Opinion: ‘What do you do when your children don’t choose the path you have all laid out for them’

ClarkCountyToday.com’s Heidi Wetzler takes a look back at her academic career and those of her children

I received one B+ in high school, as a first semester freshman, French class with Mrs. Rita Hill. How dare she. My hope, and I’d say expectation, for myself of attaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average (GPA) throughout all four years of high school was crushed right out of the gate. That was devastating for me.

Heidi Wetzler
Heidi Wetzler

I can see more clearly as the years have gone by that my self worth was wrapped up in my school success. A “B” is defined as “good.” But I needed to be better than that. I needed to be the best. In those days, I had a hard time seeing what innate qualities I might have inside myself in order to consider my life a success. So it was all about my grades and my accomplishments. I had control over those. Unfortunately for me, no one informed Mrs. Hill.

I ended up graduating Salutatorian with a 3.97 cumulative GPA, thanks to that pesky B+. Then I went on to graduate from college with Magna Cum Laude honors. I had a very narrow focus all of those years. I studied my life away. My singular goal was to earn those A’s. I didn’t spend much energy on seeking out enriching things I might enjoy, or questioning my educational path. Looking back, my goals were simple and small and safe. I thought I was happy to live inside the box.

Fast forward 25 years. My youngest child is 18 and graduating this month. Well, he actually finished up his high school requirements last summer with the help of Running Start. He was done with the stress of the classroom and had been for a long time. I remember him saying once that he didn’t feel like his life would start until he was out of school. Which was super interesting to me because back in my day I had no idea who I was without school. I needed it.  He is not interested in participating in the regular graduation festivities. No cap and gown. No grad party. Of course I’ve purchased everything and signed him up just in case. I don’t want him to change his mind at the last minute and miss out.

Possibly it’s not really him I’m thinking might be missing out. But I am handling it better this time around — somehow he is not my first to decide walking in graduation isn’t necessary. My children are so very different from me. Social media is not helpful when you find yourself traveling outside of a well-beaten path. Especially when you are a rule follower like myself. So many photos of families commemorating common milestones and kids enjoying typical graduation activities. But my kids don’t run down the middle. And in a lot of ways they are better for it.

My life as a parent so far has taught me infinite things. In many ways my kids came from a different factory. They started out an unknown textile. As a very naïve person and mother, I had a narrow view of success for my children. I was shocked and probably, if I’m being honest, a little horrified when it became clear that grades weren’t everything to any of them. But then over time that fact became refreshing. And I realized I actually felt proud of them for being comfortable enough in their own skin to not need a certain GPA to feel good about themselves. They didn’t need a ticket on the same train as everyone else. I used to wonder how they could excel without matching the societally accepted standard line by line. There were seasons when I worried my nights away. But genuinely today, I stand in awe. They possess qualities and skills that I can only dream of. And, that aren’t taught today in any school I know. I promise to measure their success by the peace in their hearts and the smile on their faces. I know I’m not alone, but sometimes it does seem that my club is a secret one.

Today, it feels that there is one perceived route to prosperity. One measuring stick. And it seems to start early. Even in things like childhood growth charts. How many parents did I come across over the years, who made sure everyone knew their child was in the 90th percentile for height. The competition had begun before I even knew there was one. And the competition never stops.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am still all for doing one’s very best in whatever your hand finds to do. If you’ve got grand academic goals and ambitious career intentions, that is impressive and awesome and would make any parent proud. But the idea I’m trying to offer is that true achievement and life satisfaction could look as different as each individual on the planet today. I believe we are each uniquely gifted and have something marvelous to offer. I believe victories happen when parents recognize and support the traits of their children that are unlike anyone else — elements of their person where their passions and their giftings collide. Sometimes finding that sweet spot can take time … and trial and error … and failure. Failing is imperative. In one article I read years ago, a dad would ask his kids what they had failed at each week.  And if they couldn’t come up with anything, that was disappointing. This trained his children’s view of failure and it became about not trying, instead of the outcome.

We have the tendency today to pave the way for our kids. We don’t want to see them make mistakes. I am the first to admit that I didn’t want my kids to have to struggle too hard. But it’s precisely that struggle that grows their wings. Combining today’s helicopter and lawnmower parenting styles with our country’s ever-increasing thirst for the insatiably competitive is walking us into unfamiliar territory.  If your child isn’t in year-round soccer at 8 years old he’s never going to make it. And if you don’t take as many Advanced Placement classes as your high school offers, then you will not even begin to fly into the radar of your chosen colleges. And don’t even get me going about the tragedy that is Instagram. If your social media presence isn’t perfection for everyone to see … just forget about it. Falsely, the stakes seem desperately high. Where exactly is this run-away train going?

The most uncomfortable question everyone wants to ask every teenager is, “What do you want to be when you grow up ?”  It seems foolish to expect an 18 year old to pick a major and consequently a vocation with such little life experience. Couple the weight of this unrealistic task with the enormous academic expectations placed on our college-bound youth today, and you can catch a glimpse of what our children are facing. Earning college credit during high school was not an option available in my day. I feel exceedingly grateful for that. My personality would have had me reaching for that proverbial carrot of always doing the most, and I know I wouldn’t have survived that very well. I was dangerously self motivated and thankfully my parents knew that pushing me would have been a disaster for my emotional health. Now we are expecting our young people to be building their college career during high school – and all the while increasingly raising the academic bar. No wonder we have skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression in our youth.

I ran across this sobering piece published last year entitled “Are Colleges Pushing Students to Do Too Much in High School?” I think you could write a similar article about young people and sports, the expectation on moms, or virtually any subject in the country today.

“…The advice is repeated constantly to high school students: take the most rigorous schedule of courses possible to impress colleges to which you apply. A short essay circulating last week among college counselors who help high school students is urging colleges to put a halt to that advice, and to stop encouraging high school students to outdo one another with the number of Advanced Placement and other college-level courses they take.

“Who started it? ‘We expect applicants to take the most demanding schedule available to them’? That is the source of one of the most cruel, and truly unnecessary, abuses of our children. These words send students, so many students, into depression and despair and hopelessness…

Added White, “I’ve been in this business since 1981 and have seen a remarkable increase in the number of kids who are just falling apart, checking out, harming themselves and medicating themselves. There are more suicide attempts, students cutting themselves, more hospitalizations, more cases of anorexia and bulimia, every year. And there is every sign that this will continue to rise, unabated, into the foreseeable future.” (Excerpt from a piece written by Scott Jaschik, and published in Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 15, 2018)

I can hear the naysayers now. I know it is commonplace to hear adults complaining about the weak, lazy, entitled, whiny, overly sensitive nature of our youth today. But thinking that they got there by themselves is misguided. And many of those same adults actually raised these kids, so if there is truth to any of those claims, there is plenty of blame to go around. Is there a connection to be made between the tendency of today’s parents to want to make life fun and easy for their kids — and then on the flip side somehow expect them to rise up and fight in the increasingly competitive spirit of the world today? Maybe it is actually our societal expectations that have changed. In this generation do more parents place more emphasis on their child being extraordinary? What happened to the goodness of an ordinary life? Maybe it’s all just too much. So instead we get kids that are trying to duck and cover at every turn and escape from the competition and the stress. What looks lazy may simply be coping. I don’t really know.

I watched a video circulating the internet a few years ago regarding the educational system transformation in Finland. Today, their students perform near the very top compared to all other nations, but this wasn’t always the case. They have tried many things and there are some thought-provoking reasons behind their success. One big one, which I agree with 100 percent, is no homework. None. They say this gives kids more time to enjoy life. More time to spend with family and friends. Play sports and music. Climb trees. There is a small window of life where kids get to be kids. They also say the brain needs to relax and if you work, work, work … you actually stop learning. Also, their students attend school an average of five hours a day. And there are no standardized tests to teach to.

They assert that the purpose of school is about finding your happiness. Finding what you want to do with your life. There is so much beauty in this mindset that I hardly know where to begin. I would imagine it is not a coincidence that Finland ranks as the world’s happiest country for the second consecutive year. I know I would have benefited from this type of education and having teachers tell you that your happiness is important. Not today’s version of “anything goes as long as you’re happy.” But the deeply contented joy in finding your purpose in this life and doing what you love. I know on the surface all of this sounds like a utopian fairytale. And I’m not suggesting for a minute that life will ever feel like heaven on earth. But I think we can collectively do better. And that we must.

We aren’t going to turn around this freight train overnight, but new conversations desperately need to be had.  The race to complete two years of college while in high school and then graduate with a bachelor’s degree at the age of 20, while it is financially efficient, isn’t for everyone. And we all have the rest of our lives to work. Some countries require a year of military service, or better yet how about community service, before embarking on their college years. There is resilience and grit to be found in experiences outside of the classroom. My daughter has found herself in seasons of working demanding jobs in between her years of schooling, and she believes herself to be a more purposeful student because of it. But it’s definitely not easy to live outside of the norm.

So, getting back to our second child out of three, who won’t be posing for a happy family photo with his cap and gown on as his class graduates today, he entered the workforce and has grown in his professional skills right quick. It is the right place for him right now. And to answer the question I posed in the heading of this piece – sometimes you might discover that your mind needed changing. I want to encourage you to love and support fiercely the child you have, and the path they’re on, even if it initially breaks your heart a little. Just possibly, there are as many paths as there are people, and the rest of their story will be better than you could have ever written.

Heidi Wetzler is ClarkCountyToday.com’s administrator. She is also an occasional contributor of content. Heidi has spent her entire career filling various roles in the newspaper industry, first for The Reflector Newspaper and now ClarkCountyToday.com.

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