Friday, September 9, 2011

Reluctant Helicoptering

As my children grow older, external demands grow with them.  Activities, like their food intake, seem to increase every day.  Drive here, drop off there, pick up in two hours, pack extra snacks for school today, tomorrow and next Tuesday, and bring a book and a beach towel and two dollars in an envelope marked “Pizza Pretzel Ice Cream Donut Party” (I’m convinced that public schools are secretly funded by all the junk food companies in the US).  Have your child ready for baseball practice immediately after school, and stay after practice for a parent meeting to be told that you need to volunteer to be an umpire three times this season.  Then rush back to the school for the band parent meeting to be told that your kid needs to practice his band instrument.  Check all homework for mistakes, read all papers sent home, and don't forget to sign the assignment book.  This is in addition to the regular activities that you have planned, like making dinner, eating dinner, emptying the trash cans, and breathing.

Head spinning, I try to not feel guilty about not wanting to do it all.  Not being unable to do it all, but not even wanting to try.   None of us can do it all, but there are some parents who want to do it all, that they should do it all.  I’m talking about meeting all of society’s ramped-up expectations about their children’s success in school, organized team sports, art, music, and foreign languages (the last which, let’s face it, should be part of every American child’s education, beyond Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and Ni Hao Kai-Lan.  Come on, US public schools!).  Parents lament about how much time kids spend in school and extra activities, and express relief yet a little guilt that they don’t do as much as someone else’s kids, who are also taking horseback riding lessons and performing in community theater, in between summer camps for several sports and a mission trip out of the country.  These parents never miss an awards ceremony at school, are represented at each parent-teacher conference, and somehow also volunteer in the PTA for several committees during the school year.  Presumably, they are doing all of this while I am home because I’d rather watch TV or sleep than take an active part in my kids’ lives. 

Which isn’t really true.  I want my kids to succeed in school and in life, but common sense tells me that my constant handling does not guarantee their success.  Independence is valued in this society; if I show up around every corner to give my kid everything he needs to succeed, how will he know that his accomplishments are real, that he can succeed without me eliminating each obstacle?  I’m proud of my kids even when I’m not there to witness every step.  Furthermore, I realize that just because they have “tasted” every extra-curricular activity in the community, this doesn’t also mean their overwhelming success in life.  Have they tried out several activities until they find one they really like?  Yes.  Do they stick with two or three or four or eight activities throughout their childhood, running ragged everyday and not knowing what it feels like to eat at the dinner table with their family?  No.

Ramped-up expectations of extra-curricular activities are requiring me to spend time organizing my childrens’ lives around an increasingly tight schedule, when they are approaching an age where they can make their own choices about how to spend their time productively.  Playing a sport should not mean that they must play the regular season, a travel league off-season, a week of summer camp, and a winter clinic right after the holidays.   All this practice does not guarantee that my kid will be an overwhelming success; it may only teach him that personal limits are to be ignored.  Likewise, if the school has a field trip at the end of the year for each grade, and two or three awards ceremonies plus special class-wide parent-invited events, does mom and dad show up at each one?  Not necessarily.  It’s this madness that I resist in participating.  I hope that it is teaching boundaries to my kids.  I hope that it is not ruining their sense of love and support and parental encouragement.  I hope that they won’t end up spending thousands of dollars on therapy because I missed their second-grade talent show.  There will be bigger, better problems, and they will eventually need to figure them out on their own.

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