Monday, January 12, 2015
Among the clutter on my dryer door, among photos, magnets, and to-do lists, sits a quotation from author Lisa T. Shepherd: “In raising my children I have lost my mind but found my soul.” I keep it front and center and read it at least once a day. It reminds me on the good days how important my children are to me, and it reminds me in the bad days how important my children are to me. Some might argue that I had early evidence of losing my mind because I have four offspring spread out over 22 years. That means I’ve had at least one child living at home for the past 40 years. Many of you would agree that becoming a soccer parent could be judged as another sign of a lost mind, given how much of our lives end up being dictated by the time, travel and economics of youth soccer. Yet it is exactly these moments of mental lapses that provides us with our souls. We have given of ourselves so that our children could find joy. Nevertheless, we need to proceed with caution when we think we are acting in our children’s best interests. While we may feel that we are giving them the gift of accomplishment, pride and a future, we need to be sure that we aren’t trying to mold our children into what we value as success but they don’t want. The siren song of socially revered examples of success can blur the line between enforcing and endorsing. American author, Samuel Griswold Goodrich saw this dilemma even in the early 1800s, “How many hopes and fears, how many ardent wishes and anxious apprehensions are twisted together in the threads that connect the parent with the child.” He cannily presaged what runs through the minds of present-day parents on the sidelines of a youth game.
It’s difficult for us to segue into the role of assisting the unfolding of our children’s legacy because our first job is molding their lives. When they are pre-school, we must teach them the basics of becoming self-sustaining children — walking, feeding themselves, potty training and pre-language skills. We know there are benchmark moments in their development, so we judge how well we are doing as parents if our children beat those marks. We love to share how accomplished our little tots are – Amanda walked at nine months, Ethan said his first word at six months, Julio was out of diapers at 16 months. When they get to school, we measure success by how advanced they are in reading, writing, math and science. We continue our role as hands on shapers – helping with homework, deciding courses and schools, training them to handle the demands of life. As they age, we add activities into the mix, proud of our kids who do well in sports or acting or art. Transitioning from parenting that molds our children into functioning people to parents who provide the environment where those people can evolve into adults who have happy, fulfilling lives. We naturally hope that we will be the remarkable parents with remarkable children so it’s easy to forget that in fact we do have remarkable children without having to adhere to the measuring stick of public achievement. Harry Truman said, “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.” That’s a difficult standard to achieve because we believe that we can shape our children through expectations, instruction, demands and sheer will. We are convinced we know what’s best for our offspring, but we may need to listen better. Therein lies the soul we find when we are parents. We open up our hearts and accept unconditionally the path our children decide to follow. It can be difficult when we make ourselves vulnerable to what society defines as greatness. But a parent’s greatness lies in supporting our child’s definition of her own greatness.
I recently re-watched the movie, “Magnolia,” which focuses on nine people in Los Angeles whose lives intersect. It’s a powerful film addressing primarily issues of parents and children, illustrating Laurens Van der Post’s argument that “children tend to live what is unlived in the parents, so it’s vital that parents should be aware of their inferior…side.” Two characters are Stanley, a child prodigy on a quiz show, and his adult predecessor, Donny, who enjoyed the same adulation twenty years previously. It’s an interesting view of what a child goes through in trying to meet the lofty expectations of the adults around him and the emptiness of his life once he matures and his peers’ skills catch up. Because Stanley is so successful as a quiz kid, his father, who has status by association, assumes and therefore expects he wants to continue. He doesn’t listen to what his child really wants, which is to read quietly in the library with his beloved books. Adults stifling Stanley’s free will is detailed allegorically when in the middle of the show he asks the producer to go to the bathroom. She tells him to hold it until the next commercial break. Stanley can’t and wets himself. Even though he’s clearly the brightest member of his team, he refuses to come forward to take on an opponent. He knows his accident will be discovered by the audience. However he is “outed” by his teammate, prompting giggles from everyone, and again they demand he come up. Forced by circumstances he finally expresses his pain to the host and the audience, “This isn’t funny, this isn’t cute…because I’m not a toy, I’m not a doll…because I can answer questions.” Near the end of the film he enters his father’s bedroom, wakes him up, and says, “Dad you need to be nicer to me. Did you hear me? You need to be nicer.” He’s begging his father to listen to his needs. Meanwhile, Donny, the once brilliant child star and now living on faded glory, survives frustrated by the normality of his present life. He never had a chance to unfold as he wanted, left in a childhood of adulation but minimal satisfaction. He did it because he believed his parents loved him, but quickly learned that his parents loved his success, having spent all the money he won. He yearns for the notoriety that he equated with love, but he’s smart enough to recognize that there is a difference between reverence and love. As he says, “I have so much love to give. I just need someone to love me.” It’s an important reminder that our job isn’t to create major players but to be sure that our children develop into adults who have a strong base of love.
It’s difficult to relinquish the job of molding our children. We begin our journey with them by teaching them how to do the basics of life. Then if we have more children we return again and again to that process with each one. So our habit has been established to decide what they need to do and how they need to do it. No definitive moment occurs declaring that now we need to give the reins over to the kids so they can unfold in their own manner and time schedule. That’s because we must still set boundaries, help with decision-making, maintain expectations for behaviors, and set examples for how to proceed in life. Kids need instruction, but they don’t need us to determine which activities, dreams, and careers they will enjoy. John Fischer, musician and author, reminds us, “The essence of our effort to see that every child has a chance must be to assure each an equal opportunity, not to become equal, but to become different – to realize whatever unique potential of mind, body, and spirit he or she possesses.”
We actually wield a tremendous amount of power naturally. Our children want to please us, so more often than not they will make choices that they know will please us even if they are not totally comfortable with those choices. We need to be sure to listen and to quickly let them know that they don’t need to follow in our footsteps or live up to our dreams for us to love them and be proud of them. In our own small way we can send messages of disappointment. We can create expectations without even realizing it. With the best of intentions we might state, “You’re the best player on the team. They’d be in trouble if you ever quit” placing a child in a position of not wanting to disappoint our faith in him and the team’s need for him. Even though he doesn’t want to play soccer anymore he feels compelled to continue. Therefore we need to be willing to give our children permission to unfold outside of our own blueprint for their lives. We naturally want our kids to do well and be happy, and with the benefit of experience we believe we know what’s best for them as they move forward. Yet we may be missing the opportunity to expand those choices if we don’t include our kids in the discussion and remain willing to compromise and be flexible. We had a rule that the boys had to meet their commitments completely, but then they could stop an activity. We would have a discussion when each sports season started, reminding the boys that if they signed up, they had to finish, but if they had any doubts, then maybe they shouldn’t sign up at all. There were choices they made that were difficult for me to accept, but I had to leave my disappointment out of the discussion (easier said than done). They both had musical talent. I supported myself through college by playing guitar and singing in coffee houses (before Starbucks) and Bruce played piano. We gave them lessons, but it became obvious that neither of them wanted to continue despite having ability. I knew they could be successful, but I had to admit they weren’t happy. Interestingly much later Robbie took up guitar on his own, and now has a strong interest in music, giving me a tiny bit of satisfaction.
I know that I made mistakes, we all will, but we have to try to resist the urge to mold our children’s future into some image that feeds our needs, instead letting the children’s needs unfold within our love and support. Hindu philosopher, Krishnamurti, asserted “If the parents and teachers are really concerned that the [child] should discover what he is, they won’t compel him; they will create an environment in which he will come to know himself.” Keeping our distance while maintaining the close bonds of love seems like an oxymoron. It’s love that drives us to want the best for our kids and convinces us that we need to intervene. The real issue becomes are we addressing the right aspects. Instead of micro-managing playing time on their team, signing them up for every possible lesson in which they express even the slightest interest, getting them special training so they can advance ahead of their peers in sports and academics, and cleaning up every mistake they make, we would do better to give them the skills to make strong, positive choices, expect them to take responsibility for their actions, and not make praise and love contingent on doing what we want them to do. Henry James express 100 years ago sentiments which hold even more power today as our world becomes more globally connected. “To believe in a child is to believe in the future. Through their aspirations they will save the world. With their combined knowledge the turbulent seas of hate and injustice will be calmed. They will champion the causes of life’s underdogs, forging a society with class discrimination. They will supply humanity with music and beauty as it has never known. They will endure. Toward these ends I pledge my life’s work. I will supply the children with tools and knowledge to overcome the obstacles. I will pass on the wisdom of my years and temper it with patience. I shall impact in each child the desire to fulfill his or her dream.” If we know our children are happily and ethically pursuing a path they have chosen, we can’t ask for much more in terms of being a successful parent.