Navigating through the high school years is like being on a boat with your child during a storm. You’re floating above the crystal blue when suddenly a squall hits and your child is heaved over the side, your grip on his wrist the only thing keeping him from being pulled under.
It doesn’t start that way. When babies are new, we mothers tend to circle each other with support, calling out careful words of encouragement. Even into the toddler years when children start to test our patience, mothering often feels like a group effort. We’ll watch each other’s children with the patient tone of Mary Poppins and, when there’s a tussle among the tiny troops, we mothers gladly overlook it.
But, then, as the children grow into their middle years, something happens. It’s as if, when children reach a certain age, they become fair game. No longer do we show as much patience and compassion to each other’s kids. Now, when there’s a battle, we distance ourselves. When there’s not enough for every child, we’re out in front grabbing what we can. Suddenly, it feels like the world is not big enough for all of the children to thrive.
A few years back when my son was in middle school, he lost his motivation as middle grade children will often do. He didn’t seem to care about grades or being competitive in sports.
Enter the bridge project, a highly anticipated activity in his middle school robotics class. The goal was to create out of Popsicle sticks the bridge that could hold the most weight. After a weekend of work, my son produced a bridge and brought it to school. I hadn’t seen him put that much of himself into something since he was little and built Lego trucks. He had been a very enthusiastic toddler, and it made us happy to see that incredible passion return to him. The next day it was determined that his fragile Popsicle stick bridge held the most weight! He had won.
He wasn’t particularly animated when he told us the news, but I could see the simmering pride in his face. I used the experience to show him how, if he put himself into something, that effort often paid off. I hoped that, as the result of this experience, he could be persuaded to try harder at some of the other things in his life.
That was until the bridge project came tumbling down.
The next day in class, his teacher took the award from him and gave it to another child. I’m certain that other child was smart and had worked hard on creating his bridge too. The problem was that the teacher, under pressure from the other child’s engineer parent, changed the rules. No longer was the contest about which bridge could hold the most weight. The teacher had been persuaded to change the criteria retroactively to require that the bridge also hold the most weight for its weight. In other words, a lighter bridge lifting slightly less weight had beaten my son’s creation.
Not a big deal, unless it was the one time you were actually able to prove to your child that it’s worth it to try at things. I’m sure that other parent was not trying to strip my under-motivated child of the one inspirational experience he had felt in a long time. I’m sure he was not trying to undermine my efforts to get my child off the couch. But together, teacher and parent did just that.
My son mustered the courage to explain to his teacher why he felt the decision was unfair, and, while the teacher didn’t see it his way, my son eventually learned to find motivation in spite of the world’s unfairness. In high school he started a charity and later won a national award for his endeavors. Yet, somewhere in this process, he found his motivation and grew to be an accomplished young man.
Over the years, I’ve experienced this dog-eat-dog attitude in sports when parents are so concerned about building a winning team they’d actually work to have a weaker player kicked off.
When did we stop caring about other people’s children?
When did we decide there weren’t enough musical chairs for all the kids?
All this makes me want to make sure to be a parent who never lets competition or pride for my children get unfairly in the way of another child’s success. My children won’t always get what they deserve in life. My children won’t always be talented enough or smart enough to earn what they want. There will be times when the downward curve of their shoulders will bring tears to my soul.
But instead of throwing myself on the last chair standing before the music stops, I want to learn to find joy in the successes of other people’s children. To see the world as having room enough for all of them.
More recently, another of my children had his nose broken when he was hit in the face with a basketball kicked at full throttle. The problem was that it wasn’t an accident but the result of an impulsive action by a struggling child. My own first impulse was to see that the child was removed from the training session out of fear that he might hurt my child again. But, then, I decided that perhaps that child needed to be there more. While I fully believe that each of us should parent our own children because we know what’s best for them, I also want to be someone who is aware enough to factor the needs of other children into the equation.
Along with this, I want to be a mother who encourages my children to look for peers who may need support. I want them to see me reach out to their friends and help them along. And, I want them to be happy for others’ successes.
Now, understanding this, there’s a game I play whenever rough waters threaten my child alone in that boat. Typically, I climb in too, because that’s the way I mother. But, while we’re being tossed around by waves, I look to land where others dance, and I smile for them, and for those moments I become the mother of all children, basking in their sun while slowly steering my child’s ship toward calmer seas.
Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Literary Mama, Ibettson Street Press, YARN, The MacGuffin, The Listening Eye, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Mamalode, and others. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. Julianne was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her YA poem, “Stuffing Bears.” She is the Founder/Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers. You can find her here: www.juliannepalumbo.com and www.mothersalwayswrite.com.
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