Being a parent is challenging. When your children are born, the ultimate goal is to give your child a happy upbringing and hopefully give them the tools to be capable of handling their future. I felt the enormity of that responsibility the moment I held my daughter in my hands for the first time 16 years ago. I realized that my world had now ceased to revolve solely around me. Now it was time to really grow up. It was make it or break it time and the "thing" I was going to make or break was this baby that I decided to bring into this world. My daughter would forevermore look to my husband and me for everything she needed, be it food and water, shelter and warmth, love and support. It was all on us.
I have always been a big believer in setting high standards for kids. I believe that kids will generally live up to the expectations put upon them. I've been witness to many slacker parents who don't put any interest or faith into their children's abilities, resulting in the children themselves being uninspired and insecure. Needless to say, I set the bar high for my daughter. These days, schools scare the hell out of parents, telling them that if they want their kids to be accepted into a good college they have to have nearly perfect high school records. Starting in middle school, I enrolled her in an extra college-prep course that she would take in addition to all of her other classes all the way through to her senior year in high school. We stressed the importance of getting straight A's in all her classes, so she would qualify for scholarships in the future. If any subject in high school was offered in advanced or AP classes, we had her sign up for them with the encouragement of her school counselor. She is a 1st degree black belt in TaeKwonDo and was volunteering twice a week after school to help teach the sport to elementary kids in order to get community service hours for her college-prep class, which requires 40 hours or more each school year. It was a challenging work load. She seemed to be handling it well, though. She even had time to start her own business at school selling wallets and rings out of duct tape to her fellow students and made a nice profit doing it.
As a mother, I was patting myself on the back. My kids (I also have an 11 year old son) were star students, they were responsible and respectable, getting consistent praise from adults and teachers. I had multiple people joke to me that I should write a book on parenting. Talk about an ego boost! This is easy, I thought. I have this parenting thing in the bag. Piece of cake. Soon, though, I was about to be enlightened. Even actions that have the best of intentions fueling them can go astray and make us lose sight of what is really important.
By the end of her freshman year, my daughter's grades in Geometry and Advanced Biology began to slip. Concerned, I sent her to tutoring and encouraged her to work through her frustrations with the classes and the teachers. She did not get straight A's at the end of that year. Again, her father and I reinforced the importance of her grades on college admission applications and scholarships. I knew that her AP classes would give her extra GPA points to make up for the lower grades, so I didn't panic yet. We told her that sophomore year would probably be better and we would start with extra tutoring earlier if she needed it. Fast forward to the end of this school year, sophomore year, when she realized too late that she was in hot water in Algebra II and Advanced Chemistry. She had hidden her problems in these classes from me, thinking she could work it all out by the end of the year, but her grades had just dropped lower and lower. When I learned of the situation from her school and brought it to her attention during spring break, she had a full scale panic attack. Over the next couple of days, she revealed to me how much she hated school, how she had no interest in college because she had no real passion for a specific career, how she was convinced she was "stupid" because no matter how hard she tried she couldn't keep up in science and math, how she was scared of disappointing her father and me, and how embarrassed she was because she believed that our relatives and friends thought she was so perfect when in reality she was a "failure"(her words).
It saddens me that it took a total breakdown of a person who I love most in the world for me to see that my parental guidance could have such devastating results. I had put so much pressure on this child that she was actually exploding with pain. Seeing this, I told her that I released her from my expectations. That I was wrong. That I was sorry. That life was not about grades and monetary success, but about love and enjoyment and fulfillment. That not everyone was good at everything, that it was wrong of me to expect that from her, and it doesn't make her stupid. I told her that I was sorry I had not valued her creativity as much as I had valued her grades. That there is not only one road to success. That she had her own path to follow and I had no right to try to plan her future through my eyes. I was totally to blame. It was hard for me to come to the realization that I had taken ownership over my daughter's life during the exact time when she needed to claim it as her own. And claim it with confidence.
Next year, my daughter won't be taking any advanced classes. She also dropped the college-prep course which was becoming redundant. This is going to be the year where she finds her balance. She is caring, responsible, mature, resourceful, creative, and capable of great things. With gentle guidance and input, I'm going to let her take the lead in her own life.
There are no perfect parents. All kids are different. All situations will be different. There is no definitive right or wrong way to help a child prepare for life as an adult. The thing is, if there is love, it is easier to rectify a mistake. If you end up making a wrong decision, you just need to make another one. A better one, hopefully. A decision led by love and understanding.
Read more of Heather's writing over at her blog Zest of Life and Lemons.