I received a New Year's card from a former colleague who wrote about her three- year-old daughter learning to spell and speak French in Montessori. "Her second semester of ballet classes ended with a spectacular solo performance."
Reading her mass-emailed status update filled me with envy, followed by annoyance and self-doubt. I spent a semi-sleepless night wondering if I'm making the right decision by raising my daughter to be a "slacker."
Julianna is three, but instead of learning how to pronounce "brie", she attends a play-based school where she bakes applesauce cakes and glues shiny glitter onto old popsicle sticks. She's learning how to take turns on the trampoline and how to speak up in class. She is not enrolled in gymnastics or dance or a second language course. Instead, I'm taking the radical approach of leaving it up to her to find the things she's passionate about enough to pursue. Only then will I spend my time and money to help her do it.
My family lives in Santa Cruz, a coastal town 45 minutes from the hyper-competitive world of Silicon Valley where I grew up. In my parenting circle, it's considered rude to brag about your kid's reading abilities or aptitude for numbers. (Of course we quietly compare. But usually about whose kid is most well-adjusted.) I first moved here when I enrolled in UC Santa Cruz. The university's mascot is a fat, happy banana slug named Sammy. At UCSC I received detailed narrative evaluations instead of grades. I wanted to learn without the academic pressures that almost debilitated me as a kid.
In elementary school in Cupertino I scored high on an IQ test, and my parents placed me in a Gifted and Talented Program. In fourth grade, we learned long division and did brain teasers about the best way to get missionaries across a cannibal-infested island. We took field trips to the San Francisco Opera. Homework was a combination of dreary book reports about Columbus, and DIY history extravaganzas. After a month of studying and visiting the area's missions, we were charged with the daunting task of building one. I created my San Juan Capistrano Mission with flour, glue and water, which created grey 1/3 inch thick walls that sagged in the middle.
Other kids brought in buildings shaped from foam cutouts and decorated with model paint. Tired-looking parents carried in the doll-house sized projects, their fingers stained with ink. For the first few years I was envious, then ultimately cowed by my peer's creations. I didn't realize until sixth grade that most of my classmates' parents were doing the work for them. They weren't smarter or more creative. They had parents who were driven to see them to succeed and had the time to make sure their apple dolls were dressed in hand-stitched Victorian garb and their book reports were foot-noted according to MLA style. My parents worked full-time and spent their evenings in front of the TV. Homework was my problem, not theirs.
By the time the realization hit that my classmates had an unfair advantage, it was too late. I felt constantly behind in every subject but writing. Special education programs can help you learn how to think. But they can also make you keenly aware of your own limited abilities.
Some of my classmates went to Ivy League schools and pursued careers as doctors, lawyers and high-tech gurus. But others decided to drop-out of the rat race and become holistic healers and pirate radio deejays. It's clear from their Facebook updates which group is happier.
I took three AP classes my junior year of high school and threw up from anxiety before every day of school. I bombed the SATs, and barely made it through six performances as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, where I was woefully off-key. People giggled madly during my rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
I went to college, where I learned what it was that I really wanted to do: write. My early education had no bearing on my choice to spend my life as a writer. I read the Cliffsnotes Study Guides of books for my AP courses and aced the papers. Of course, I was on the school newspaper in high school, writing columns about breakups and penning opinion pieces about the third-world parallels of windowless chemistry rooms. But I would have found my way to my profession anyway. If anything, all the extracurricular activities and advance-placement classes got in the way. They proved a distraction, a time-waster, taking me away from what I really needed to be doing.
At first, I wrote as a means of escape. I wrote because I had to I had stories to tell, and I wrote them on an old typewriter my parents kept in the garage. When the ink spool ran out, I wrote longhand on a yellow legal pad I stole from my dad's briefcase. That need to tell is still why I sit in front of the computer each day, even though it's usually inconvenient. I write when I go on vacation. I write when I want to sleep. I write when I know I should be doing housework, or paying more attention to my kid.
The project I'm currently working on, a memoir, is a beast. It involves research and an unwieldy family storyline. I spend several hours each day trying to wrestle it into submission. The odds are against me -- that I'll succeed in creating my vision, or that it will ever be read by more than my husband and friends. I know these odds. And still I write.
Julianna will have to find the thing in life she pursues despite the odds. She circles the piano at my mom's house, climbing on the chair and banging away at the keys. If she asks me for lessons, she'll get them. The desire has to come from her. I don't believe that giving her more choices will lead her any faster to the things she is compelled to do in life. In fact, I think the smorgasbord approach just gets in the way. Yes, your kid can learn French or Hindi -- but what's the point? The key to true success in life is finding what you love, and finding the determination not to give up on it.
I want Julianna to learn that lesson more than I need her to dance on her toes or to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" en Espanol.
As parents we're not doing our kids any favors by making it easy to pursue so many different options. It's not much different from the parents of my classmates, who had the best of intentions and did all the hard work for them. In the end, the kids had to learn for themselves.
Of course, I'm reminded by news stories that the world has changed. We need to keep our kids competitive in this global environment. And here I am practically benching my daughter. She could be learning Mandarin or pre-Algebra. But I believe she'll leap up when it's time. She'll discover for herself that she doesn't have a choice.