Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Lindsey Mead Russel of A Design So Vast.
Last week, an email popped up in my inbox outlining all of the after-school activities available at my children’s private school. As I read about karate and hip hop and book club and chess, a familiar anxiety gnawed at me. Once again, I wondered if, in my rabid opposition to over-scheduling I have over-corrected and am depriving my children .
My daughter is allowed one after-school activity a week. My son has only just begun to show interest, but I will offer him the same choice in a year or so. I remember when Grace was a baby I fretted to the pediatrician that while my friends were at Mommy and Me music, gymnastics, etc, I mostly took my baby to the dry cleaner and the grocery store. He reassured me, “Don’t worry, she just wants to be with you.” Then he said, “you think this is hard now? Wait until she starts asking for activities.” And he was right. Grace is almost seven, and she regularly asks to participate in more after-school activities than I am prepared to okay. My response, repeated so often if feels like a chant or a hopeful prayer, is that “Different families make different choices.”
My active limiting of my children’s “programming” goes hand in hand with a general philosophy that refuses to build them up into exceptional geniuses. I wonder, again, if this has negative repercussions. Will they doubt that I love them? If adulatory motherhood is now the norm, will I seem cold and not proud in comparison? This could not be further from the truth. I am proud of them every day, with an intensity that continues to amaze me after almost seven years; I am proud watching my son struggle to stay afloat in the swimming pool and watching my daughter painstakingly sound out words in a Berenstain Bears book as she resolutely, slowly, learns to read. I don’t think I would describe either of my children exceptional on any dimension, and that does not make me any less proud. In fact it might make me more so. I aspire to raise happy, well-adjusted children who know how to listen to themselves, something I am admittedly weak at myself (it occurs to me that perhaps much of the intensity behind my belief is aspiring to give them something I wish I had more of). I want them to be able to entertain, make choices for, and trust themselves.
But I do feel guilty when I hear other parents talk about their child’s early reading, particularly impressive physical coordination, or early language acquisition. I simply don’t speak of Whit and Grace in those terms. Maybe I should? Am I dooming them to a life of mediocrity by refusing to extol virtues that I don’t really see? Don’t get me wrong: I love my children dearly, and because of that I think they are both downright terrific. I believe, however, that to focus on their exceptional promise and prowess at X or Y is to saddle them with both expectations and limits. I also view a lot of this exceptional-izing as competitive and I simply refuse to parent that way, because it undermines our tremendously strong common purpose: to support our children as best we know how.
But I do find myself wondering whether both my stubborn refusal to let my children fill their free hours with “enriching” activities and my disinclination to laud them as little prodigies is in some way harmful. I fear that I am letting them down by not being more flowery in my praise of them, and yet I keep bumping into my fundamental instincts that point in another direction. Even in an area where I feel relatively confident about my biases, doubt creeps in, mingling with my intuition; perhaps this combination of fear and sureness is the definition of motherhood. Is it driven by anything external, or is it just my own lack of confidence speaking? Is it inescapable, this essential uncertainty? I think it is this insecurity that underlies the comparisons and the effusive, designed-for-public-consumption praise. So for now I’ll keep following the intuition that howls loudly in one ear while trying to answer the doubts that whisper in the other.
You can read more from Lindsey at her blog, A Design So Vast.