A few dinnertimes ago, my younger daughter made the above statement, shoulders drooping, smile pulled down. She’s a “discriminating” eater. We have regular “discussions” about the menu. I try for variety, but separate meals are not an option, and she can always have a supplementary bowl of cereal later. So, this really was a conversation about spaghetti.
But it made me think about how when you’re thirteen (or fifteen or seventeen, the ages of my other kids), it probably does seem like life would be so much easier if you liked spaghetti, just like everyone else seems to.
Even though creativity, individualism, and independence are hallmarks of American culture, I think the reality for most of us lies somewhere in between standing out and conforming. The balance is elusive, some shade of grey, but when you’re a teenager, the grey zone can be really uncomfortable and hard to define.
Or it can be more like platinum, easy to identify, but costly.
We bought our first house, where we still live, in a well-respected and solid school district that has since become more highly-acclaimed, a sought location that includes the highest-ranked high school in the state. This high profile means tremendous pressure and expectation, as I imagine it does in similar towns with excellent school systems across the US.
The enticement of winning schools and job opportunities in our town has fueled a melting pot of very different cultures. There are vastly divergent ideas about parenting, family, and education here, and I’m not saying mine is the only right approach. It’s what feels most right to me, for our family, for our time in the world together. Our expectations as parents have always been pretty basic:
1) Hold yourself to a high standard and make your best effort, so even if you don’t succeed –and you won’t always – you’ll know it wasn’t for lack of trying.
2) Find something or things you enjoy doing and develop the needed skills, so as you work through life you’re a productive contributor and not miserable.
3) Respect the world around you and the people you share it with.
4) Listen, to each other and to the little voice inside your head.
5) Be honest.
6) Be kind, be kind, be kind
However, here’s the message I think my kids are often getting in the place where they’re growing up. Sometimes it’s explicit, more often inferred:
Distinguish yourself. Be unique really means be a superstar. Everyone here is intelligent and driven and high achieving, so what’s going to make you shine in this field of team captains and club presidents and 5.0 GPAs? You must find a way to stand out.
At the same time, don’t be too different. Conforming means striving for and achieving all of the following or you don’t belong here – outstanding grades, leadership roles, uber accomplishment within your chosen field of leisure activity.
Give one hundred ten percent to schoolwork while at the same time giving one hundred ten percent everywhere else. The uncomfortable grey, the unachievable platinum.
Is it just me or does the math not add up? It’s hard enough for the kids who are intrinsically motivated to align with this picture of achievement, but what about the kids – smart and talented kids – who just don’t like spaghetti? High school can be harrowing even if you fit the mold. And when you don’t, the ensuing self-doubt can be overwhelming.
I’ve asked myself more than once if it we should have raised our family in a place with only an average school system, without as many opportunities but also without so much pressure and extreme comparison. Would growing up somewhere different have led my children to a more honest, realistic path to their adult lives? Or would it have led them to be more closed-minded or sour, because there would likely have been less exposure to enriching ideas and experiences, and also fewer resources for kids who think and learn differently? I think I would still choose here, that the trade-offs are worth it overall. But I have to ask, because we’re the ones who chose.
When Katie said life would be so much easier if she liked spaghetti, I thought two things: Yes, dinnertime would be a lot less hassle and yes, it would be easier, but then she wouldn’t be Katie.
And I think the same about any kid who is struggling to find out who they are truly meant to be without measuring against everyone else, growing up in a world based so blatantly on comparison. Why not afford our kids the grace to be exactly who they are, likes and dislikes, struggles and successes, and continue to guide and support them to turn all these experiences into their own versions of success?