Ah, autumn in New York. Brisk breezes, the New York City Marathon, Central Park ablaze with color... and neurotic parents interfering in their children's lives.
A few years ago an overly conscientious parent in my school took a month off work to help his son with the college application process. After mailing several applications he noticed that in the section calling for "names of parents" he had written his own parents' names. Little can top that except, perhaps, the mother who applied to a college on behalf of her daughter. Several months later the daughter was rather surprised to be accepted by this college, to which she had not applied.
While the nation gnashes its teeth waiting for Superman to visit failing schools we may be doing a more grave disservice to the kids who seem to be succeeding. Soccer moms and dads schlep their "travel team" kids hundreds of miles every weekend. Children in disposable diapers are in gymnastics camp, Suzuki violin lessons and Mandarin classes. High school students do six or seven hours of homework after chess club, volleyball, leading the film society and performing mandatory community service (isn't that an oxymoron?). All this to get a leg up on admission to an Ivy League school their parents chose for them.
Psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, reminisces fondly of childhood nights when she and her friends stuffed pillows into their nightgowns, slid them under the covers, and climbed naked onto the roof to feel cool breezes on bare bottoms and gaze with wonder at the night sky. In childhood I played baseball or football, climbed trees, or sneaked puffs from contraband cigarettes (disclaimer: we didn't know then what we know now!) with my friends from school dismissal until nightfall. My parents had no idea where I was until I arrived, invariably filthy and late, for dinner. These days the neighbors would call child welfare.
Too many children in this generation are overprotected, over-programmed, and destined for safe, joyless lives. In our success-obsessed competitive society there is less and less time for children to be children. This is no accident, as there seems a similar decline in time or inclination for adults to be children.
Such children remind me of high-strung show dogs: immaculately groomed, fastidiously trained and at risk for all kinds of problems. Ever seen the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, with vibrating thoroughbreds so eager to please, prancing nervously at handlers' sides, waiting for approval in the form of a small treat? The dogs in my family would pee on the judging stand, chase squirrels and sniff each other's bottoms. I think that's the way dogs are supposed to behave. Not that a little training is bad, but what's the good of a dog if you train all the dog out of him? And what's the good of a child if you train all the human out of her?
The irony is that these diligent efforts to ensure success and happiness are likely to do neither. The most interesting people I know have failed miserably at one time or another. To avoid flirtation with danger is to avoid falling in love with life. Human development requires unreasonable fits of passion, bad mistakes, stupid choices, daydreaming, utter panic, swaths of boredom, flights of fancy, fractured bones and broken hearts. Ask anyone you know to recount a few of the experiences that brought him or her the greatest joy or growth. I'll bet you won't hear anything of Advanced Placement courses, after-school Japanese lessons, organized soccer drills or test-prep for kindergarten.
If we adults are grim and studious, if we seemed scared about our children's futures, if we have no fun whatsoever as we rush from one highly structured activity to another, what on Earth would make our children want to become adults? Instead of pushing children to be what we wish (for them or for us?), we should heed Mogel's delightful metaphor: Think of your child as a wildflower seed in an unlabeled package. Sow the seed, occasionally water, and expose to lots of sunshine. Children, like unlabeled wildflowers, will blossom early or late in myriad brilliant and subtle colors if we just give them time and support. All the pushing and worry in the world won't change a sky-blue aster into a meadow rose.
If you want your children to be happy and successful, show them what happiness and success are. We adults should know that success isn't money, status or constant work. So go skiing on a Tuesday. Call in sick to work, go somewhere and come home filthy and late to dinner, take a chance, write a note to the teacher saying the family was having too much fun to do homework.
While you're at it, take the dog out to chase squirrels and stick his nose in strange places. After the children are in bed, climb naked on the roof and wonder at the moon. Then snuggle in bed with whomever you love and rest well, knowing that you have been a very, very good parent.