Maybe I’m glossing over the past, but I don’t remember it being so hard the first time around.
“It” would be parenting a child though adolescence. In exactly 106 days I will—once again and to my mortification—have a teenager in the house. Only this time, the teenager has testicles. And a gaming problem (I’ll stop short of calling it an “addiction”). And moodiness like his mother. And he’s not a special snowflake.
What is a “special snowflake,” you ask? It’s what most parents who are active in their kids lives think they’re raising. We probably channel our own shortcomings through our kids, thinking if only we try hard enough our kid will thank us one day after receiving an Oscar or a Nobel or a Pulitzer… our billionaire kid (upgraded from millionaire in the 1990s; what’s a million worth in 2015???) will happily buy us a home in the location of our choice, come home every Thanksgiving, bringing beautiful grandchildren and the loving spouse we never had along for the visit. It will be—in short—perfection.
Now, anyone knows this model is deeply flawed, but nonetheless somewhere inside we believe our kid is an Outlier. I’ve seen it with my friends, whose kids were bright (but tutored to get ahead) or marginally talented (got into a “gifted” program) and altogether privileged. Typically reality sets in during late high school or early college or at college graduation at the latest. That’s when you discover that your Stanford grad for whom you shelled out a minimum of a quarter-million dollars (hence why you need your child to become a billionaire!) is actually not that special. In fact, s/he is as normal as you are and probably struggling with the same issues you do. If you’re lucky, your kid winds up marginally better off than you’ve been. It’s a first world problem, but it’s pretty ubiquitous among Americans of a certain class (i.e. working or higher). It may even be evolutionary: We are programmed for our best genes to move along, so why wouldn’t our child be uniquely special?
The reality is quite different. Even before the recent financial crisis, odds of besting one’s parents were slim. Now, they’re akin to getting struck by lightening.
Consider me struck. I have a special snowflake. Without going into boast-ville, I’ll just state that she is extraordinary in every way (aside from getting cast in starring roles for major studios, she’s poised to graduate college a semester early with a double major—physics and psychology—and money in the bank, as she was given a full scholarship plus stipend based solely on merit, not financial need). About six months ago when I was first struggling with my son’s hormonal attitude, she voiced her concern, “You’re just unhappy that he’s not a special snowflake like me.” Yes, in her wise way, she even coined a term that perfectly sums up this notion that our children are not just unique (one of the earliest science lessons I absorbed was the notion that each snowflake is original in its design) but truly exceptional.
It took me more time than it takes an ice particle to melt to absorb fully my daughter’s analysis, but she was right. I was facing the reality that most parents of privileged kids don’t get to until their child is “off in the real world” that my son was smart, possibly even great at some things, but far from extraordinary. He’s a normal kid, with normal activities, and lofty dreams that border on fantastical.
One of the challenges I faced as a parent was to undo what I had faced being raised myself. My parents may have been well-intentioned, but they pissed on my dreams. I didn’t want to do that to my kids. For child number one, well, that support of her dreams (with some heavy doses of “this is reality” laden on top) has paid dividends. I don’t know that she’ll ever be famous, but I’m pretty sure she’ll be happy… and way more “successful” than I’ll ever be. But just as my son needed different forms of discipline as a toddler, so he needs different parenting as an adolescent. I’m back to trial and error with my boy.
For example, he had a tremendous amount of school work this summer, which is counted towards his first term grade (we learned that the hard way last year when we inadvertently missed one of the homework links, and he failed to turn in assignments on time). This summer I was hellbent and determined to insure he did a good job on his homework to start out the year with high As. Between camp and going to spend 10 days with his dad on the west coast, my son was subjected to near daily tirades about his homework, his work ethic and self-discipline. All he really wanted to do was play League of Legends all day long with his friends.
Among the projects I forced him to do was a book with drawings for his humanities class; he had struggled all year long in sixth grade in humanities, and I wanted to make doubly sure he started the year well. The instructions included creating “a colorful, creative visual to display your findings.” I made him do far more than the simple poster board of compare and contrast, which was the obvious choice for this particular assignment. On the first day of class, every child but he turned in a poster; the teacher was not thrilled, going so far as to say he wished he had known the kids in his class ahead of time to instruct them on what to do (i.e. not make a poster). I don’t know if my kid’s assignment—it should be noted he put in many hours and far more effort than usual—will be recognized with a high grade, but at least it’s different from what everyone else in the class did.
He hated me for making him do it.
I also signed him up for afterschool this term; it’s free and he has activities ranging from band to soccer to fencing.
He hated me for making him do it.
The first couple days of school this week had him in high dudgeon. He was determined to be miserable, and I feared a self-fulfilling prophesy. On Thursday—his first day of afterschool—he left for school livid and depressed and called me repeatedly throughout the day, basically begging me to let him skip afterschool and when I said “no,” to tell me how much he hated me. All I felt like was “bad mommy.”
But as painful as it was, I held my ground. By day two of afterschool, he was no longer begging me to come home and play video games (although the four-day weekend owing to Rosh Hashanah brought forth the pronouncement that he will be doing nothing but playing video games for the next three days; he’ll do his homework on Tuesday… or so he tells me).
I either had forgotten just how horrible a pubescent kid is at this age or else I have a very different kid at this age.
He’s not a special snowflake.
But he needs to learn to work as hard as if he were. Because snowflakes melt if they aren’t in constant motion. And life is so much harder when you don’t apply yourself. And that includes parenting. Short term pain for—what I hope will be—long term gain.