Thursday, March 14, 2013

advice or slice? parenting with an invisible sword

Hanging out in the women's locker room at the pool this morning, I overheard one mother tell another, "My son wanted to study accounting for a little while.  I told him I didn't think that was for him because I just didn't think he had the focus for all those numbers."  

They both laughed.

She continued, "Of course, he didn't last more than a semester at it." 

She sounded so knowing, so satisfied that things had turned out just as she'd expected.

I couldn't help but ask myself, did she never wonder if her son's failure to stick with accounting had anything to do with her lack of faith in his ability to do so? 

Which, in turn, got me thinking in general about how we have so much scary power as parents.  I say "scary" because I think we're wielding it all the time, without always realizing it or understanding its effect. 

When I was in elementary school, I told my mother I wanted to be an archaeologist.  I imagined studying history, solving mysteries, learning about ancient civilizations, and of course, digging around in the dirt.  All fascinating! 

My mother's response: "Really?" with a definite tone of "ew."  She continued, "That sounds SO tedious, having to find and label all those little teeny pieces of things and then record them. Too many details for me!"

My mother didn't intend to suggest that I shouldn't or couldn't study archaeology.  In her mind, I think, we'd simply had a casual little chat where she admitted she found science boring.  I'm sure she saw her own disinterest as something unconnected to mine. 

At my young age, however, I took her words as truth, feeling disappointed to discover that studying archaeology would, in fact, prove an endeavor full of tedium instead of mystery.  The notion stuck with me for a long time--dissuading me from pursuing this path even though my interest in it persisted.

What would have happened if she'd said, "Really? I've always wanted to study that too! Maybe you'll find a lost civilization and get famous!"

Believe it or not, if she had responded more positively, I think there is a very good chance I would be an archaeologist right now (although I feel fairly certain I wouldn't have achieved any degree of fame).

Would my life be better or worse? I have no idea. The point isn't whether or not I want to dig holes in the desert.  I'm just fascinated by the idea that such an off-handed conversation between a mother and her 10 or 11 year old daughter could have such far-reaching and unintended implications.

It's as if we parents have an invisible sword.  If we handle it right, we can use it to blaze a trail for our kids - to fight off adversaries and clear the way toward success and happiness.  But with the darned thing being invisible and all, how do you keep from accidentally lopping off a toe or severing an arm in the process? 

I'm left wondering, what battle scars have I inflicted on my own children?  There's that time I manipulated six year old Gareth into playing soccer instead of baseball because I didn't think the dugout offered enough action for his hyperactive little body.   Or how about that time Olivia broke her leg ice skating and, instead of believing her, I moralized on the foibles of overdramatizing pain? 

Did I decapitate their career plans, their self-esteem, their spirit with my invisible mommy sword? 

I kind of doubt I've done the kind of damage that would require a word like "decapitate," but perhaps that's just wishful thinking?  It's sobering to discover that, while you have tremendous power as a parent, you can't always tell the difference between forging a path and chopping off someone's ear.

You think you're going to correct all the mistakes made by your parents or the lady at the pool.  You think that you're going to--for once and for all--do it right.  Then you find out that what you're actually going to do is be a human being. 

Which, after all, must have been what all those parents before you were doing all along.

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