I sat with friends watching Little League baseball the other night and talked about the craziness that swirls around our kids’ applying for college and, sometimes, applying for middle and high schools.
Most of the parents I know well are relatively high achieving folks. I wasn't around to see them in high school or college, but I can guess how they were then based on how they are now. I suspect many of them — like me, like you — have been commended for well-done projects through the years.
The first years of our lives are accomplishment-based, spent getting assignments or tasks, giving it our best effort, getting a grade or a certificate, and moving on to the next thing. But parenting is different. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the end points are a moving target.
The first task I can remember and for which I was judged occurred in elementary school. We had to read moving words on a screen as fast as possible and then answer questions. I remember achieving a top reading speed and answering the questions correctly like I was supposed to. I remember piano competitions and essay contests around that same period of my life. I kept certificates and awards through middle and high school and then went on to college and medical school and collected my degrees. Task after task after task.
My success was always rewarded with the next test, the next project, the next accomplishment. There was always something new to learn and check off the list. The Egyptian pyramid I made out of sugar cubes got an A. The short story I wrote for a contest won second place. The concerto I played for the district piano competition won first. OK, the P.E. award was usually for "participation," but with most everything else, I could count on some temporary childhood or adolescent glory, such as it was. And so went the first 30 pre-parenting years of my life.
And then I became a parent.
It turns out the traits that made me a successful student, and the traits that I need to be a successful doctor are not the same traits that will make me successful as a parent.
When kids are young, some parenting can feel like it's project-based, just like the sugar-cube pyramid or the SAT. If we just read enough, prepare enough, study enough, we can get an A on the project of parenting. But the problem with parenting is, right when you get an A, you get smacked in the face with an F to go with it, sometimes on the same day.
My daughter slept through the night by the time she was seven weeks old: A+. So then the universe or God or karma gave me two more children who didn't completely sleep through the night until much later to teach me that A+ was coincidental.
Raising children takes a totally different skill set than the rest of my life has: holding my tongue, putting aside my needs, sitting quietly by a stewing tween, backing off, allowing them to fail, letting the chips fall where they may.
I’ve had to shift my thinking. My kids are not my projects. Where they go to college is not my final exam. Their successes (and their failures) are their own, just like my successes and failures are my own.
Their being good, decent human beings is more important than any grade they bring home, any college they attend.
When our kids are young, we stay in control. We send them to the right preschool, carefully researched and chosen. We give them dance lessons to encourage body awareness, Spanish lessons to expose them to a foreign language, soccer so they'll improve coordination, swim lessons, music lessons, etc. We give them every opportunity we can. We are, after all, much more experienced in life and know what's best for them (don’t we?).
We hand-pick the friends we want them to have, and successfully avoid the friends (or friends' parents) with whom we don't want to associate.
Most of us get 18 years with our kids in our homes. The first 9 or 10 years, they mostly dress and behave and talk as we have coached them. The next 8, we have to put the steering wheel away and be their bumper rails, giving boundaries and guidance as they fall down and get back up to find their own way.
There are definitely people who treat raising their kids as a project. But I think there are two main problems with project-based parenting. First, the project itself is a person with a free will, who becomes an adolescent that rebels when he or she is controlled too much, who becomes an adult who chooses her own path.
And second, the project never ends. My mom said once you “never really know how your kids turn out until middle age,” which made me laugh. But it’s true. I’m sure I gave my parents the same amount of hell my teens give me. There is no final exam for parenting.
So for those of us who turned in our assignments, played by the rules, succeeded in our projects at school and work, we’d best put all the skills that got us this far aside. It’s not about us anymore.
Some of the best, most wonderful and supporting parents I know are not type A like I guess I am, and not achievement-based. They are, simply, love-based. I envy them sometimes, not getting sucked into the rat-race. But they have taught me one thing well. Having a child who discovers who he or she is and brings that true self to fruition is the real pride of parenting, more than any certificate that hangs on the wall.