We’ve entered into a new phase of kid-life, and thus a new phase of parent-life. While I’m still just as entrenched in the toddler years, and equally as involved in the cut-and-paste projects of preschool, we now have a school-aged child at home. And with real school comes real schoolwork. Mostly, I follow Grant’s lead when it comes to getting this work done. He knows his responsibilities, and I know that when pushed, he tends to push back, so it’s in all of our best interest to be a bit mellow about the whole thing. The trouble is: Grant is smart. Like, crazy smart. Most of his homework is no big deal to him. And that’s where trouble hits. He gets so used to being so good at it, to flying through his work, that when he hits a speed bump, he is totally derailed. His frustration gets the best of him. He wants to give up, forget the whole thing. And all of us are learning how to give him the tools he needs to do the next thing. We are learning how to give him to space to get things wrong. And for that to be ok.
I don’t want Grant to find his security in being the first kid to get into the 100 club at school. I don’t want him to think he’s only successful because he reads, well, and lots. I don’t want him to worry that I will love him less because he forgot to turn his library book in, or because he couldn’t spell of the words on his spelling list. My love for him is rock solid simply because he is. I am proud of him, always. Just for showing up, and doing the work.
It’s a hard line to walk, I’m realizing, as a parent. It’s hard to know when to praise, when to be loud in your cheer leading, and when to take a back seat, a constant presence with a quiet smile and a wink. Feedback can be a dangerous drug. I know. It’s taken me a while to work it out in my own life. I know is that it feels good to be good at something – to be smart, to do well on tests, to be a good athlete – and that it’s easy to give up when there are no more high fives. It’s easy to throw in the towel when you’ve never had to work for something, when you never learned how to work. Failure can derail you in the big things if you’ve never experienced in little ones.
I remember reading something in a book when Grant was a baby. This particular baby book was extolling the virtues of letting a baby get frustrated. Let him fuss for a minute, it suggested, when he is struggling to grab a toy that is just out of reach. Let him wiggle it out a bit when he’s on his tummy and isn’t happy about it. Watch him work it out; watch as he struggles, and stretches. It’s work. It’s good work. And it propels these dear ones into progress. That stretch finally makes the grab; those arms and legs eventually push to the crawl. That frustration is a catalyst. Let him be frustrated when he’s trying to tie his shoes, working on a math problem, learning to hit a ball, I remind myself.
There is this scene in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web when the animals are getting together to decide on the next word to use in the web after the initial success of “Some Pig.” They decide that Charlotte will weave the word “Terrific” next, but Wilbur can’t help but feel ambivalent about this choice. “But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig,” he tells the spider. Her response is genuine and full of grace: “You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what counts. You’re my best friend, and I think you’re sensational. Now stop arguing and get some sleep.”
In other words: Wilbur is the pig of Charlotte’s dreams.
Grant is terrific. Not because he can read to me, or because he scored two goals for soccer. He just is. It doesn’t matter what his teacher thinks of him, or what his friends think of him, (although of course I hope we’re raising a boy who shows boundless love). He’s terrific because I think he’s terrific. Because Mark does. Because he is loved and secure in his place in our family.
My hope is that because I think that Grant is terrific, and because I tell him that often, just because, that he will be secure enough in who he is without all that other stuff. That he will be secure enough to push himself, to try new things. It will mean hard work. It will mean failing. It won’t always pay off; not all risks do. But that he will know that he is terrific, still.
These are big life lessons, really. These are things that hit me to the core, if I’m honest with myself. Growing up, the message of my generation was “You’re special! You can do anything! You can be anything!” This is not a bad message. But it’s an untempered message. A message that, without the other stuff, misses the point. We all wanted to be stars – to be ball players, or actors. To be doctors curing cancer, or President. I fairly certain nobody said “When I grow up, I’d like to sell insurance.” But you do what you do, and I’m sure you’ll work hard at it. I’m not saying don’t shoot for the stars. Not at all. Skyrocket yourself out there, kid. I’m saying that you are no less terrific if you land back on earth with the rest of us.
Yes, I’m special. But I’m special just because I’m me, not because of what I do. Not because I’m smart, or because I can make an awesome chili. I’m not big and important to the world, but I’m important in my very small world: my family, my friends. I can’t do anything I want, or be anything I want. I would like very much to be an astronaut (no, really), but no matter how hard I try, that is just not in the cards for me. And that’s OK. Somehow I don’t think that makes me any less terrific.
Grant still has a lot of need for affirmation. He showed me a picture that he had made the other day, a very precise and intentional drawing, and asked if I liked this one. My answer these days is this: “Grant, I love all of the drawings you make, because you make them.” And then I follow up with more conversation about his color choices, or a story about the picture, and we move on with our day. He helps me unload the dishwasher, we talk about what to make for dinner. And it is all a prayer of terrific love.