Friday, November 13, 2009

A parent's big ambitions for her child

An older parent has some certain advantageous life perspectives. She has more experience, and more years' worth of each type of experience. She can look back on her life so far - and the act of doing so is quite useful to her! She thinks, If I'd only done X in college, the next 10 years of my life would have gone in a better direction. She has had time to reflect on whether listening to heavy metal throughout middle and high school had any long-lasting damage, and, determining it has not, resolves to go easy on her child when he develops his own musical tastes. Hey, she'll even buy him a copy of the CD "$&#@in' my @#!%" by Phat Gangsta George if that's what he really wants. But he's going to learn to play an instrument, and play it right, and not waste 2 years of organ lessons like she did when she was a kid.

You see, older parents are probably as guilty of permissive parenting as the books say. But we are also very, very much into success for our child.

It doesn't have to be material success. I would like AwesomeCloud to grow up to be a scientist or a doctor or a senator. I want him to marry a wonderful woman and have healthy kids and never lose his job or get divorced. I don't really want him to own a yacht or nine homes, because that would be a conflict of interest. I want him to be comfortable and happy. But if he's comfortable and happy living in a yurt raising llamas and making jewelry out of milkweed pods... okay! I can live with that! In fact I am exceptionally equipped to live with that.

I just don't want him to major in natural jewelry-making only to discover he can't make any money from it and has to abandon that path and get a real job. That was what his Mama did. I guess I was too difficult to offer real guidance to, so I didn't get much worthwhile guidance. I'm going to do things a little differently with him.

As an older parent, I really am thinking about his major in college. I don't have to wait until he's 9 and embarrassing the rest of the class with his mad multiplication skillz. If he does become a prodigy in something, I won't downplay it - I'll tell him, "You're the best. Run with it! Be the VERY best!"

If he's average in every way, I have a plan for that too. I'll tell him to work hard so he may rise above mediocrity with sheer determination. "If you find a way to make it fun, then you'll WANT to get things done."

I spend a lot of time each day exposing him to little things - a toy that spins, keys that jingle, food that squishes, water that's wet. I cheer when he tries to say a word that has a meaning, no matter how incomprehensible his attempt is. I dance with him. His daddy gives him playing cards and d20 dice to discover.

I wonder why parents don't continue this kind of intimate, hands-on learning in later years. Learning gets relegated to school. Why? Boys, especially, have trouble with book learning for the first several school years. Maybe if their parents gave them activity-based learning experiences when they're ten, same as we do when they' re one, they wouldn't get so frustrated in school. Maybe learning math at the gas station and ecology on the nature trail is just the antidote to male classroom restlessness. (Female too.) Right now I can play "how many different objects can you kick in the back yard" with the Cloud. Maybe in ten years we'll be playing, "how many different types of plants can you ID in the back yard."

I can't leave it to school to teach him everything he needs to know for life and career. Look how badly that approach worked on me. There's a reason why Harvard University admissions officers look as hard at an applicant's extracurricular activities as at his or her GPA.

Not that I'm expecting the Cloud to get into Harvard... but... I'm not ruling it out either. Just saying.

Cornell would be nice. Their ornithology and marine bio programs have strong reputations. The University of Rhode Island is also a center for studies in field biology. Many of the coastal studies and programs dealing with invasive species come from there.

If he decides to go to MA College of Art... well... we'll cross that bridge if we come to it.

As an older parent, I find this line of thinking normal and natural. Instead of devouring parenting books and looking over the shoulders of my fellow parents to see what they're doing right, I make up my own version of what's right. Conformity never led me to greatness. Even finding a different drummer to march to doesn't quite cut it. At my age, I believe it's best to make your own dang drum, and learn how to play it really well, and that's what I'm going to pass on to my kid. It also helps that I only have one child to focus on. If I had 4 or 5 or 7, I could spread out my ambitions for them amongst them all, and celebrate how unique and individual each of them all are. But with one child, my attentions are funneled. That can end up being a whole lot of pressure resting on his shoulders. But part of my lesson for him is to please himself, not other people. Not even Mama. The path to rising above mediocrity is to leave Mama behind in the dust. Don't worry about me, kiddo! Go chase your dreams! And choose your own music!

Fortunately for me, they don't make cutting-edge music these days like they did when I was a kid. There's nothing being produced today that will shock and disturb the parents, because the parents grew up listening to worse. The most angst-ridden high schoolers are now wearing Pink Floyd and Nirvana t-shirts - two of my favorite bands from my generation. (Pink Floyd (pure Pink Floyd, that is, with Roger Waters heading the band) actually predated me by a few years.) My generation invented punk rock, rap, and death metal! Nothing has come out since then that tops death metal. Maybe Finnish death metal, but those guys are all my age too.

I can at least draw from personal experience and advise the kiddo to be a gentleman at concerts: protect his girlfriend by standing between her and the mosh pit. But do they even have mosh pits anymore?

Alas, I fear my son's musical tastes will either be very, very retro or very, very tame. He'll be blaring a riff from "Smoke on the Water" on his @$$-kicking new electric guitar and his Mama will start singing along. Oh, how times have changed. Youth is no longer a key ingredient of 'cool'.

My generation's life experiences are hard to top, too. We can honestly say, "I've known people who lost their lives to AIDS or ruined their lives with drug addiction." Some of us can even say, "I saw my friends sliding downhill with their drug use, and it only strengthened my resolve not to make the same mistake." And we're not 'uphill both ways barefoot in the snow' kinds of people, spouting misfortunes that our kids fail to relate to. We grew up in prosperous times, when sexism and racism were at an all-time low. Aside from cell phones and the internet, our culture has not progressed in 3o years.

That's actually kind of scary - we're older parents, and yet we're NOT culturally obsolete. My mother was 23 when she had me, and she was most certainly culturally obsolete. Here I am, a parent for the first time at age thirty-never-you-mind, and I know my stuff. I've been there, done that, don't suggest you try it too kiddo. I know my way around the internet like a teenager, probably better - and I take the time to spell my words out, too.

I still refuse to get a cell phone, though. Every time I blink, new cell phones are old already. Cell phone generations come and go so quickly, the term 'cell' is inadvertently appropos.

Will any of this change in the next 15 years? Will culture jump-start forward again? Will some mass phenomenon come along that leaves us fogies scratching our heads? I don't think so. Not until we're too tired to keep learning and too old to care.

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