I have talked the talk about letting children be who they are. I have spoken articulately about it, advising other parents with my face screwed into a knot of sincerity and compassion. I have written about it. “We do not own them,” I have preached, “give them roots and wings,” blah, blah, blah.
I am now called upon to walk the walk, to allow my son to be himself, to help him be himself and I find that I am so influenced by my own history, and by public opinion that I am judgmental, un-helpful, narrow-minded and unkind. As it turns out, I am willing to let him do his own thing as long as it doesn’t embarrass me or involve anything I don’t genuinely like or understand. I have always seen myself as a Good Parent, but just as “hard cases make bad law,” unusually-wired kids can make for some pretty bad parenting.
Let me tell you these things about myself: I was raised by teachers, a public school teacher and a college professor. My father went to Harvard and my mother to Wellesley. I attended a very rigorous college prep high school, I was a serious cellist, and I graduated from a small liberal arts college with a reputation for tough admissions. There were no people in my life who didn’t go to college, unless there was some dark story of “learning problems,” or scandal. All of my friends from high school went to college, my parents’ friends’ children went to college, and most of the adults in my life were either helping people get into college or teaching them once they got there. You may see this as snobbery, elitism, or bragging, but that is the reality of my formative years.
I did not love high school, but I had passions that got me to school every day. I also had the huge advantages of being a girl, and a relatively disciplined, self-contained girl. I always knew I was going to college, because…one did. I was aware that I needed the grades, the test scores, the extracurriculars, and at least two years of a foreign language. My anxiety level kept me on track, and with moderate help from my parents I took the tests, did the applications, and got the letters in the mail in early spring, confirming that I had done what I was supposed to do. I did love college, passionately. I always assumed that the combination of rigorous education and the first, heady break from parental control would be part of our son’s life, too.
Let me tell you these things about my son: from the minute he was born, we did all of the things that “good” parents do. We read to him constantly, we limited TV, we played classical music, we bought a house in a community with great schools and we signed him up for sports teams and music classes. We joined a church, and he has participated in Sunday school, Youth Group and mission trips since he was four. We also live in a neighborhood full of college students, which has provided opportunity for frequent conversations about everything from drunk driving to the Walk of Shame and all it entails. Some things stuck (sports), some things didn’t (music), but he was a kid who was unfailingly sweet natured and easy, demonstrably intelligent and socially comfortable. In the dark of night I sometimes gave myself a high-five because, although he had no interest in my beloved reading or music, he was the kind of easy, popular kid that I never was. He was athletic, charismatic, and seemed to have a real gift for all things related to computers, and he had a diverse group of friends that crossed racial, age and gender barriers. He was going to be a perfect Frankenstein’s creature, manifesting the best of his father and me with none of the awkward stuff.
Today, as a freshman in high school, he still aces standardized tests, and he is still kind, still sweet natured and easy most of the time. He also hates school with a passion, gets bad grades, makes unfortunate decisions and causes much consternation all around. I look at him sometimes, and I see an incredibly beautiful young man with a ready smile, eager to show off pictures of his baby niece, able to fix any computer problem that arises, effortlessly capable of charming the older women who volunteer at the church where I work. His charm, his ebullience and his charisma are all authentic; he is a creature happy in his own skin, sure of himself and confident that he can do what he sets out to do. The thing about school is that it doesn’t interest him at all. We have threatened, we have punished, we have had meetings with every living school administrator and teacher in three buildings. We have given lectures that begin “you may not like that teacher, but when you have a job you won’t always like your boss, and you have to get used to…”. The truth is that even in the face of dire threats about being a grocery bagger, he doesn’t care.
I have struggled for four years to reconcile the good I see with the troubles at school, grinding my mental gears until the sparks fly. What happens to him when he leaves the house and sets foot in a school building? Why can’t he sit still, do what he’s supposed to do, keep track of his papers, remember his books, resist peer pressure, fly under the radar, please his teachers? Why can’t we threaten him into it, why doesn’t he see our suffering and feel guilty enough to keep his notebook and planner in order? He has two real, paying jobs as a freshman in high school – why can’t he keep track of his History packet?!
Why can’t he be more like me?
I have also spent hours worrying about where we went wrong. Did we give him too much independence? When did the chasm open between “I don’t have any homework because I did it in five minutes in class” and “I’m failing math because I didn’t do any of my homework?” How did I end up with a kid who I like and admire as a person, but with whom I have daily conversations about his certain, terrible future if he doesn’t shape up, a kid who begs to be tested for ADHD because he can’t seem to focus on or get interested in anything going on in a classroom?
Two years ago, a very good teacher who cared a great deal about him suggested that we might consider enrolling him in the Career Center as soon as he was old enough. At the time, I was offended and resoundingly negative. It was the dreaded “Voc Ed,” the nadir of the educational road, the place where kids were warehoused when they couldn’t cut it in the classroom. It was the end of dreams about college, and the first step in a future as…a grocery bagger. It meant maybe an hourly wage in a parts garage, but no chance to explore college curriculum and engage in vigorous debates about capital punishment or the feasibility of robotic manufacturing facilities. It meant, frankly, the shame of mumbling something unintelligible when other parents told us about their daughter’s first year at college and asked what our son was doing. Based mostly on my hysterical reaction, the idea was shelved in an airless plastic bag of mortification.
Yesterday, our son asked if he could enroll in the Career Center. We said we’d think about it. My husband, who did not grow up under the cloche of academe as I did, suggested that it might actually be a positive thing to free the kid from the pressure to conform to standards that were clearly not a good fit with his abilities and personality. My first response was to clamp down even harder; I told myself that if I had to, I would go in to school with him every day and keep track of his papers and books, I would pick him up after school every day and hover until his homework was finished, I would maintain his planner and I would find opportunities to talk to him about discipline, and playing the game to get where you want to go. I would change him, re-direct him, and set his feet firmly in the direction of Reaching His Potential as a Normal Person, by which I mean a person who did well in high school, got into college, graduated and had an acceptable credential to open life’s doors. I would repeat my favorite lecture of all, the one that begins “Steve Jobs didn’t go to college, but you aren’t Steve Jobs and you can’t count on having that kind of luck so no matter how good you are with computers you still have to have something to fall back on.”
Then I cried. I thought about my bright, beautiful boy, and how unhappy he is in school, and how maybe, just maybe, if I know him to be a fundamentally good person I should accord him the same benefit of the doubt that I would give to anyone else in the universe. If a stranger said that they were struggling, that they had no feeling for what they did all day every day, and that they felt that they must surely have a mental illness because they struggled with it, I would immediately conclude that they needed to do something different so that they felt useful and inspired. I would look at that person’s gifts and liabilities, and say something like “you might not make as much money, but if you quit _____ and tried _____, which you really love, you might just be so much happier that it would be worth it.” Truth be told, I myself quit a lucrative law practice because it was a terrible fit and made me miserable, and although I make less money, I am…happy doing a job that feels comfortable and lets me express my true self.
I think it’s time to stop jamming my sweet, smart square peg into a round hole. I think it’s not about me, my hard-wiring, my expectations, or my fear of what other people will say. Our son is not our possession, he is a human being growing to adulthood with his own needs, desires and preferences. We have shown him, by example, that education and hard work are a fairly reliable road to success in life. We have also taught him good manners, good morals, and provided him with a “village” of people from family to community. He was born with intelligence, independence, a great sense of humor, a capacity for compassion, a sense of loyalty and an uncanny ability to understand technology. In a world in which college graduates are unable to find jobs, and the entrepreneurial spirit abounds, he may be just fine if he attends the Career Center for a couple of years, gets a job and clears a path we can’t even imagine yet. He might end up making minimum wage and living with us, but the same thing might just as easily happen if he went to college and got a degree in English (like I did). It’s a different world than the one that shaped my expectations.
Let me tell you one more thing about my son: if your plane crashed on a deserted island and you needed to survive, you would be lucky to have him there. Maybe that’s all I really need to know.