My dad has given me some of the best advice. Overwhelmed as a senior in college by my friends getting great (on paper) well paying jobs while I wasn’t, he said to me, “It’s not where you start, Neil, it’s where you finish.”
My two-year old son goes to a parent cooperative nursery school. This means that the parents “run” the school. My wife and I thought it would be good for Alex to have one of us in class with him and we thought it might help us build our own community of parents. So far, we really like it. Alex is doing well and play dates are being set up as I write this.
Here’s what they don’t tell you in the brochure. “Every” kid who attends the class is perfect. No really, they’re perfect. All you have to do is ask their parents.
Last week I attended our first night “class” for parents, where we learn more about our child’s development. We sat in a circle – just like our kids – and were asked to discuss our child’s favorite toy, how he/she is liking school so far, and if there’s anything other parents should know about our child that would help us all work on their development.
Being a rookie nursery school parent, I, and a few other parents, assumed that people would be open and forthcoming. That was a mistake. The first two people go on and on…(exaggerating for effect) “Oh, Sammy just loves school, he sings all the songs, he can name all 64 crayons and can recite the alphabet backward while standing on his head on a swing.” Next person, same thing. “Ariel is just great…she loves to read and puts on full puppet shows with her dolls, and did I mention that she sewed all the outfits for her dolls.”
Then, I go. “Well, you know, Alex seems to like school, I think he’s getting used to it, but you know, we’re working with him on using a spoon correctly, being able to sit at a table to eat without falling off the chair, he’s not really talking, but, you know, he’s two and he wakes up with a smile on his face which is what really matters to us.” Feeling good about myself, I smile to everyone, crack a nervous joke about his favorite toy and look to the person to my left…who goes on about their child. This goes on for 90 minutes, and with only a few notable exceptions, every other kid is perfect.
Many of these kids are truly gifted and seem way more advanced than any development milestone list I’ve reviewed. Great for them, that’s awesome, and I would like nothing more than for them to continue to grow – the world needs more great people. Here’s the catch: there’s no such thing as a perfect two year old.
But that’s not the point – the kids aren’t telling us they are perfect, their parents are. But why? Why do young toddlers need to be portrayed as perfect when nobody is perfect? I’ve met a ton of adults in my life and with the lone exception of my wife, I’ve yet to meet a perfect person. In fact, most people have lots of stuff they still haven’t figured out, most of which could be traced all the way back to childhood (mine can).
To me, it’s about fear – a fear of failing. Fear that other parents will think you’re not a good parent. Fear that your child isn’t going to be the smartest in the class, fear that he’ll get picked last for kickball, fear that she won’t be cool. And the fear most of all that it will all reflect back on you. In short, we’ll fail – so we try to convince ourselves we aren’t failing by telling everyone else how well we’re doing (just look at Facebook for 5 minutes – my posts included)
The biggest regrets I have in my life I can easily trace back to being unwilling to fail. Simple things like asking out a girl, or becoming a pitcher in high school when asked, not sticking with piano, going abroad during college…all of it, I can trace back to being stupidly paralyzed by fear of rejection or failure. We all have our examples, whether we’ll admit it or not.
So, here’s what I say — let your kids fail — A LOT — make it safe, make it a learning opportunity, but let them fail. And start now, by not presenting them as perfect — that’s way too much of a burden for them. If Johnny craps on the floor, let us know. If Susie beheads her dolls, by all means, tell us. You’re trying to build a person for the long-term, a person who is happy when they’re 10, 20, 30, 40.
Perhaps, I’m too simplistic and maybe even unrealistic and I’m setting up my son for some harsh lessons, but I’d like to think of parenting as being able to answer these two questions: Is my child happy or sad? Does he/she know right from wrong? Love, honesty, integrity, empathy, fun, being charitable, trustworthiness — they all flow from understanding and living up to these two questions.
And, if you’re lucky enough to have a child that’s more happy than sad and does more right than wrong, well, then, I guess you can say that they’re perfect (and you are too).