Professionally, I have always been results-oriented. As a college admissions dean, I had to deliver a freshman class on target. Now on the college counseling side of the profession, I am judged by what percentage of the senior class gets admitted to Ivy League colleges and how many students get into their first choice schools. I thrive in this high stakes environment, and most people assume I’m the same way with my own children. I have been at times, but it rarely seems to work.
In fact, my kids are the people who’ve shown me that sometimes reaching the goal is not nearly as fulfilling as the journey to get there. My six-year-old son, Max, has taught me a thing or two about “the journey” to read and how the struggle is what defines us.
One look at Max and it’s obvious that he is my son: Big brown eyes, small in stature, and a sensitivity which is worn on his sleeve at all times. The biggest difference is that Max is focused on the moment, while I am often thinking 10 steps ahead.
When Max started kindergarten in the fall, he was behind in terms of identifying letters and language acquisition. Every night he’s had to “read” a book. It was a chore for him and for me. We would sit in his bed together dreading the moment we had to open the book. I wanted so badly to read the one or two words on each page for him. But I purposely held my tongue trying to tap into the patience of my younger, kid-free days. He wanted to give up every single night. Most nights, I wanted to give up as well. But I didn’t. And he didn’t.
When we started the year and well into the fall, I was focused on progress. It has always been tough for me to dwell on the “here and now.” My eye tends to look ahead to the next opportunity. I noticed, though, that Max didn’t respond well to any reference I made to the next level of books. He was thick in the moment, pushing through each page as if it took everything he had.
A few weeks ago, I arrived home from work moments before bedtime. I asked Max if he had read his book with the sitter or my husband. I had one of those work days I wanted to forget, and I was secretly hoping that his nightly task was complete. But his eyes lit up when I asked him. He replied earnestly, “Yes, Mommy! I read it already but I want to read it again with YOU.” My heart melted. Before I could respond with the biggest mommy hug ever, he ran downstairs to pull the book out of his backpack and ran back upstairs book in hand.
We read that story together. Correction: Max read the story to me that night. He was beaming with pride. And, I held onto every moment of every word he read. We went at his pace. I realized in that moment that if we are so focused on results, we miss life’s beautiful challenges.
Recently, Max started to take out the enormous encyclopedic books about Star Wars from the school library. At first I wanted to send the books right back. They seem to weigh more than he does, and I wondered what, if anything, he could get out of them. Then he started reading me the unusually-named characters: Kylo Ren, R2-D2, C3PO, and Chewbacca. When he read Chewbacca’s name without a picture next to it, I almost fell off his narrow twin bed.
Those ginormous books about something Max loves have been a game changer. I ended up buying him two of his own, and I leave one in my car so he can entertain me when I’m driving him to school and one in his room for our late-night snuggles.
A few weeks ago, one of my former students who is a freshman at an Ivy League college came back to visit me. After some pleasantries, she told me that as stressful as the college admissions process was last year, she kind of missed it. She revealed that being at her prestigious college didn’t seem as fulfilling as getting there. I reassured her that time will give her a sense of connection, but only if she embraces the challenges she is experiencing right now. Max was right. It’s not about the end goal. It’s about the journey.