A lesson 18 years in the making: Your child is not you. One would think I would have figured this out earlier, like when our oldest, the boy, grew to be 6 inches taller than me. So many times over the years (as recently as this week), I’ve heard, “He reminds me so much of you!” and “He has your eyebrows!” and “He’s like a mini-you!” (It’s been several years since I’ve heard that last one; I’m a mini-him now.) What finally helped this sink in for me is the college search we embarked upon over the last year.
Honestly, the boy could not have made this any easier for us. From his sophomore year of high school on, he said that he wanted to go to a college that met these criteria: 1. It was a big school, so that if he changed majors, he would have many options. 2. It was not in a big city. 3. It was reasonably close to home. That was about it.
Fairly quickly, we settled on two possibilities (again, how easy was he going to make this for us?): the alma mater of my lovely wife Jen and me (“We’re loyal to you, Illinois…”) and another Big Ten school (“Go Green! Go White!”).
I should state here that we were always clear that we were not going to put any unreasonable pressure on the kid to enroll at our alma mater. As I explained to the boy over and over again, “You should feel free to go wherever you want. You are under no obligation to attend my school. Even though it is one of the top 40 universities in the country according to every major college guide. And it has a top-five program in your chosen field. Plus it is close to home. And your mother and I had four of the greatest years of our lives there, got outstanding educations, and met people there who have become lifelong friends. Also, every other article of clothing that I own is orange and blue. No pressure.” (See how I played that? I am subtle.)
From the beginning, Dear Old Alma Mater U. was his top choice. I didn’t even have to steer him that way. He and I made a visit to the campus when he was invited to Scholars Day. The university reps and students put on the usual display (“You are smart, and we hope you come here; undergrads get to do graduate-level research; this is a big school with a small-school flavor,” etc.). The boy and I had an hour to kill, so I gave him a quick tour of campus before the official tour. I went overboard with the minutiae: “On your right is Altgeld Hall, designed by Nathan Ricker, the first graduate of an architecture program in the United States…” I couldn’t help it; my tour was more detailed than the official one.
Then he got invited to something similar at the other school. This one was more involved, and he was invited back to take a test to earn scholarships. The praise from the university reps was even more effusive. A direct quote from the admissions director: “We want you. I’ll go further: We need you. You will make us a better school.” Yikes! I thought; these folks are putting on the hard sell.
People would ask me which way the boy was leaning, and I usually had a percentage (completely made up in my head, not having anything to do with the reality of the situation): “Right now, he is 90 percent sure he will go to my alma mater,” or, “There’s really only a slim chance, maybe 5 percent, that he will go out of state,” or, “Really, the only thing that would change his mind is if the out-of-state school offered him so much money that it became substantially more affordable than the in-state school. Not likely.”
Then, something bizarre happened: The out-of-state school offered him so much money that it became substantially more affordable than the in-state school. Then the college-search process became easy. My son didn’t see a significant difference between the schools, so he reasoned (as did Jen, I might add), why go to the more expensive one? As decision day neared, I looked for all sorts of ways to justify my clinging to the hope that he would go to my school, but really, it was more of a process of my letting go of expectations and getting out of my own comfort zone.
Remember when I titled this blog post “Your Child Is Not You”? Here’s the thing: I could list a hundred different ways that my school is better than the other one, but it’s always going to come out like this to my kid: “You should go to my school because…” And it honestly doesn’t matter what the rest of the sentence is, because it sure sounds like I’m telling my kid what to do and not letting him make up his mind for himself. My school was great for me; maybe it would be for him, but maybe not. The actress/producer/comedienne Amy Poehler, in her memoir Yes Please, uses the phrase, “Good for her! Not for me.”
I was talking with my dad the other day about something, and he reflected back on when he first became a father nearly 50 years ago. He said, “I remember thinking, This will be great, I made so many mistakes in my life that I will tell my kids what to do or what not to do when they reach similar situations, and they will thank me profusely and their lives will be so much easier than mine.” You know how this story ends: None of his kids wanted to listen to him, and we all made similar mistakes. As he said, the cliche is that someone has to experience something for themselves to understand, and it’s true: even with a parent telling us, for example, not to touch the stove, we have to touch the stove ourselves to truly figure out that, hey, we probably shouldn’t touch it.
I saw a piece on ESPN recently about Tiger Woods and his relationship with his father, Earl Woods. Early in Tiger’s career, when he was having incredible success but also dealing with the celebrity that follows it, his father said to him, “I know exactly what you are going through.” Tiger replied, “No, you don’t.” That perfectly sums up the parent-child relationship. As parents, we think we know what is best for our kids because we believe that we went through similar circumstances. On the other hand, kids think their parents have no idea what they are going through. The truth is somewhere in between, and it’s up to us as parents to figure out how to pass on life lessons without lecturing.
For me, it seems as if the best way is to keep my mouth shut. Plus, do my own thing and let my kids see how I handle adversity and decision-making. Because clearly, wearing orange and blue almost daily didn’t work the way I thought it would. Now I have to add some green and white to my wardrobe.