Note to Self: My Kid Is His Own Person
We've all witnessed the frustrated father exploding at his son's fielding error during a Little League game, or the overly helpful mother volubly conducting her daughter's spring concert performance from the audience. Much of this smothering, over-reacting behavior comes from a parent's desire to see their child succeed in every endeavor and the disappointment they feel when their expectations aren't met.
I understand the frustration of watching a child struggle with a skill or talent that the parent feels they should have already mastered. I also know that frustration is amplified when the skill is one in which the parent is proficient. If you sing opera, what do you do when your child is tone deaf? If you played baseball in college, what do you when -- despite all your coaching and encouragement -- your boy or girl's got no arm?
Intellectually, we all know that for every Christopher Buckley and Kate Hudson -- both of whom have succeeded in their well-known parent's respective field -- there are more second-generation talents like baseball player John-Henry Williams or singer Lisa Marie Presley who never matched their parent's level of accomplishment. When it comes to our own offspring, however, we don't always bring that same reasoned understanding.
As much as we like to celebrate our children's individuality, we parents often assume that our little guys and girls are mirror images of ourselves, and therefore will experience life in exactly the same way that we did. Following that flawed logic, we conclude that our abilities and gifts must be genetically transferred -- and when faced with the evidence on the page or on the playground that they're not, most of us don't explode, but we still experience disappointment.
Though I've been unconditionally supportive of my eight-year-old son Josh's initial forays into both sports and theater, I reluctantly admit that it's his drawing and painting that brings out the critical "art dad."
In our school district, the PTA funds a program called "Hands On Art" which sponsors parent-led art programs for kids. A college art major, I've been participating in HOA since my son began kindergarten.
My teaching strategy has always been simple: maintain focus on the artistic process; experiment with new and different media; and never forget that the quality of the finished project is secondary. My job is to reinforce the joy of drawing, painting, and sculpting regardless of the outcome.
When I look at Josh's work, however, I hold it to a completely different -- and unfair -- standard. His interest in detail is minimal, and he speeds through the projects with careless abandon. His approach is hardly unusual for a third-grade boy, but because my childhood ability to draw superheroes and sports cars set me apart from everyone else in my class, I unfairly expect Josh to evince the same potential.
So how does a parent cope with the disparity between reality and expectations?
First, we have to remember that our advanced years have dulled the memory of our elementary school life. The lessons we learned in class and on the playground were hard won. We don't remember how difficult it was to learn our multiplication tables, shoot baskets and master four-square. Give your children time to develop a batting arm or gain facility with a paintbrush.
Second, put your own ego aside. Don't make your kids shoulder the weight of your expectations. No matter how hard we push them to become the person we want them to be, they'll find their own paths to their skills and passions. Remember, no one's life is determined at age eight. Was yours?
Lastly, no matter what their skill level, participate in the things they do, because in the long run, throwing the ball with your boy or girl is more important than the distance and accuracy of the throw.
Josh may not make his living as an artist or a writer when he's ready to strike out on his own, and I can accept that. On the other hand, he's been drawing more recently -- pages and pages of Yu-Gi-Oh! characters mostly -- but still he's been drawing. And whether he continues in the years to come, he doesn't have to color inside the lines for his father's approval.