There are lots of things about being a parent that aren’t so great: breaking up brawls, teaching people how to eat with utensils, waking up in the middle of the night multiple times because someone’s teeth hurt, explaining over and over why you can’t call your brother a bastard, that sort of thing. The sheer physical and emotional drudgery of parenting is overwhelming sometimes — who knew you’d spend a decade between your mid-thirties and mid-forties (having chosen to have children late) actually carrying other people around?
But one of the consolations of being a parent is the many chances at redemption it offers you. If your own parents’ chosen method of discipline was humiliating, you can do it differently. If you didn’t like camping in the rain, well, you don’t have to foist that on your own children. The trouble is, though, that sometimes you are guided by instinct and then you miss completely your moment of redemption.
That’s what happened last night when my eleven year old son told me he’d gotten a “C” on a math test. (A C, for those of you who are not American, is for scores in the 70-80% range.) He hadn’t studied, he said, because his smaller brother had wanted his company. This is the first year they’ve ever gotten grades, and they’re still feeling their way. He honestly didn’t know what the “C” might mean in our family.
But I did. And that’s how I came to say something (several times, in fact, because I wanted to make sure I was understood) I wish I hadn’t: I expect each of you to get A’s. Always.
I knew from the look on their faces, the crestfallen look on the boy who got the C and the look of horror on the face of his twin, who often cannot even FIND his homework, let alone do it perfectly, that I was headed somewhere wrong. It took me a few moments to see it and for that I am grateful, because when you can see yourself heading in the wrong direction, you can sometimes steer clear of the cliff you’re about to throw yourself off.
Let me say that I did get A’s. My entire childhood. I got a dime for each one of them and a lot of parental and teacher approval. I was a younger child and that meant a lot to me. I was quiet and neat and obedient and I watched the adults like a hawk to figure out what would please them. As a result, I was awash in dimes.
My sons are not like this. They’re wild and messy. Sometimes they’re pretty clever. Other times you wonder how they can dress themselves in the morning. I have tried to get them to be otherwise, but they resist with so much gusto, that I can’t quite bear to squelch their messiness and noise with the weapons at hand. (Cutting off food, or access to the computer, for example.) Also, over time, I have seen that my own pursuit of the A meant I missed out on something that really matters to me now. I didn’t write, the way I’d wanted to when I was a child, because I wanted to succeed in the world: I wanted the adults to give me dimes. They did not give dimes for stories. I became a lawyer instead, the career that’s designed for people who know how to and need to get A’s (and the dimes that morph into dollars). It took me years to make space to write. I regret that, but not so much that I’m paralyzed by it, or unwilling to try to fix it.
Yesterday, though, I saw where it started — with my parents’ reaction to my grades and my own hunger to make them happy. And I also saw how that could go wrong for a child who isn’t neat and obedient. This is the place where they begin to define themselves as stupid beause they don’t happen to have the skills that make you a success in school (those skills include the ability to focus on things you’re not always interested in, neat handwriting, a body that can take sitting still, and a natural interest in topics that not everyone finds interesting, like the dates when things happened in history.) I don’t want it to be like that for them.
And so we crafted a makeshift family policy around grades last night, one that I hope makes room for them to be who they are, but also encourages them to develop discipline, a character trait that will help them in whatever they choose to do. It’s this: You must do your homework and study for tests as well as you are able. If you do your best, that is enough. But, while you do that, you must be on the look out for the thing you love to do. Because that’s your real job as a human being: to find something — maybe even more than one thing — that gives you so much pleasure that when you do it (and if you’re lucky, earn your living at it) it doesn’t feel like work, but like play.
And that’s it. The grade is secondary as long as you have done your best. How’s that? It may seem like a small thing, but it was a moment of redemption that more than made up for the nights of being wakened by small people with toothaches. The hard thing now will be handling my discomfort with grades that are not always perfect, and letting my children choose vocations I’m not so sure about. I don’t think that’s going to be easy. I don’t want them to be feckless people, or people who don’t know how to care for themselves or earn a living. I wonder how I’ll feel when they come to me and say they’ve taken a job in Alaska working on a fishing boat so they have time to write music. Perhaps this will be a moment of redemption. That’s my hope, anyway.
(I’d like to add that my own parents’ love of learning and delight in scholary success was also a gift to each of us. They took us to the library every week and never told us what to read or what not to read. My father read all the time and was an example of how much you can discover about the world from books. My mother worked really hard at her jobs with real integrity. And she is very, very good at math. The money for the A’s? I’m sure she thought it would be a good way to teach multiplication.)