We recently received an e-mail from our 17-year-old son’s school warning us that he is in danger of not graduating. This is not the first time the alarm has been sounded; in fact, it’s been a steady mantra from his teachers and counselors for the better part of three years. “An intelligent kid,” they say, “whose insights and contributions to class discussions are valuable, who we all like, but who does not do the work.”
As always, we gathered for a family meeting. This is serious, we told him. He was not receptive. Not quite resistant, but in no way enthusiastic about taking grades or school or any of the systems we find ourselves in the awkward position of shilling for seriously.
When I was growing up, no issue was taken more seriously in the home than academic performance. The adults in my life were preparing me for a world in which good grades, good schools, and prestigious diplomas were to be the currency I’d use to buy my way into comfort, safety, and maybe even some version of relief from racism and oppression. They therefore guided me with the fervor and insistence of someone guiding a loved one to the light of freedom.
It is hard to say whether or not they were right. At 46, I know that my education has helped me pay the rent and save money, but it is unclear whether or not it has brought me freedom. This is, of course, what my son sees. “What is the point of these systems?” he seems to ask. “What will be here in 30 years? What do good grades matter?”
I don’t have an answer for him.
The stress my son causes me is, on the one hand, as old as humanity itself. Even the Bible opens with a story about a parent (God) whose kids (Adam and Eve) won’t follow directions. But on the other hand, my son represents the uncertainty of our time. What, exactly, are we preparing him for? And what do grades have to do with it? Our daughter, with her near-perfect GPA, her internships and jobs, at least does us the kindness of letting us believe that the systems will hold and that the old ways of navigating them will prove useful. But our son confronts us with the void, the unknown, the uncontrollable. He confronts us with fear—fear for his future, fear for ours. How will he pay the bills? How will he find employment? What will be asked of us as he enters adulthood? What will the world ask of him?
The truth is that we don’t know the answers to these questions, and we simply won’t until we do. One parenting concept says that we impose our will on our children, raise them up to be as we want them to be. But what if you simply lack the will, the force, to make your child do what you want? What if your child is not a robot that you can program but a sentient, headstrong being who will ultimately do what he feels like doing? It occurs to me that when you make all your plans about what kind of parent you’re going to be, the one thing you forget to take into account is the actual child. How do you lead your child to freedom when your child doesn’t want to follow?
Maybe that’s not the right question. The longer I do this parenting thing, the more I realize that the area over which I have some control is, in fact, very narrow. I can be present with my son when he shows up. I can listen to him. I can remind myself every day that he learned to crawl on his own, walk on his own. That he learned to eat and talk and communicate, that he learned to understand the world, and that he has made countless mistakes—more than I will probably ever know about—and survived them, grown from them, adjusted his worldview to accommodate the information he learned from them. I can push past my own ego in order to see who he really is. I can appreciate him: both the parts of him that are going the way I want and the parts that are not.
I am pleased that he talks to me about jobs, relationships, friendships, politics, the arts. I am pleased that he asks me about my life, about what the world was like when I was growing up. I am pleased that I still get to hug him, all 6-foot-1 of him, pretty much whenever the mood strikes me. I am pleased that he and I are stiff competition for each other in Mario Kart 8. I am pleased that when he comes across a movie or TV show he likes, he bugs me until I’ve sat down and watched it with him, pausing to discuss the shots, the scriptwriting, the color correction. I am pleased that he feels more confident about himself than I did at his age. I am pleased that he doesn’t feel a need to violate his own beliefs to please others—not his teachers or counselors, and definitely not his parents.
He’s right about that, of course. The world we are preparing him for is uncertain, unsafe, and unclear. Whatever comes of it will require his fullest humanity, his fullest love, his fullest sense of self. I cannot give him that, but I can damn sure not stand in the way. Maybe that’s all there is to it. Maybe the more complicated things are, the simpler the task of parenting truly is.