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Successful on their own terms

I once heard a brave workshop leader say something that caused multiple mom faces around the room to fall with an almost audible thunk:

“How many of you have exactly the same values and beliefs as your parents?” the workshop leader had asked. Three moms out of perhaps 50 had raised their hands.

“Well,” she said. “That’s how many of your kids are going to have the same values and beliefs as you.”

Many of the parents in the room seemed shocked that she would suggest that their children — how could this be? — had their own minds.

Personally, I appreciated her candor, because this is something I think that parents in our day and age forget all too often (and I’m including myself here!). We consult the latest research, we follow our favorite child-rearing manual faithfully, we research schools or try to have the perfect homeschool, we’re involved with our kids, we’re committed to being better parents… But we forget that in the end our kids are themselves, and all of our engineering may get them to the right schools with the right peers and the right skills for the 21st century, but it won’t get past the fact that our kids are humans, complex inside and interacting with a complex world.

Are we doing our very best to give them what they will need in life? Of course.

Will we succeed? Probably not.

That’s not to say that our kids won’t figure out how to make their lives into a success. But they will do that on their own terms, and they will often be terms that we disagree with.

I remember a young man in college who made the agonizing decision to quit ROTC and the military career his father had planned for him. This young man was taking a huge gamble: his father had set him up for success in every way he knew. But it wasn’t on his son’s terms.

I know a man who became a scientist because he was told he was good at it. One day, he threw away that career to become a potter.

I know people who stuck with spouses their families didn’t like, who live in places their parents hate to visit, and who become vegan in spite of their meat and potatoes upbringing.

I know a lot of people who have very smart kids, kids who seem destined for success. But really, do we understand how one smart kid goes on to be Steve Jobs and another ends up picking food out of trash bins? We think we have the answers, but really, all we have is the best we can do.

I think that “the best we can do” is to offer our children tools they can use to fulfill their potential. But when we give our kids tools like a good education, they may end up using them much differently than we expected. The best we can hope is that our kids are happy with their choices in the end. Banking on your kids growing up to do exactly what you prepared them to do is not a great investment. But I hope that I do a good enough job that I’d be willing to bank on my kids being successful… on their own terms.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

2 Responses

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  1. gasstationwithoutpumps says

    I can’t answer the question ““How many of you have exactly the same values and beliefs as your parents?” easily. Well, there is one easy answer: “obviously not—no one has *exactly* the same values and beliefs from day to day.” But if I accept that the speaker was being very sloppy and meant “pretty much the same values and beliefs”, I have problems, because may parents had demonstrably different values and beliefs—they had different religions, different tastes in food, different prejudices, different recreations, different reading habits, even different politics. Which of my parents did the speaker mean?
    In many ways my ethical values and beliefs are closer to my Dad’s, but some of my recreations are closer to my Mom’s. Would my parents find my beliefs compatible with theirs? I think so. Would they agree with every decision I have made? Probably not. I expect that my son will end up with beliefs fairly compatible with mine, but that he’ll make some decisions that I would not have, for reasons that I won’t see as compelling.

    By the time I’d thought through the question, the speaker would have been 10 minutes further along in his or her talk, blithely unaware that the question was a truly terrible one that some people didn’t answer simply because the assumptions of the question were so overwhelmingly wrong—it isn’t a yes-or-no question.

    • Suki says

      I think we can assume that you’re probably an uncommonly thoughtful parent! I will admit that the majority of moms in this group were Christian homeschoolers, and the speaker had a lot of experience with the group and knew that one of their motivations for homeschooling was likely to try to influence their children to be “like them.” But I don’t think that this is unique to Christian homeschooling parents, which is why I didn’t mention that in the piece. I think that a lot of us blithely think that we can shape our children’s futures, when in fact all we really can do is offer them the tools to shape their own futures as best they can. And the reality is that most of us are going to forgive our children for making choices we wouldn’t have made, and that’s part of being a parent, too…

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