Talk to any parent, and you will eventually get on the subject of comparing one’s child with another person’s child, to see where they are at in relation to one another and the “milestones” they are supposed to have reached. Kids, it would seem, are supposed to be identical to one another. They are supposed to form the same skills, at the same time, and are supposed to go down a prescribed path that will prepare them for life. Who’s life, you ask? Well, theirs of course. It just so happens that the path for their life is supposed to be exactly the same a everyone else’s.
I’ve recently stopped caring that Theo doesn’t do well in certain situations (situations that are supposed to be “geared” towards his age). I’ve stopped caring that Theo processes things his own way. I’ve stopped caring that Theo is sensitive about certain things, and a train wreck about others. I’ve stopped caring that Theo might not fit into the current model of modern education.
I don’t care.
I knew, even before I typed this post, that many people might disagree with me on this subject. I realize that, but I’m not entirely sure I care. I don’t mean that harshly, I just mean to say that I’m really, really comfortable where I’ve landed on this topic. I’m good. I’ve arrived at some hard-earned conclusions, and I’m ok with the fact that they are inevitably different from many other’s viewpoint.
I’ve written a little bit about my son Theo, and how he is both a constant joy and challenge because of his out of the box thinking. He is a bundle of energy, he questions everything and his curiosity knows no bounds. This past Saturday, no less than three different people in three separate settings commented on Theo’s energy, curiosity and endless chatter.
These are incredible qualities to see develop in my little boy, but they can also be confounding. Confounding because we live in a very inside the box world. Every child is supposed to be on the same track – excel in preschool, excel in school, excel in college, excel in life. (Although I’m certain that by time Theo reaches college age, “excel in grad school” will inevitably need to be in between college and the excel in life part.)
Kids are all supposed to do the same things. They are supposed to care about school. They are all supposed to be in a million sports (Gag. Don’t even get me started.) They are supposed to care about this very specific, limited world that our educational system and culture deems important, while countless other factors are left by the wayside. Things like developing personal interests, skills, dreams and imagination are virtually not discussed. The act of reading is turned into something utilitarian – a means to an end instead of a simple source of pleasure, exposure and escape. Art, social skills, music, and understanding of other cultures aren’t on the menu (Or perhaps I should say, aren’t on the test? Low blow, I know…).
I’ve started to notice an alarming trend lately. One of the most common dilemmas I face with parenting Theo is this: I have to constantly choose between teaching (forcing) him to fit a certain mold in order to ensure that he can survive in our culture’s current model, OR, honor the unique person that is essentially Theo.
I have to force Theo into situations, force him to behave a certain way, and force him down a narrow path of expected behavior and outcomes in order to…what? In order to be just like everyone else? In order to put him on the path of least resistance? In order for him to fit neatly into the box?
When I was in junior high, I had an English teacher who made us memorize poetry. A ton, of poetry. (My personal favorite was Annabel Lee. Google it.) To this day I can still recite bits and pieces of most of the poems she made us learn. One, though, that has stayed with me in it’s entirety is Robert Frost’s, “The Road Not Taken.”
We all know this poem. We all love this poem. We all love to tout the wisdom of this poem. And then we raise our children to do the exact same thing as everyone else. And why wouldn’t we? If we let our kids wander instead of sit quietly, we as parents are labeled “permissive.” If a child chooses to not participate in school sports because they have other interests, they are labeled as “antisocial.” If a person decides to attend a career center or pursue an apprenticeship instead of college, they are considered a person who doesn’t value education (which is to say, they are lazy and will never amount to much in life).
My husband and I are not in the box thinkers. We have always been on the fringe of popular thought and opinion. There are a lot of life choices which most people take for granted as a forgone conclusion (ie “Of course I’m going to do x, y or z because everyone else does x, y or z”) that I simply refuse to adopt.
This is the point where a lot of people start to roll their eyes. Where they look over my head at someone else with a condescending nod of “just wait, she’ll see…” Or where they flat out say I’m naive and the world doesn’t work this way. And you know what? To a certain extent, they are right. The world doesn’t work this way. The world works according to a system where by and large, we all do the same thing. The expected thing. And it works out ok for a good majority of the population. But then there are people like me, who are just so freaking BORED with the system. I’m bored with this idea that all there is to life is to go to school, get a job, make money, maybe have a family, then die. What about life? What about the road less traveled? The one that isn’t all that practical, that has a lot of unknowns, that doesn’t make you a great living, but makes you one heck of a life??? What about that?
I don’t want to teach my children skills just to fit a system. Just to put them on a certain path. As parents, we tend to try to mold the path to suit the child (ie control, manipulate, protect, intervene, etc.), when in reality, we need to mold the child to forge his own path. We need to foster independence, creativity, individual expression and thought. We need to do our darndest to make sure out kids don’t just fit the mold, they shatter them, and then come up with something ten times better.
I’m concerned that today’s educational, social and family culture just perpetuates more of the same. We aren’t looking for better. We aren’t looking for great. We aren’t looking to be amazed or surprised. I think that is borderline criminal. Why? Because these kids, God bless them, come into this world with an unlimited ability to be amazed. To wonder. To discover. To be content with so little. Then adults start intervening and we remove all that is interesting or unique. We ask them to shed their individuality and to pick up a collective identity that our culture has deemed best. And then we wonder why college kids graduate and are simply aimless. How can they have gone through so much schooling and still not know what they want to do? What’s more, how can they be so clueless about the world?
Really? Are we that blind? If we remove the world from our kids’ life experience, when we finally throw them back into it, they won’t know how to function.
Robert Frost said that “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Did you catch that? It made all the difference. Not a little. Not some. All.
Starting now, I want to foster what is different in my kids. I want to embrace the wildness, the curiosity and the energy that makes Theo, Theo. I want to teach him to be proud that those qualities don’t fit within a system, because that means he’ll have to do something different. Something, I think, even better.
This ideology doesn’t make parenting easy. Actually, quite the opposite. There are many days in which I find Theo’s independence infuriating. It gets him into trouble. It makes him difficult to control. There are no “expected outcomes.” Each day is an experiment.
I’ve had to teach myself to appreciate the very qualities I’m heralding. You would think that would go hand in hand, but it’s not. Fostering independence, creativity and imagination is difficult because you have to let go of the steering wheel. You have to get to know your child for who they are, not for who you want them to be or for who society says they should become. And then, you have to foster those qualities you see in them, in spite of popular opinion. It takes so. much work. It’s a lot easier to be on the road most travelled, because everyone else is doing it. You have camaraderie. You can easily feel like you are doing a good job because your outcomes look exactly like everyone else’s.
My goal for myself and my kids is not to look like everyone else, in virtually every aspect of my life. I want to raise leaders. Game changers. Out of the box thinkers who rock the world with the way their minds work. This might require more work on my part as a parent, but it’s work I believe in. I believe in my kid’s futures because I believe in my kids.