The ways that parents shape the lives of their kids is a topic that fascinates me. I feel that in my own life, I found a career that matched my interests and talents–I love kids, I love writing, I love writing for kids, I love public service, and the job of being a children’s librarian/children’s book reviewer has been a fantastic job for me. I am wrestling a bit with my new identity as an administrator, but being a bossy oldest child I think I also was prepared for leadership. It all works.
But I came to that happy circumstance because I had a mom who would load us in the car and take us to the library. She read a lot, and they always say the best predictor for a child that reads is having a parent that reads. However, there was never any chance that I would become an Olympic ice skater or an airline stewardess (as I would have thought of it at the time) or a plumber, because those were all outside of my experience.
If someone in my life loved plumbing projects and showed me the pipes and the tools and explained how they all worked, maybe that would have been something interesting to me, and my life might have taken a completely different turn. If instead of ballet lessons I had had ice skating lessons, maybe I’d have been sailing around the ice instead of listening to Swan Lake and dreaming of twirling in a tutu.
My point is that parents end up forming their child’s interests, and it seems to me to be an incredibly important responsibility. But it’s also a hard one. The parent who puts a violin in the hands of their three-year-old and signs them up for Suzuki lessons is probably dreaming of having a violin prodigy. That is their dream, not the child’s. The parent who signs their child up for soccer at age four may not be dreaming of having a champion soccer player, but it’s still a choice, especially since preschool soccer games at least where we live are often on Sunday morning and conflict with church. It’s a perfectly valid choice, but it’s definitely a choice.
Then you have the parent who signs their child up for the things that seem a little extreme, like toddler beauty pageants. When you choose that as an activity for your child, you’re making sure they know that physical appearance is what they should focus their attention on, and it’s how they will be rewarded. Last week, I heard a report on NPR that disturbed me a bit, too. It was about a charter school in Utah that has business as its organizing principle. Obviously this is going to send a huge message to the children in attendance–that they should be thinking in terms of saving and spending, of markets and enterprise, rather than the more normal topics of sharing and friendship and cooperation. (I’m not opposed to it, but I hope they make sure to get some of those other values in their curriculum, too.)
So parents make choices all the time about how their children’s lives will be shaped in the future–what they will know, what they will remain ignorant of; what is important, and what isn’t worth paying attention to. There is probably no parent living who feels that they have done a good enough job of it, because there isn’t enough time to do it all. In fact, trying to expose children to a wide variety of activities leads to the opposite problem of families being run ragged trying to maintain a grueling schedule.
I don’t have a perfect solution, but I do have three suggestions.
1. The arts will feed a child for life. Time spent on music and painting and self-expression of all kinds may not lead to a career, but is a way to find joy throughout life. So make sure your kids have the tools and the time to respond to the art of others and to create their own.
2. Books (you knew I’d work books in here, didn’t you?) are a great way to expose a child to a wide variety of lives and possibilities. So make sure your kids have time and opportunity to read.
3. Time and space are becoming the hardest things to offer a child, but they are the most important. Kids need enough stillness in their lives to allow thoughts to bubble up in them. Try to find some time to go sit under a tree or by a river or on a hill and just be peaceful with your kids. It will be good for them. It will be good for you.
You can’t get away from making choices for your child. You inevitably will shape who they become in large part. Just don’t forget that while life is hurtling along in its inexorable way, you are making choices for your child, and take a little time to ponder those choices. And of course, in the end you can’t control your child’s experiences, and those independent little learners may at any time encounter something that shapes who they become. Like I said, it’s a fascinating topic to ponder.