Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Don't Kill the Messenger . . .

Olive branch

The following article was sent to me by an ElRo parent as something that I, and our community, may benefit from reading. It originally ran in the New York Times and was written by Dave Marcus. I think it is a wonderful reminder for parents/guardians to try to honor their kids where they are AND a wonderful reminder for students to cut their parents a little slack and remember that the pushing comes from love. Image

Help Them, Teach Them, but Don’t Live Through Them

THE woman corners me after I give a speech about college admissions.

“My son isn’t the best student,” she begins, “but we think he has a good chance of getting into. ...”

I can guess: Stanford or Duke, Yale or Northwestern. I’m sure I already know the story. The boy has a B-plus average and disappointing SAT scores, but Dad went there, and a family friend used to work in the admissions office.

For seven years, I’ve crisscrossed the country, discussing what I learned while writing two books about teenagers. Help your children find their hidden talents, I advise parents. Teach your children to be independent. Don’t live your dreams through your son or daughter.

As this mother shares her application strategies, I want to recommend that she let her son find his path. I stay quiet, though, because I’m struggling to follow my own advice.

(continued after the jump)

Somewhere in my files, I have a photo of my son, Benjie, and me on the steps of the admissions office of my alma mater, Brown University. We were framed by glowing yellow forsythia, and I was beaming.

Benjie was 2 weeks old.

At the time, I was a fellow at Harvard. Soon after, I did a brief teaching stint at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. I secretly hoped my son would go to one of those Ivy campuses. Maybe I saw that as the seal of approval for my parenting — my boy in Cambridge, Mass., or Hanover, N.H., or Providence, R.I.
Benjie demonstrated, by his nature, that he had other plans. In kindergarten, he was the restless one who preferred exploring to listening to directions. When a private school turned him down for first grade, I felt I’d been gut-punched.

The homework wars erupted in fourth grade — a 20-minute assignment stretched on for three hours, punctuated by cries of “I hate writing!” Later, while I tried to explain long division, he stormed out of the house. He stayed in the yard till dark, digging holes and watching birds.

I pushed enrichment; he refused to try “stupid” scouting. He dropped soccer. Basketball lasted long enough for me to buy a uniform.

Experts analyzed Benjie with standardized tests, and I fretted over his percentiles and hired tutors. At the same time, it seemed most of my friends’ preteens were doing genome research.

Benjie is 14 now. At that age, I pestered teachers for extra-credit assignments. Benjie is satisfied with a C; he doesn’t understand why anyone cares about spelling words correctly; the notion of revising an essay is foreign to him.

At 14, I knew I wanted to be a writer. When I ask Benjie what he sees himself doing in 10 years, he answers vaguely about working with animals. But he most likely won’t be a vet — too much chemistry and biology, he says.

And yet Benjie has so much that I lack. As a teenager, I was a shy, awkward outsider. The other day, walking through Benjie’s school for a meeting, I saw him regaling a group of kids in the hallway with some fascinating tale.

More important, he’s developed empathy. When he and six other students saw a classmate accused of shoplifting on a school trip, Benjie persuaded the others to avoid gossiping.

Last summer, I envisioned Benjie toiling in a lab at science camp, but I lost the will to fight another battle. Instead, I sent him to stay with my brother and sister-in-law, who breed dogs. At their house, work begins at 5:30 a.m., seven days a week. Benjie would have to follow orders without excuses.

Three hundred miles away, I waited for the call begging to come home. Instead, I got one-word texts like “awsomme” — misspelled every time, in true Benjie fashion.

When the visit ended, my sister-in-law sent a note saying that Benjie had pitched in tirelessly with chores and even cleaned the yard after 17 spaniels dirtied it. He groomed dogs for two hours straight without getting antsy.

“Benjie is an amazing kid and human being,” she wrote. “He is smart, funny, curious, caring.”

Twelfth grade is a few years away, but I’m already imagining Benjie’s application essay: “My name is Benjamin but no one calls me that. I’m an animal-loving, cello-playing, cross-country-running nomad who has gone to six school districts in three states because of my dad’s stupid career.”

I spend a lot of time in high-pressure communities, speaking to anxious mothers and fathers like me. We want our children to go to great colleges and prepare for a brutal job market.

Still, I tell families to stop obsessing about campuses with marquee names. I’ve visited dozens of little-known schools where professors are far more engaged in teaching than members of Ivy League faculties. Also, in this economy, I can make a strong case for going to community college, mastering a trade or taking a gap year to earn money.

Above all, I urge parents of high school juniors and seniors not to see their kids as SAT and ACT scores and G.P.A.’s, but as creative, unpredictable, unprogrammable teenagers with their own gifts.

Like my son, Benjie.