Learning to Get Out of the Way

Learning to Get Out of the Way

By Jennifer Berney

What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him.


For the six years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to enrich my child. When he was a baby, I hovered as he explored a toy xylophone, wondering if he might be a prodigy. As he grew old enough to talk, I wondered if, with a little coaching, he might be reading and writing fluently by the time he was four.

This is what good parents did, I figured. They helped their children identify their passions and then, through active instruction, they crafted them into geniuses.

About a year ago, I thought I’d found my opportunity when my son started dancing any time there was music within earshot. My partner and I had a blast watching him shake his booty across the living room, mimicking every kind of dance he’d ever seen. Within a week, I was on the phone with our local ballet school, asking them if my child was old enough to train. From what I understood, boys were a rare commodity in ballet. Clearly, my son would be the next Baryshnikov.

My son wasn’t certain that he wanted to take a dance class, but he agreed to visit the classroom with me on a Saturday morning. We sat together on the sidelines and watched a group of girls and boys his age move across the room like dinosaurs and elephants. I looked at him to see if he was inspired to join them, but his face remained blank. As they moved into formal instruction, practicing standing en pointe and demi plies, he leaned in and whispered “Mommy, I’m not interested in that.”

“Are you sure?” I prodded.

Though I gave up on ballet, I still waited for my moment to help him shine. That summer, I signed him up for a day-long painting class. He had agreed it sounded fun, but when the day arrived, he clung to me, not wanting to go inside the classroom. It was the sight of a like-minded boy in a Spider-man shirt—not the easels and paintbrushes—that helped him settle in. That afternoon, when I arrived to pick him up, the other children had painted skies, mountains, and trees. My son held up his canvas, smiling. Apparently he had started painting and couldn’t stop. He enjoyed layering color after color. The result: a canvas that looked like mud. This would not be going on our wall.

For a while after that, I laid off the courses and stopped trying to turn our time together into a curriculum. I accepted that my son, more than anything, liked to play Angry Birds and watch Spider-man on Netflix. He liked to be read to, to play with friends and build forts, and he didn’t care to go for walks. In short, his interests were unexceptional.

And then, about a month ago, my son began asking me for paper. I’d pull a couple of pages from my printer and he’d spread his markers across the kitchen table and fill the width of the page with sketches of superheroes and remembered scenes from movies. He found a sketchbook I’d bought for him a year earlier and began filling the pages systematically. Looking at my son’s sketches is like looking at a cross-section of his brain. There are lines firing like neurons in all directions, depictions of good versus evil, of the sun and the moon, his baby brother, and all of his friends. Taken together, the pages are his universe.

What I had failed to realize during my first four years of parenting was that my son doesn’t need me to find his passion for him. By definition, a passion is something that can’t be controlled. It’s not the thing that someone pushes you to do; it’s the thing you have to do, the thing that beckons you. That’s why it’s called your calling. It knows your name. It comes to find you.

For once I’m learning to hang back and let him do his thing. I bought a small set of pens that I thought might allow him more precision than the wide-tipped markers he’d been stuck with. But that’s it. I don’t correct the way he uses his pen. I haven’t signed him up for any more art classes. For the moment, I don’t want anyone to come between him and his passion—not me, not a teacher, no one.

As it turns out, my son is the one instructing me. I watch the way he gravitates to paper, the way he ignores any bids for his attention. I watch how the minute he completes one sketch he moves on to another. Lately, when I bring him a plate of toast in the morning, I usually find it untouched twenty minutes later as he continues to sketch Darth Vader’s cape.

“Why haven’t you eaten?” I ask him.

“I got distracted,” he explains.

Really, it’s the opposite. The daily tasks of life are the distraction. The work that calls us is what matters. It’s a lesson I try to teach myself daily when I find myself buried in the daily minutia of laundry, errands, preparing meal after meal. “What do I actually want to do?” I ask myself.

It was a quiet voice at first. It whispered, walk that trail to the beach, or blow off laundry and watch TV. The more I listen, the louder it grows. Write that book, it tells me. Not just on the weekends, but every single day.

With two sons now, I’m busier than ever, but that voice will not be ignored. On the best of days now you’ll find us in a house piled high with unfolded laundry, dancing and drawing and writing till we drop.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times Motherlode, The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Illustration: Harlan Shincke, the author’s son