Growing up is hard.
Parenting people who are on the cusp of adulthood sometimes feels even harder.
In my family, it’s been a couple generations since anyone transitioned to adulthood with any kind of finesse. My parents walked in their high school graduation ceremonies, moved on to college the following September, and finished their undergraduate degrees four years later. They married, earned graduate degrees, began careers, and had children in ways and at times that reflected planning.
I didn’t plan my adulthood as much as I flopped and floundered my way into it, graduating late from an alternative high school, grabbing a job here, a few college classes there, and pausing a couple times to have a baby.
The three eldest of my 4 children have or will graduate from high school late and in non-traditional ways. College? We’ll see. Careers? They don’t know what they want yet. My 20-year-old son makes a good living after graduating from Job Corps and is saving money to move to a city where he can better pursue a music career. My 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old stepson are still casting about, frustrated and angry. Their complaints about the neighborhood high school are legitimate (as are their concerns about the job market and economy), but the alternatives we’ve offered have been met with responses ranging from indifference to derision.
In 1998, when I was a young, single mother of two small children, I was concerned (panicked is probably a more accurate word) about how my eldest son, Jacob, was doing in kindergarten. He was spacey, bored, and behind academically. He didn’t have friends and couldn’t stay on task the way most children his age were able to do. When the teachers laid each of the children down on a piece of butcher paper and outlined them and instructed the kids to decorate their outline drawings, all the other kids drew shirts, shorts, hair, and shoes. My son drew ribs, a liver, heart, phalanges, and where the other children put a face, my son drew a brain and his best approximation of the sinuses.
When I saw that picture on parents’ night I was full of pride. The teachers, however, were less impressed with Jacob’s interest in human anatomy and more concerned with the fact that he didn’t yet read and seemed uninterested in academic essentials, the kinds of things that are learned while seated in a chair, pencil in one hand.
The next day at work, I was wringing my hands about Jacob’s kindergarten experience and I said to my co-worker Mary, “I just want my kids to be happy!” Mary, a retired elementary school teacher, poet, mother of adult children, and gentlest person ever, startled me by grabbing my shoulders and saying, “Never wish happiness for your children. Never! Teach skills.”
In parenting, as in most life endeavors, we look to the results as proof of a job well (or poorly) done. Good parenting will result in children who do well in school, enter successful careers, and live lives filled with wonderful relationships. Poor parenting produces criminality, drug addiction, or whatever bogeyman we have living in our personal parental-results closets.
The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves. I don’t get to take the credit for Jacob’s amazing creativity, but neither do I have to take the blame for the fact that academics have always been somewhat challenging for him.
I am responsible for all my own parenting behavior: some excellent, some dreadful, and mostly pretty ordinary. The results, though? There really aren’t any. People aren’t products. My children’s lives are not a culmination of my efforts as a parent. Their lives are their own.
What my co-worker recognized when she told me to teach skills to my children was that I had my self-worth wrapped up in my children’s happiness and success and she wanted to set me on a different path. It’s a terrible lesson to learn because it means we’re nowhere near as powerful as we’d like to be. When my children were small, I hoped that if I fed them right, used the best car seats, read them enough books, sent them to the right schools, struck the right balance between helping them and letting them solve their own problems, and so on, that they would grow up to be responsible, happy, successful people.
It ain’t necessarily so. What means responsible, happy, and successful to me is not necessarily what my kids want for themselves, just as what I wanted for my life (when I finally got around to figuring that out) was not what my parents wanted for themselves.
When my children, the “products” of all my efforts, seem to be spinning and struggling and I am busy flagellating myself for the dreadful job I must have done to create so much sturm and drang in these people, I cling to Mary’s words. I did my best to teach skills.
I didn’t know, before children, that the hardest part about loving them would be stepping back. “Some of us think holding on makes us strong,” wrote Hermann Hesse, “but sometimes it is letting go.”