen. Then again, why couldn't I? I mean if I knew you were going to be hit by a bus crossing the street on Friday at 10:03 a.m., why wouldn't I send you an email or give you a call so you could avoid your fate? But then I wouldn't really be predicting the future because that particular future didn't happen. So I guess I'd be more like a manipulator of the future, but I couldn't do anything with the future if I couldn't predict it first. And if two future catastrophes intersected, how would I decide who to warn first? This whole future predicting and future manipulating might be too big a responsibility for me, especially since I tend to procrastinate. You can tell I think about this a lot.
As parents we spend much of our time trying to predict our children's future. If they are going to be brilliant students then we need to prepare for college. If they are going to want to become a dancer or a pianist we have to spring for lessons. If they show signs of athleticism we need to decide which sport would be best and then pay for the training. For all those predictions, we probably only get about 2 percent right and the rest of life just intrudes on us unexpectantly. Despite those odds we go to great lengths to get the future right. We listen to the advice of teachers, coaches, talk show hosts, and news pundits. We quiz our friends, maybe even our own parents, and we read a lot of "how to" books. But how are we ever going to know for sure?
Our oldest daughter pursued dance with a passion. When she was 13 she brought us four applications for performing arts high schools and asked for the application fees. She auditioned all over the country and selected a school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois where she danced well enough to be looked at by three major ballet companies. And then in the spring of her first year she announced that she didn't want to dance any longer. Who would have predicted that? We went from dance being the left, right and center of her life to dance being an asterisk. She did dance team in high school and she still occasionally takes classes mostly for fitness, but that's about it. Any careful planning we did as parents to make sure there was money set aside for dance lessons, dance academy, and audition trips dissolved into the usual life of a teenager's parent – teaching her to drive a car, going to watch her dance team performances, buying a prom dress, and attending her graduation.
Certainly the future can be disrupted by cataclysmic events, but mercifully most of us just have the usual mundane trek to the frontiers of life. No matter what we expect to happen, life has a way of throwing plenty of curve balls. Preparing for what might happen isn't the same thing as engineering what will happen. Yet I see plenty of parents concentrating on the latter. We all know, and we may well be, one of those parents always talking to the coach, advocating for his/her child, pushing the kid at every opportunity, and talking in the future tense too often: you will play Division 1 soccer; you will make three goals . . . as if the future were something negotiable. Our kids don't usually think in terms of the future except in an immediate and selfish way, hoping that Mike will ask her to the prom or planning to go to a concert. That's why admonishments about the effect certain behaviors will have on their futures just sail over their heads. How can anyone possibly think about what college to attend or what career to choose when there are more pressing issues such as watching "Lost" or going to the same party as the cool kids. So while we are carefully crafting our child's future, he or she is concentrating on what to wear Friday night.
Kids naturally don't want to disappoint their parents. So when they see Dad or Mom so strenuously working an angle to make something happen for the future, like making the traveling team or starring in the school play, they may go along for the journey even though it's not where they want to go. We have the experience of regrets in our life which informs our vision of what we want for our kids. But that regret may have taught us the lesson of working harder or not being short-sighted. It's hard to stand by and watch our children take a path that can't lead to what we believe is the ideal future for them. But how do we really know? Robbie absolutely refused to take AP classes in high school even though he was recommended for several. His reasoning was that he wanted to insure two things: that he kept his grades up and that he didn't feel under too much pressure. I thought he was cutting off his chances of getting into the college he wanted and that he was selling himself short. I wanted to spare him the regret of missing a great opportunity because he closed a door too early. Amazingly, he understood what it meant but he said he could cope with not getting everything he wanted because that would be less stress than fighting against the top students in his class for grades.
We have children because we believe in the future and all the good it can provide. But we also have to accept that the future is a wide-open territory with lots of options that will be good. We can highlight some of the options, and we can push our kids towards those options, but we also need to give them the freedom to mold their own future free of our restrictions and manipulation. Certainly we can provide opportunity, advice, and gentle nudges, but we shouldn't try to craft the future for them. Kids who fight for themselves usually end up stronger and more capable. Kids, whose parents engineer their successes for them, may end up being the starting forward on a team, but ultimately don't possess the temperament and skills to fight for that spot in college or for that big promotion at work. They grew dependent upon Mom and Dad to make things happen and now can only complain that nothing good ever happens anymore. Robbie is presently playing soccer at his top choice for college. His decision not to take AP classes didn't hurt him, although it might have. That's the thing about the future. We can't predict it; we can only analyze it in hindsight.