Getting Your Parental Report Card

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

I just received my first grade as a parent. I got an “A.” How do I know I got an “A”? U.S. News & World Report said so.

My oldest son earned me this grade by getting into the University of Chicago. I know that sounds awful. But the message I received from other parents over the last 18 years suggests that I am responsible for my children’s achievements. The ultimate achievement in our community is enrollment in an elite university.

No one told me directly that I was being graded, but I saw how my neighbors reacted when we made educational choices for our children that were different from theirs. They took it very personally. They behaved as though my husband and I were implying that what was good enough for their child was not good enough for ours. I remember one difficult dinner when our guests insisted that our move to a local independent school was not only unnecessary, it was opportunistic. Private schools were only good for helping students develop business contacts for the future. If a child had the strength of character and family support, he could achieve success in a public school setting. His proof? He went to a public school and ended up teaching at Stanford and working at a large biotechnology company.

We all went our separate ways, with no common rubric to judge our progress—until now. It’ time for our children to go to college.

It seems wrong to take credit for my son’s accomplishments, and I’m not even sure U.S. News & World Report can measure them. So I asked my husband what role he thinks we play in our children’s accomplishments. He said that he would not give himself credit for our children’s success but would take credit for not messing them up. I thought we deserved a little more credit than that. I decided to evaluate my parenting skills by my ability to help them find the sun.

My children are sunflowers. If I let them act instinctively, they will turn towards the sun by finding the people and places that feed their love of learning. If something gets in the way of the sun, they wilt. I know this is a silly metaphor, but it helps me visualize my role in their lives. My job is to clear away any obstructions so that they can find the sun. They faced a lot of obstructions over the years. Sometimes, it’s been me.

It’s hard to see yourself as an obstruction. But I learned, with my husband’s assistance, that my “help” was not always helpful. So, I returned my red pen to my son when my college essay edits robbed him of his voice. I remained silent when my son eschewed the Calculus AP exam in favor of “Circus” class. I bit my tongue when he told me that he wasn’t going to apply to a particular Ivy League school because the admissions officer stressed the accomplishments of the student body and he didn’t want to achieve anything in college; he just wanted to learn. I believed that my son has good instincts. I was determined to let him find the college that best suited him, and that meant I couldn’t get in the way.

I think parents of gifted children have a particularly hard time establishing the right grading policy for themselves. Most of us begin by assessing our ability to find and deliver the appropriate curriculum and social and emotional support for our child. Our efforts are often handicapped by teachers who think our children don’t need accommodations and parents who see our requests as elitist. Even with our best efforts, our children may still disengage in the classroom and underachieve at school. Given their abilities, we are tempted to see anything short of extraordinary achievement as our failure (and theirs). Our final grade, by my neighbors’ standards, may not reflect our efforts. We may not even agree on what constitutes an “A.”

My son decided to go to the University of Chicago because it had interdisciplinary classes like “Mind” and “Power Identity and Resistance.” The school has a Circus Club and the world’s largest scavenger hunt. He liked the admissions essays and heard that the kids watch Dr. Who. Its motto is “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

I dropped my son off last week. As we walked through the leaf strewn quad, he said, “I don’t think I will ever do anything in my life that takes advantage of everything this place has to offer.” My son turned toward the sun, which turned out to be in Chicago. Maybe if I stay close to him (but out of his way), I will feel some of its warmth, too.

What role do you feel you play in your child’s accomplishments? Please share in the comment section below.

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