On September 12, 2001, I drove my son from our funky, mixed income neighborhood over to the wealthy west side, where he has played soccer, more often on full scholarship than not, for years. At the fields, I encountered the wife of a prominent, terribly self-important editor, who asked me in one breath if I’d yet accounted for all of my friends in Manhattan and, a few breaths later, noted that the WTC tragedy was such an awful waste of real estate.
I knew without thinking exactly how best to affront her in return. "How’s your brother?" I asked. Years before, he and I had worked in the same restaurant.
"He’s frying clams for a living," she noted with disgust and embarrassment, wrinkling her nose. She, on the other hand, was staying home, supervising the nanny and shopping for real estate.
A few feet away, her young daughter, perhaps four, had stolen away from practice and enmeshed herself with some others in the net of an off-field goal. They didn’t want to play soccer, they just wanted to play, period. But eager parents prodded, trying to get them back on the field. I could not help but think—They aren’t here for fun, they’re here bulking up their kiddies’ resumes.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that this same woman, in an encounter with a mutual friend, gushed about her daughter’s entrance exams for a private kindergarten that "all" the kids—meaning all the "right" kids—were attending. My turn to nose wrinkle.
A few months ago in New York, it was revealed that a Citigroup chairman worked in cahoots with a prominent former stock analyst to insure the twins of the latter would be accepted into the well-greased—to the tune of a million dollars—hands of the 92nd street Y nursery school.
It astounds me how much so many of us have not learned about parenting from our own experiences as children. Some sort of amnesia kicks in for a certain set who, upon procreating, cannot seem to recollect from their own over-pressured youth (or from notable examples such as Ivy League suicides) that pushing children to hyper-achieve is, in many cases, precursor to great failure.
Now, this may only be a sense of failure—a child may overachieve K through masters degree (or higher), excel in extracurricular activities and civic duty, score a lucrative job, an aesthetically pleasing spouse, a spacious McMansion. But if one feels never able to live up to parental expectations— because the bar of approval was constantly raised without warning during the formative years— the result is lifelong frustration and self-deprecation. In domestic violence circles, this counts as abusive behavior—a battered woman never can satisfy her batterer no matter how she changes her behavior because his rules will also shift and shift. This is not about being caring. It is about being controlling.
A recent report cites the growing trend for college students—used to overachieving in order to satisfy parental insistence that they be accepted to prominent colleges— are now tripling, quadrupling, and in some case quintupling their majors. Much of this self-overburdening can be traced back to pushy parents telling themselves, their kids and anyone who questions them that they are only trying to set their children up for success.
How bitter the disappointment then, when one graduates summa cum laude with majors in French, Bulgarian Literature, Neurobiology, and Electrical Engineering only to discover the real world is vastly comprised of those who care very little for such over-qualifications. And who most certainly are not interested in seeing your pre-K lambskin from Wee Snotty Ones nursery school.
I’m preparing my son for failure in hopes of sparing him a life of disappointment brought on by the fallout of such Goal-itis. I don’t want him to live in a world where success is measured by how close one’s cubby is to a window, which snack food account one gets to promote, or which prominent law firm one will enslave oneself to.
Of course I want him to reach his maximum potential. And we are both lucky with his ease in academic accomplishment and social success. He’s always gotten straight A’s and has plenty of friends. He plays violin, chess and the aforementioned soccer. At twelve, he can hold his own in adult conversations, with a sweet mix of residual little-kid wonder and astounding quick-wit. But I refuse to push him to use these gifts in some Darwinian race toward capitalistic achievement. I just want him to enjoy life—I mean really, truly have fun.
As old as the oft-ignored wisdom that children are like soap—squeeze them too tight and they’ll slip away—is the also oft-ignored adage about time’s equivalency to money. In fact, being poor (literally) but not being strapped down by too much silly work (as I have been in the past) I can assert that time is far more valuable than money. We’re broke, yes. But we have far more fun than people locked into jobs they resent to pay off college degrees they thought they had to get in order to be somebody.
So I give him street skills—how to thrift shop, how to pet-sit for cash, how to graciously say thank you to scholarships and luscious meals and free tickets offered by people who value us for the people we are. I want him to know how to live financially broke, without feeling this is some horrifying curse. I want him to value compassion over a college degree. I want him to know how to form true, dedicated friendships not Teflon-y business connections. I want him not viewing soccer as a means to a greater goal, but as a manifestation of passion, pure and simple. I give him music lessons, take him to hear live music and see movies and hear lectures not so he can recall these events in college admission essays, but to witness people living their true dreams.
Recently, we went to hear Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, whom I’d interviewed the night before. Chabon gave this advice to young writers: don’t waste your time locked in a room writing when you’re young. Go live. Get experience. As for MFA programs—he had mixed reviews though he’d attended one he loved. Only sign up, he said, if it offers time to write and financial support. I.e. do not just go for the credential.
But I have to struggle sometimes to get Henry to remember the importance of fun. Over-achievement is contagious. At his school the drastic change between fifth grade—when I could convince him to play hooky sometimes to practice the art of Carpe Diem—and sixth grade is painfully apparent. His homework load is enormous and rather than complain, he sets dedicated to the task daily. I have begged him to consider taking a year off to traverse the country by car and witness firsthand history, geography, local color.
No, he says. These trips must
continue to remain limited to short summer jaunts. He’s already too
wrapped in the net of standard education, happy to be part of the system
and its goals. While I will support and praise his successes in this
realm, I’ll also continue to subvert this clear risk of blind
allegiance. He may go to college or not—his choice. My own goal is
simple: if, say, he winds up working in a greasy restaurant, I want him
to be happy as a clam fryer.