Monday, November 27, 2017

Dashing Dreams in the Drop-Off Line

It began with an innocuous radio ad on a trip to the middle school at 7:50 a.m.

My daughter had missed the bus. As always, she changed the station before I had the car in drive, from NPR to Top 40. Our fingers fought over the presets, calling a truce on the light rock one playing holiday music for the coming weeks. It’s a game we play.

Then the song ended, and some auto ad said something about “financing available.”

“What’s financing?” She asked.

I turned the dial down. I relish conversations like this, held in cold cars on grey mornings with kids who’ve missed the bus.

“It’s when you take time to pay for something,” I replied, conjuring up a good way to describe this complicated aspect of life as an adult. “Say you want to buy something for $1000, but you don’t have $1000. You can arrange to pay $100 a month.”

“Oh,” she nodded, as our familiar path took us down a side street, past our church, and toward the big school with the white columns.

“But the catch is that, you don’t pay for 10 months, you pay it for like 12. So, you end up paying $1200 dollars for a thing that cost $1000.”

“What?!” she exclaimed. “And people do that on purpose?”

“Yes.” Though I’m impressed she finds the concept off-putting. “It’s called paying interest, and it’s why it’s important that you study math in school.”

“That’s just adding and multiplying,” she began, laying the ground for a question all kids ask at some point. “Why does anybody need to learn algebra?”

She’s good at math, by all accounts. So, I wondered where this came from on this particular morning commute. I explain that Algebra teaches problem solving; It teaches logic. I tell her that if she wants to be an engineer or a scientist, a doctor or a nurse, she’s going to need to know lots of math, and it starts with algebra.

With thoughts of life beyond school in the air, our car makes the turn into the parking lot and begins the dreadfully slow crawl that is the morning drop-off line.

She seizes the moment we’ve created.

“That’s why I want to be a professional soccer player.”

It’s a dream she’s held for some time, recently turning it into her standard answer for what she wants to be when she grows up. I love it about her. But I also know it’s not terribly realistic. I say that not based on her skill, or her drive, or her work-ethic, but just based on, well, math.

Very few kids grow up to be professional soccer players.

I’ve wondered for a while when she was going to grow out of this dream, not wanting to rush it but also not want it to hurt too bad when it happens. This wasn’t the time I’d imagined. But, on this morning, my filter failed to function, and the truth stumbled out of my mouth.

“You should probably have a backup plan,” I say, too easily for the daggers it contained.

“What?” she shrieked, aghast at my bluntness and lack of faith.

“Well, it’s just not many people play professional soccer.”

She stared straight ahead, and I saw the look on a kid’s face when her dad heartlessly dashes her dreams in the drop-off line at middle school.

In defense, it wasn’t heartless. It hurt me to say it.

I tried to backpedal, telling her that if she wants to be a professional soccer player, she should start playing soccer every day in the yard rather than hanging in her room on her cell phone. I wasn’t saying I wanted her to do that – though I’d prefer it -- I was saying, if she wants to that’s what she needs to do. It was my version of tough love. And it felt cruel.

My middle-schooler, atop a medium-sized mountain. 
But the subject touched on something I’ve struggle with of late: the parental desire to balance the myth we tell our kids from the time they are born – that they can be anything they want – with the reality of life.

I’ve wondered of late about the usefulness of reasonable expectations, and whether a dose of realism early on could contribute to long-term happiness.

We say we all want our kids to dream big. And that’s what we train them all to do. And for some, those dreams come true. A very few. For most, the dreams don’t happen – at least not the way they expect.

I often wonder if the bigness of our kids’ dreams isn’t creating adults who fail to find contentment in their decidedly mediocre lives.

I don’t mean mediocre as in bad. I mean mediocre as in normal – no excessive fame, no ridiculous wealth, no millions of followers on Instagram. Just a happy, normal, mediocre life.

Maybe we should encourage our kids to dream medium.

It doesn’t sound as catchy, it won't sell a ton of inspirational cat posters, and it sure wouldn't make for a particularly compelling moral to a new Disney movie, but it might make more sense.

These thoughts all tumbled through my mind as we crept along in the middle school parking lot waiting our turn to disperse into our day, her to school and I to work.

She sat quietly. Staring at the car ahead and refusing to get out until we were closer to the door, despite the sign saying student drop-off started three car-lengths back.

I didn’t want her to go.  I also don’t want her to let go of her dream. Not yet.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as she finally opened the door and pulled at her backpack.

She shrugged. “It’s okay.”

Then she departed.

I hate math.

Don’t get me wrong. I do want my kids to dream big and to want to do great things. I hope all their dreams come true. But, more than anything, I want them to be happy. Content. Satisfied. I don’t need any of them to be professional soccer players, or Astronauts, or YouTube stars. I just want them to feel gratified in the life they live.

That’s my big, medium parental dream. And there’s nothing mediocre about it.

 Here's other articles you may enjoy: 5 Signs Your Child Has Become a “Tweener”, My Kid Wants and iPhone, and I Don’t Know What To Do, and Learning Lessons from a Little Boy.


Susan P said...

I love this. It is how we have felt with our kids, too. We encourage them to try hard and reach for dreams, but always keep them grounded and knowledgeable with reality.

Cort Ruddy said...

It's a delicate balance. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks!

jeremy@thirstydaddy said...

good stuff man. These are the moments that nobody warns you about - but just maybe the most important ones