Tuesday, October 7, 2008

My Kid Can Beat Up Your Honors Student

If I Had a Boat - Lyle Lovett (mp3)
Down to Earth - Peter Gabriel (mp3)

Most of us want so much for our children that it hurts us. This longing causes weirdos like me actual, physical pain -- maybe that's just more proof I need to exercise. It also takes a tremendous emotional toll, because we can't give them everything, dammit. Granted, good parents wouldn't give them everything even if we could, 'cuz if you could just hand them everything, they fail to earn the intangibles for themselves. But you want it for them nonetheless. You want them to have tulips and smiley faces and all the hugs and warm fuzzies the world has out there to offer.

Over the weekend, I was witness to two entirely separate, yet completely related, parental groups. First, I took my oldest daughter to run in a county-wide elementary school race. Each grade level, separated by gender, ran a mile. Each school was limited to a handful per grade. Perhaps because she inherited her mother's athleticism, or perhaps because she's been in soccer for several years and loves riding her bicycle and expending loads of energy, she made the cut. (Which officially puts her ahead of my entire adolescent life when it comes to making teams.)

One of Avery's oldest friends won the whole damn thing. She was the best out of some 300+ girls in the county. She goes to a school where they form teams a year early to encourage conditioning (and arguably to win these kinds of races). That school had five girls finish in the top 20. Two of them run 6 1/2-minute miles. They're 8 years old. Still, watching those two kids, waaay out in front and verging on tears and pushing themselves, was amazing, and I cheered on our friend's girl. Then, more than 100 runners later, I cheered on my own girl. My pride in both girls was overwhelming, mostly 'cuz I'm one of those pathetic guys who would have been shot for snoring too loud in the days of the Wild West.

After breakfast and a brief respite, we were off to the soccer field. My 7-year-old had played her game while we were at the race, so I missed her game. But Avery's game was intense, and her team played well even if they lost 6-2 (which is 42-14 in American Football language; it never seems like quite the blowout until you put it in American Football terms).

The other team had one of the most skilled young girls I've seen yet. She stopped the ball on a dime. Passed with eyebrow-raising precision. Could kick the ball hard enough to leave little comet trails coming out of the thing.

Most of me gets nauseated by this. I think to myself, "Why does your daughter need to be Mia Hamm-esque in third grade? What good does it do, really?" I look at these parents who are hellbent on making their children so exceptional at something and think, how much of the rest of everything did you take away from your kid's life?

Does anyone really ask that of Tiger Woods? Does anyone ask that of the Williams sisters or Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin? Maybe they do, but somehow at that level it seems to get past my radar. Apparently, I can be indignant and judgmental about it unless it pays off. This makes my hypocrisy all the more glaring. It's like me being OK with the idiots who obsessively play the lottery once they hit the Powerball, but mocking and insulting the ones who don't.

And what I've begun to wonder lately is, do all the parents like me, who want so desperately to do right by our children, to not obsess over one single facet of their lives or interests, actually do their children as much of an injustice as those wacky soccer moms and football dads and violin moms and mock trial dads? Maybe we're so afraid of pigeonholing our children that we throw them down this big crater, a hole so big the kids don't even know where to start digging.

"The world is your oyster" is misleading, because an oyster isn't that big of a thing. The way I raise my children, maybe I'm teaching them that "The world is your ocean." And maybe that's not quite the great and positive message I think it should be. Maybe the ocean is too big. Too much. Eventually they'll need to find some place in that vast liquid expanse to call home.

Am I so busy trying to prevent them from becoming focused on or obsessed with one single thing too early that I risk preventing them from calling any single place home? Do we non-obsessive types risk raising wandering and aimless kids?

Maybe part of it is jealousy, too. The way I was raised, the values I was given, made me above average at lots of different things, but I never won a race of any kind, a contest of any kind. I was never The Absolute Best at anything (with the mildly debatable exception of winning my high school's award as its best English student), but I was staunchly competent in many arenas. Do I see these 8-year-olds running at blinding speeds, these soccer kids playing years ahead of themselves, and want them to burn out so that I can feel better? See? That's why we didn't put you in tennis lessons so soon. That's why we only dabbled in piano or swimming or acting camp. We didn't want you to burn out. We didn't want to choose your passion for you.

As Lloyd Dobbler so brilliantly put it a few decades ago, "I can't figure it all out tonight, sir, so I'm just gonna hang with your daughter."


"If I Had a Boat" is from Lovett's first album, Pontiac. "Down to Earth" is from the WALL-E soundtrack. Both can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article on a complex subject. You want to do right by your kids but the decisions are not so easy.