By Ann Brown, Parenting Consultant
I’m watching the Olympics as I write this article. And I cannot help but think about the parents of the athletes, and the sacrifices they made for their children.
I wonder about the role the parents played in encouraging their future champion to rise to Olympic heights. I mean, do you think that Gracie Gold’s mom had to force her to go to skating practice in the early mornings? Or that Sage Kotsenberg’s parents made him spend afternoons on his snowboard when all he wanted to do was study for his algebra test?
The idea intrigues me because I never pushed my kids to do anything. Well, as far as I can recall, I never did. Hold on, let me go ask them.
They aren’t taking my call. Hunh.
I was a product of the sixties; my parents were, as well. We marched in anti-war protests together, we walked picket lines together, and together we yelled bad words at one of our presidents when he entered the Century City Hotel in Los Angeles many decades ago. Raising kids in the sixties – at least, in our circles – was strongly rooted in “do your own thing”, “subvert the dominant paradigm”, and – in our family’s case – “ you can’t go barefoot to Grandma’s funeral”. Because there were some rules.
My parents did, however, force my sister and me to do the following:
1. Take piano lessons. Until we didn’t want to anymore.
2. Go to Sunday School. Until we didn’t want to anymore.
We also had to do the dishes every night, and clean the house on Saturdays. But I don’t remember fighting them on that so I can’t really speak to whether or not we were forced. Doing the dishes with my sister was kinda awesome. We brought our transistor radio into the kitchen and sang along with the Beatles. I really think my ability to sing vocal harmonies has its foundation in those early years when my sister was Lennon and I was McCartney in our little kitchen on Crewe Street.
Could I have been an Olympic pianist, or dishwasher, if my parents had pushed me to persevere and excel?
Years ago, there was a family in my class that came to me when their first child was almost two years old. The little boy walked into my classroom wearing a NASA jumpsuit.
“He is going to be an astronaut,” the mother explained to me.
I smiled my benign smile. The smile you give to parents when they have no idea what lies ahead of them in parenting. Bless your hopeful, naive, clueless hearts, my smile silently said.
“No, I mean it, “ she said, “We have been teaching him about space since he was a baby. His crib is a rocket ship. His whole life revolves around going into outer space.”
During the year they were in my class, the little boy showed up every single week in some sort of NASA outfit, reciting some sort of astronaut-ish facts and eating space food. Okay, that last part isn’t true, but it totally could have been. When I gently prodded the parents about their goal for their child, I was shut down.
“The only way it’s going to happen,” the dad told me, “is if we make it happen for him until he can do it himself.”
Call me a slacker parent (because I pretty much am one) but it seems to me that if a child is going to excel in something to the level of NASA or the Olympics, it probably will be carried by the sheer will of the child. I just don’t think that Sean White’s mom and dad had to drag her son kicking and screaming up to the ski slopes. I suspect it was getting him off the mountain that took all their parenting strength.
Supporting your child in his/her pursuits is very different from forcing your goals down their throats. And the earlier we push, the longer it will take for them to discover their true passions for themselves.
One of my kids was strongly into Dungeons and Dragons when he was young. Me, I had no interest in it; in fact, I vaguely thought it was creepy. But my kid devoured the game and begged me to take him to the creepy tournaments (where, at the age of seven, he was the only person there under thirty years old). And when I didn’t take him to the tournaments – when I faked being busy or flat-out refused – he used his allowance and took a cab, organized his own tournaments at our house (with children; I drew the line at having adult D&D players in my home. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…) or practiced on his own.
Yes, this is a very dorky story but you get my point. When a child is motivated by passion for something, you can’t stop them from forging ahead. Now it would be pretty awesome if the thing my son pursued was piano – or skiing, or service to the poor, or poetry – but it was not my destiny to choose his destiny. And as it is, he turned out quite fine. And he has not played D&D for over twenty years. As far as I know.
I think it’s worthwhile to give our kids lots and lots of experiences in many things. And I think that it is our job to encourage, support and – if necessary – hold the line at the things that reflect our values and vision. But is it our job to create champions of our children? Is it our right?
I’m definitely on the “soft kitty, nice kitty” side of the Tiger Mom spectrum. And yes, my kids are not Olympians. They did not have roomfuls of awards and ribbons when they were growing up. In fact, they mostly had disgusting, stinky sox and empty, decaying Capri Sun pouches in their rooms. One of my kids went to soccer ONCE, at age five, and declared never to return. The other kid stopped violin lessons in sixth grade. I was cool. I figured it was their lives and their decisions. I also had a headache most of the years they were young. I never got enough sleep, so I was pretty happy to just let them do their thing and leave me to the couch with a cold compress on my forehead. But that’s an issue between my kids and their future shrinks.
I did force them, however, to always write “thank you” notes for their birthday presents, and to work at the homeless shelter on Christmas, and to rinse the dishes before loading them into the dishwasher, and to do their own laundry, and to become Bar Mitzvahs, and to never, ever cross a picket line. Because those are things I believe in.
As far as I know, that little boy in my class never made it to NASA. I’m not even sure he made it through high school. Wherever he is, I hope he’s happy and fulfilled from his own dreams. And I hope his parents have realized that his life is not their life. We name our kids, we protect them, we inspire them and we support them, but we don’t hold the puppet strings.
On the other hand, maybe if I had named my kids Bode and Sage, I’d be in Sochi right now.