I was in a conversation, in a country not Canada, far away from home, with a woman. I told her an anecdote (subject not important). She responded: “Oh, that would be great for the essays.”
Of course that went way over my husband’s head (more on that later, and no, he is far from moronic); but I caught her drift right away. She meant the college entrance essays. Her kids are ages 12 and 13 and she’s got their college essays on the mind. Her mind!
There are so many things wrong with this picture that I don’t have to list them for you. Can you guess my reaction? Oh man, I’m stuck here talking to this nutso mother. It’s like the smell of cheese gone bad or dog poo stuck in the grooves of my shoes. Yuck, get me outta here.
I really wanted to stay comfortably contemptuous of her. I gave it the old college try as they say. Her over large, unnaturally perky (and probably store-bought) boobs helped.
But then I paused and gave it a moment’s thought. (Sometimes vacation is good for that.)
And I realized, OMG as they say, she’s me. Minus the surgical enhancements.
I was that mom.
It mattered to me way too much which schools my kids went to. Now that they’re adults and time has given me the luxury of perspective, I suddenly see (and can confess) that I pushed and steered them to be and to be with the best and the brightest. I thought then that it was for them, but I see now that I was both lying to myself and failing to respond to who they were and what might be best for each of them.
The lying to myself part is pretty simple. I gained status by having my kids in snazzy schools and I wanted that. For me as much as for them. I pretended to myself and everyone else that this was not the case. I was bummed when my son left Queen’s after first year to follow his girlfriend to Guelph. Trying to hide that (which is never 100% successful) cost him my full support – never a good parenting gambit. (As for my husband, he was laisser-faire – maybe because men don’t define themselves as much as we do via their kids’ achievements.)
But the more complex aspect of this problem is its effect on the kids themselves. A lot of ranking goes on in our kid culture. There are good and bad, right and wrong schools, programs and camps. There are the top ones… and the others. By extension, there are the top kids…. and the others. That’s the problem, and that was the deeper and darker mistake of my parenting.
I wanted my kids to be in that top group. There were all kinds of educational and life advantages I imagined and could list flowing from that. But I failed to see, understand and value the gift of the ordinary.
Those so-called top kids, by every measure, don’t have a better life than ordinary kids. What does it mean today that my daughter was a competitive gymnast and wen to UTS? It means her adolescent years were much more pressured and stressful than they had to be. She’s only one example of this phenomenon that has gripped our generation of parents.
We push and preen and look for every way to put our kids on the path to the mystical top of the mountain. Why? I admit it now. Because of our own anxiety. Because we don’t dig deep to discipline ourselves to figure out that they’re them and we’re us, and they get to be different people and not an extension of my need to look good.
Our anxiety as parents is understandable. I must forgive myself for it. It was scary to imagine not giving my kids all the advantages I could muster. I now see that if I had let them be and follow more of their own paths, even when those paths were ordinary, it would have served them better in terms of well-being, and perhaps as important, learning that most important life lesson – accepting yourself for who you are.
Being comfortable if your skin matters. There is much data to show that the happy humans are not the ones who were those so-called “top kids.” And funny, they aren’t necessarily the successful ones either, at either work or family.
As for the woman working on those college essays, I hope she figures it out faster than I did.
Giving our children the elusive - and perhaps priceless - gift of the ordinary