I am the parent of a middle schooler. The other night he told me, “Mom, my friends helped me clean my locker, so I passed my locker check. But I failed my binder check. I had too many stray papers.” I vacillated between my frustration over his disorganized binder, my relief that his locker wasn’t storing old burritos or unwashed athletic uniforms, and my surprise that he had preemptively told me about the inspection results.
All those disparate feelings that washed over me —frustration, relief, and surprise—were really just an expression of my underlying desire to control an unknown future. While my background is in the humanities and social sciences, and I should know better than to bank on a linear path of growth and development—or even to desire that path as the richest and most stimulating course—I do wish sometimes that the route from A-to-Z followed the alphabet faithfully. But when I think about imposing this sequential pathway on my child, or on any child, for that matter, I am struck by its limitations and restrictions.
To imagine an outcome for a child and then impose on him or her a plan you have envisioned may seem like an uncluttered, clear way forward. But it is often the unexpected opportunity that leads us to a place we would not otherwise have visited. Lists and diagrams and quick-fix books may help us feel better, but it is short-lived relief. Our children blossom at their own rates, and we do not know—can never know—what will precipitate their blossoming. We do not know who our children are until they become who they are; in other words, we would benefit from taking the long view.
A New York Times blog post recently ruminated on the long view. Jessica Lahey, middle school teacher and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, points out that shortcuts are tempting, but they just distract us from thinking about parenting as “the long haul.” In other words, we search for short-term relief rather than tolerating the discomfort of keeping our eyes on the horizon.
Sometimes I think of parenting as a long, disjointed epic, much like the story of the Greek hero Odysseus’ attempt at homecoming after the Trojan War. What should be an unhindered course home turns into ten years of wandering, with many adventures that alter and refine him. When I first read The Odyssey, I found myself anxiously distracted; I fixated on one goal: wanting Odysseus to get home and get on with his life. But, of course, his adventures were his life.
As parents, we can want our children to get on with their lives. We ask them to sacrifice chunks of their childhood for the future. We make decisions on their behalf in their “best interests” without knowing what the future may bring. In our fear, the horizon diminishes into a single point. We can have failures of the imagination, because we cannot foresee the innumerable ways our children can have satisfying, productive, meaningful lives. As Lahey points out, adults have “elaborate timelines and checklists,” in our need to assert some semblance of control, but children meander. They take one step forward and two steps backward. They spin around in circles and venture off the path into the wilderness. Their lockers are orderly but binders chaotic.
At Turning Point, we trust in the untimed timelines of children’s development. We know that by cultivating each child, the best of them will unfold. We wait patiently for them to navigate early adolescence and emerge as capable young people, ready to thrive in high school. We honor the long haul and keep the wide view in sight. Our students leave middle school with optimism and confidence that materialize from the gifts that we give them: perspective, time, patience, and our trust in them and their unique talents and paths.
Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School