December 19, 2019
Dear Columbus Academy Families,
Becoming an "empty nester" soon has me thinking about how we define raising successful children these days. It's ironic that I finally have the time to consider exactly how I would orchestrate my children's growing up just as they enter adulthood and have survived my many mistakes and few triumphs of mothering them.
Thankfully, and I mean this with all sincerity, they will escape whatever blueprint for success I could concoct with my new-found wisdom of bringing them up for nearly two decades!
And, hopefully, my husband and I have also protected them from other authorities that purport to present a singular path to a good life -- questionable theories for success such as spending 10,000 hours honing a skill, seeking admission only to the few colleges that really count (most likely the ones you can't get into), cultivating the more marketable qualities of good looks and social savvy over integrity and empathy, and pursuing only courses of study appearing to promise financial gain.
The world around us has lots of fixes for the wonderful and heart-wrenching experiences children and their parents traverse while they grow, but we all know becoming a good human being and living a fulfilling life can't be engineered... we have to come by it organically.
So why is an elixir for our children's success such a compelling proposition? There is a multi-billion-dollar industry making money on the bet that we will believe there is no ACT score too high, club sport too expensive, violin teacher too anointed, or college essay too edited to provide our children the ticket to their future prosperity.
Maybe we get convinced these fixes in our children's lives provide some insurance -- like protective crash mats on gym walls -- that if they fail, flounder or flop at least they will only bruise and not break. Because after all this investment of money, time and, frankly, anxiety in their future, we (and they) emotionally can't afford the alternative. It starts to make sense that everything we read about increased stress in students points to "recipes" for success as partially responsible for their heightened fragility. In the end, all the assistance we can buy to assure our children's winning future acts more like a padded room than a crash mat.
They feel closed in a risk-averse world with clear messages of the high stakes of their choices and the dangers that lie ahead for those who dare venture forth without following the fairy tale path of picking one's life passion by age nine. If we add in the shame parents may feel, caught in this pressurized system, about our own worth if our child cannot claim a major accomplishment by early middle school, it's not hard to see what ROI thinking can do to childhood.
Other stories abound. They tell of success through personal growth, serendipity, luck and grace but get crowded out in our blueprint-seeking framework. In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein explains how people who came to their excellence later and followed a less-programmed path have more resilience when facing issues and greater agility in their work than their counterparts who narrowed their interests early. All his examples ring with truisms of roads less travelled making all the difference.
Even Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book Outliers which exalts one of the most pernicious "recipes" for success -- the 10,000-hour rule -- has misgivings about what achievement earned this way actually demonstrates other than narrow excellence without resilience. Using our own Jeff Sutton (husband of middle school language arts teacher Peggy, parent of alumni Nathaniel '10, John '11 and Margaret '14, and former Academy teacher and coach) as an example, Gladwell's podcast weaves a storyline about how the highest scores on law school entrance exams may not produce the greatest judicial minds like Sutton.
Of course, there is no single way to grow up successfully. Some children emerge early wanting to pursue a single path, others seek multiple avenues. But that is just the point. Too often we as parents, grasping for answers to our children's complicated lives, begin to push them all along a singular direction, even at a school like ours where we proudly offer a breadth of curriculum and activities.
My young boys attended a camp in northern Ontario with the motto not all those who wander are lost. It's so important for us, as the adults they live with and admire, to value our children's wandering throughout their growing up. I certainly was afforded the opportunity to feel my own power and agency in choices I made at their age, even if the consequences of my decisions were sometimes disappointing.
During this upcoming break, I will keep quiet about how I might have done things differently in rearing my sons. Scripts make poor conversation when everyone is around the kitchen counter excited to be together again during the holidays. And looking back on the most poignant moments of parenthood so far, they don't involve my boys living according to my plan. Instead, they are filled with each of my sons achieving his own dreams and sharing the excitement in that success with me.
Keep everyone you love safe this winter break.