Written By: Ginger and Ray Klein, of Project Reasons Board of Directors
Regardless of the environment in a given home, American society is replete with competition and messages that your teen must be the best. Further, often we as schools and parents have defined the “best” for children already: Straight A’s, Honor Roll, Valedictorian, Student Council, National Honor Society and other things that colleges will be looking for. Sports are a must, and 3 or 4 years of Foreign Language and other curriculum that will place you in the best position to be admitted to a competitive university where you can be the best (again) at a litany of new (and yet the same) things. I, too, am a parent in this society. My own children as 15-17 year olds participated in blended high school/college programs that will save them 1.5-2 years of college tuition but which ushered them into adult communication with professors who, have expectations set for adult students rather than 15-17 year old youth, and rightly so…this is college after all. I am not denying the benefit of such programs for the teens in them, merely making the point that the pressure on our teens is ever increasing over time.
Children are born into a world that pushes them into competitive careers by well-meaning schools and often parents who are preparing them to support themselves as adults. Surely it is necessary that children learn and try to perfect skills that are conducive to their development into self-reliant adults. I am not advocating that we do not encourage our children to be the best they can be, but rather I wish to challenge our thinking on what is “the best.” Every person has the task of shaping angels with the raw material they are given (13 O’Connor). If my angel looks like yours I have probably failed to use my raw materials in all their fullness. What a tragedy it is for all our angels to look the same. Put another way, The Acorn Theory by renowned author and psychologist James Hillman, postulates that the greatest mystery of life is, in part, the question of destiny. The oak’s destiny lies in that of the acorn, what is the acorn that represents the fullness of your particular child’s life, or yours, for that matter?
What if we began to view “the best” as what speaks to their heart and soul, and what makes the birds sing for them in the morning. What moves your child might be different than what moves mine and we must not reduce the task of parenting to a simple one size fits all approach. Elizabeth O’Connor in her book Eighth Day of Creation (13) likens the discovery of one’s gifts and talents to “the task of releasing angels by shaping and transfiguring the raw materials that lie about him.” O’Conner tells a poignant story about “Michelangelo pushing a huge piece of rock down a street. A curious neighbor sitting lazily on the porch of his house called to him and inquired why he labored so over an old piece of stone. Michelangelo is reported to have answered, ‘Because there is an angel in that rock that wants to come out.’” What a remarkable mixture of the greatest blessing and responsibility, is the task of parenting.
No one is served by a human being who trudges through their life in pursuit of “the best” when “the best” is a goal and standard set by someone else. How many doctors, lawyers, dentists and specialists in any number of fields, are serving in their profession today by way of sheer willpower that has driven them through life pursuing someone else’s “best”? How many are truly fulfilled by someone else’s best? Even in feeling that they gained acceptable by way of doing so, it is not enough. Whose “best”? An author and curriculum developer by the name of Dr. Parker Palmer posits that “external expectations can distort our identity and integrity”, that in fact “A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self—in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm.” Let us then, be pushers of self-discovery. Let us teach our children and teens to discover the gifts, interests and natural abilities rather than some societal standard of what the “best” is. Whether that lands your child with a full scholarship to Harvard University, a spot on Broadway, or a position with the local landscaping company where they support a family through the hard work of their hands, encourage them in it. Making millions will not secure their happiness or health, and it will surely not, in and of itself, speak to their soul.