When I was called upon to walk the walk, to allow my son to be himself, to help him be himself, I found that I was so influenced by my own history and by public opinion that I was judgmental, un-helpful, narrow-minded and unkind.
I talked the talk about letting children be who they are. I spoke about it, and I wrote about it. “We do not own them,” I wrote, “give them roots and wings,” blah, blah, blah.
I was happy to let him do his own thing as long as it didn’t embarrass me or involve anything I don’t genuinely like or understand. I had always seen us as Good Parents, but just as “hard cases make bad law,” unusually-wired kids can make for some pretty bad parenting.
Let me tell you these things about myself: I was raised by teachers. My father went to Harvard and my mother to Wellesley. I attended a rigorous high school, I was a serious cellist, and I attended a fine, small liberal arts college.
There were no people in my life who didn’t go to college, unless there was a history of “learning problems,” or scandal. My friends from high school went to college, and most of the adults in my life were either helping people get into college or teaching them once they got there.
Let me tell you these things about my son: we did all the things that “good” parents do.
We read to him constantly, we limited TV, we played classical music, we bought a house in a community with great schools and we signed him up for sports teams and music classes. Some things stuck and some things didn’t, but he was a kid who was unfailingly sweet natured and easy, demonstrably intelligent and socially comfortable.
In the dark of night I sometimes gave myself a high-five because he was the kind of easy, popular kid that I never was. He was athletic, charismatic, and seemed to have a real gift for all things related to computers. He had a diverse group of friends that crossed racial, age and gender barriers. He seemed to be a perfect genetic hybrid, manifesting the best of his father and me with none of the awkward stuff.
By his freshman year in high school, he still aced standardized tests, and was still kind, sweet natured and easy most of the time. He also hated school with a passion, got bad grades, made unfortunate decisions and caused much consternation all around.
I looked at him and saw an incredibly beautiful young man with a ready smile, eager to show off pictures of his baby niece, able to fix any computer problem that arises, and effortlessly capable of charming anyone. His charm, his ebullience and his charisma were all authentic—he was a creature happy in his own skin, sure of himself and confident that he could do anything.
The thing about school was that it didn’t interest him at all. We threatened, punished, and attended tense meetings in beige rooms. We gave lectures: “you may not like that teacher, but when you have a job you won’t always like your boss, and that’s the real world.” I cried, a lot.
The truth was that even in the face of dire threats about being destitute, he didn’t care.
Worse still, the combination of rising academic stakes and increasing disapproval from school faculty was stripping him of his inborn confidence and joy. His days were spent in a place where, for the first time in his life, people didn’t like him. He was increasingly anxious, frustrated and in trouble.
I ground my mental gears until the sparks flew. What happened to him when he left the house and set foot in a school building? Why couldn’t he sit still, do what he was supposed to do, keep track of his papers, remember his books, resist peer pressure, fly under the radar and please his teachers?
Why couldn’t we threaten him into it? Why didn’t he see our suffering and feel guilty enough to straighten up?
Why couldn’t he be more like me?
I also spent hours worrying about where we went wrong. Did we give him too much independence? When did the chasm open between “I don’t have any homework because I did it in five minutes ” and “I’m failing math because I didn’t do any of my homework?”
Was it us? Were we somehow sending the message that rules didn’t apply to him, that he was a unique and special snowflake and that teachers and administrators were evil and to be ignored?
Were we “those” parents?!
How did I end up with a kid who I liked and admired as a person, but with whom I had daily conversations about his certain, terrible future?
At our wits’ end after the first semester of sophomore year, we considered enrolling him in a charter school. The school was more open to non-traditional learners. It required fewer hours of butt-in-seat time and would let him work faster via computer and then escape for the day. He could, in fact, whip through some of his classes and complete them early, leaving more time to work on more difficult subjects.
Even considering it felt like a loss. I am a staunch supporter of public education. I was enmeshed in the community of parents and kids I had known since kindergarten. The charter school was in some weird office building and didn’t seem like “school.”
My-mother-the-teacher selfishly died before I could pick her brain about the pros and cons of making the change.
Then a beautiful thing happened: I let go. I thought about my bright, beautiful kid, and how unhappy he was in school, and how maybe, just maybe I should accord him the same benefit of the doubt that I would give to anyone else in the universe.
Because if a stranger said that they were struggling, that they had no feeling for what they did all day, I would immediately conclude that they needed to try something different.
I would look at that person’s interests and abilities, and say something like this: “you might not make as much money, but if you quit _____ and try _____, you might be so much happier that it would be worth it.”
It was time to try “something different” before we completely destroyed the blithe and tender soul that had been entrusted to our care.
My son transferred to the charter school a year ago, and in that time he has made up every lost credit and (mostly) stayed out of trouble. He’s happier, he’s more productive, and it’s really okay with all of us that he’s probably not going to Harvard.
In a world where college graduates can’t find jobs, and the entrepreneurial spirit abounds, a kid with tech smarts might just graduate and clear a path we can’t even imagine yet. Or he might end up living in our basement. (But the same thing might happen if he goes to college and gets an English degree, like his mother.)
Let me tell you one last thing about my son: if your plane crashed on a deserted island and you needed to survive, you would be lucky to have him there.
Maybe that’s all I ever really needed to know.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman