"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."
-John Steinbeck, East of Eden
I've heard variations of this quote in different places over the past few years, and I love it every time. It's a thing I think of a lot while working, either on my own projects or on projects for which I am getting paid. And lately, it's something I've been thinking of with my kids.
When you give birth to a baby that you conceived with your own body, I imagine you see that baby as an extension of yourself. A mix of you and your partner's DNA, the baby is bound to look like one of you, and probably act like one of you. If you're a perfectionist, chances are, you're going to expect near perfection from that kid. If you did well in school and went to college and graduate school, you're going to expect the same from that kid. If you're smart, you assume your child will be smart, and "smart" might mean different things, but whatever it means, your child's intellect is a reflection of you (or so you think), so you're expecting it to be high.
Of course, not everyone thinks this way, but I'm a part of some mommy groups on Facebook, and let me tell you, a lot of people do. A lot. I think I would've been this way if I'd given birth to my children. It's reasonable. But if you are someone who grew up at odds with your parents, can you imagine how different it might have been if your parents didn't expect you to be something you're not? Imagine if they just accepted you fully for who you are, and concentrated on the strengths you have instead of identifying and trying to correct the perceived weaknesses.
Both of my children had rough starts. Both were exposed prenatally to drugs. Both had issues as infants. With Isabella, they thought she had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Her legs didn't work properly, and one of the first things I asked the social worker after meeting her if she had been tested for cerebral palsy ("I think they tested her for CP..." was the response. Yeah, this wasn't a stressful time at all.).
It seems strange to say, but coming by children this way made me re-think what success is. I grew up with a natural inclination to want to learn. I loved to read, I loved school (except for 5th grade - 5th grade sucks), I loved being good at school. I was a smart kid. It was my thing. My mother never pressured me to do well in school - I just wanted to. And I did. She was mystified. My sisters were the same way. I think we were this way because my mom respected our autonomy - she knew we weren't her, and she was pleased to let us be who we wanted to be and who we were. (My mom is pretty great.)
If I'd given birth to my kids, I don't think I would've been as good at this as my mom was. But because I came by kids the way that I did, I am focused on them being the best they can be, not the best *I* think they can be. It turns out, Isabella is a lot like me - she loves learning, she loves to read, she likes solitary, quiet activities like drawing and coloring. She is incredibly bright and curious and thoughtful. Besides her 4-year old outbursts, she tends to approach things pretty logically. I'm not worried about her. Not yet, anyway.
And then there's Maddie. She is restless and physical, and runs almost solely on emotion. She is strong-willed (read: bossy, stubborn) and has trouble coping when things don't go her way. She doesn't want to learn how to do things - she just wants to know how to do them. When she has to take time to learn, she gets annoyed. Isabella likes the journey of learning - Maddie is only interested in the destination, and fuck the journey. She is strong and coordinated - she picked up jump-roping immediately after she tried it. She is tireless on the playground. But when it comes to actually sitting down to work, she has trouble. She answers questions without thinking. She looks at words and guesses what they are instead of actually trying to figure them out. She's more interested in competing with Isabella on who gets to turn the page as opposed to what is happening in the story. She seems like she's listening to you, but can't remember what remotely what you just read or what you just explained to her.
Every single morning, I tell Maddie the same thing: "Take your time and do your best, and treat other people how you would like to be treated." Every morning. And then I kiss her and hug her and tell her I'm proud of her. So yesterday, when I picked her up from school, I asked her if she learned anything at school. Usually she says she doesn't remember. But yesterday, she said yes.
"What did you learn?"
"The golden rule."
I was excited. "What is the golden rule?"
"Treat other people how you want them to treat you."
"And who says that to you every single morning?"
"Maddie. What do I say to you every day before you go to school?"
"Um... I don't know."
Also yesterday, I found some test scores in her backpack. Her first test scores. Yes, she's in kindergarten. She is just barely at level or under level on everything. It appears that the mark "X" is the one to worry about - and she had none of those. All check marks and circles. She is well-spoken but has trouble recognizing sight words and words that rhyme. She seems to be good at geometric concepts but has trouble with other math concepts.
It's just information. It's just letting us know where she is. She's the youngest in her class. It's natural for her to be behind the other kids. Still, there was a moment as I was looking at those scores where I thought, maybe she's just not going to be great at school. Maybe school isn't her thing. As long as she tries her hardest, and as long as we can see she's trying, that's all we can ask for. I don't want to force her to learn how to read at home - if she gets sick of trying, and I push it, she'll hate reading.
All I want is for her to be a successful human. When she's an adult, I want her to have a job she likes. I want her to value herself enough that she only dates people who treat her well. I want her to vote. I want her to care about other people. I want her to make smart, healthy decisions most of the time.
While she's growing, I want to push her but I also don't want to set her up to fail. I want to expect things from her that she can achieve, not things that are impossible for her. I want her to be proud of herself, but not complacent.
I won't demand perfection from her, but I will push her to be good. I hope I can teach her the difference.