This morning I read a book review in the New Yorker exploring the inherent tensions in raising a child prodigy: you want your special snowflake to make the most of their potential without spending so much time in competitive mode that their childhood is defined exclusively as a long and dreadful slog toward adulthood.
Every elementary school classroom has at least one parent who enjoys boasting how every free minute of their kids’ time is spent on enrichment activities of some sort: math club, science tutor, classical instrument, sports…those who whisper conspiratorially how enrolling Johnny or Jane in equestrian classes or fencing lessons while in utero is bound to give them a leg up on ivy league admissions because so few kids enter (much less excel) at these fringe competitive sports.
Living in a high cost of living area, I feel a little like an anthropologist among these parents. A few case studies:
The Ph.D faculty at a local university who drives the kids to swim classes an hour before schools starts on weekdays, language classes every weekend, and tennis lessons every afternoon.
The dual physician couple who actively fosters friendships among our kids, in part explaining that “doctors’ kids are just different” for being held to ostensibly higher standards of academic achievement.
The mom who explains, as we watch our daughters lose all but one game during this basketball season, that she is not worried because this is her kids’ second, unserious sport in contrast to her designated “power sport” (the child is 9 years old). This followed by the comment, “You have to specialize in a sport by second grade if you expect them to make varsity in high school.”
A part of me understands these parents and their desperation. There is a real fear that the kids will not achieve the academic success (much less maintain the financial security) that the parents have enjoyed. Channeling parental fears of their child’s failure by assuming X activities over Y years will lead to acceptance at Z prestige college is a reflection of a desire to feel they can impact junior’s destiny, when in fact it’s largely beyond parental control.
In reality, you plant the seed you are given, add the water and shovel some horseshit to help it grow, but it becomes what it was meant to become – wild, not some topiary you can shape.
Problem is, as a kid you don’t get a second chance at childhood.
As a parent, it’s your job to grant your kid the permission they need to be a child. Let them be goofy, cling to you for no good reason, test out the absurd sense of humor you raised them to appreciate. Wrestle on the floor with your kid. Teach her to fly a kite. Thrust his hands into fertile dirt in the garden and show him how nonchalantly you wipe it off it on your jeans.
I’ll end with the quote that moved me, from which the title of this post is taken, written by a long dead Russian philosopher (Alexander Herzen) who lost a child to drowning:
“Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is in it’s flow, later is too late.”