Getting Out of Your Kids’ Way

One of the best things I’ve done is get out of my kids’ way.

(Not that I neglected them, but it’s telling that I have to caveat that — we are so incredibly judgmental of parenting. And terrified of doing it wrong.)

With 3 boys, this meant 3 different things.

Son#1: Always headstrong, but driven — he knew what he wanted to do, and he was chasing after it like a starving cheetah. This is the kid who wanted to write a book and do a research paper on zero point energy… in 6th grade. The book was no problem (Mom had to practice what she preached on that), and thank heavens he had an amazing teacher who allowed him to tackle a graduate-level physics topic in grade school. My challenge here was to not harass him endlessly about making friends, being more social, not wear that eccentric hat so he could conform more to societal expectations. (Ok, the hat thing wasn’t so hard — but the others were.) He was driven, and he demanded I get out of his way — this child was relatively easy in that department. Today, he’s dual majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Chinese, writing books, and interning for a Silicon Valley company… as a Freshman. (As a Freshman, I was still figuring out how to study.) Getting out of his way (while still being there whenever he needed), was the best thing I could have done for that kid.

Son#2 — This one was a sweet, math-brilliant cat-whisperer. Imagine my surprise when he became a pre-teen determined to do the opposite of whatever Mom wanted, no matter what. He also knew what he wanted to do (computers) and educated himself on the internet, making him far more intelligent than I could ever be, now go away, thank you very much (only without the thanks!). Oh man. This one challenged me. He was determined to march his own path, condemning bourgeoisie social norms like joining math team or cutting his hair. His grades suffered for a while because only a fool would put in more than minimal effort into the meaningless markers of success in an archaic educational system that more resembled a prison. This one listened too well to the things I preached early on, forcing me into that reckoning where you have to stand on what you believe or live in eternal shame. I had to back so far off with this kid, I was practically in another zip code. I had faith because I knew him but that didn’t make it easy. At all. (Still.) It took a bit of time, but he found his footing (all on his own, thank you very much!) and now is getting ready to apply to a bunch of top colleges with some insanely good “markers of success” to put on those apps. He just finished a ton of AP tests… including one for an advanced physics class he didn’t even take. Just decided to self-study for that. I thought he was insane. He wasn’t. He’s an autodidact and he knew he could do it, so he did. Next year, he’s going to be interning in his senior physics class, assisting the teacher. I LOL-ed at the mini-essay he wrote for that position saying, “It’ll probably look good on my college apps but that is definitely not why I’m doing it.” I’m probably the only one who knows how much he means that. Getting out of this kid’s way was absolutely the best thing I could have done (but I had to white-knuckle it the whole way).

Son#3 — My singing, dancing, animal-loving creative soul. This one owns my heart. Which made it all the harder when all that creative energy had a super hard time getting focused. I knew he was brilliant — what’s more, he was creative and had empathy off the charts — but it didn’t show up in the measures at school. And that was hard on everyone, most of all him (all that empathy can be a curse). Here I had to lean in, all the while fearing that I was leaning in too much. But he needed the support, and even more important, he needed to know he was OKAY JUST AS HE WAS… and that I had faith he could overcome anything he set his mind to. This one had some hard times, and I felt it like a body blow every time. But, fortunately, I also knew that those hard times were building resilience — the kind he couldn’t get any other way. The Dutch (“Danish Way of Parenting”) have a simple and bone-deep cultural understanding of this — that not rescuing kids from their struggles is one of the most important gifts you can give them. How else are they to learn that they can struggle and survive? For this one, staying out of his way meant not rescuing him from the hard stuff, while at the same time, making sure he had the support and love he needed to deal with it. That patience and effort over time (on everyone’s part) paid off when he turned a corner this last year. He’s headed off to take his last final of the year this morning (Freshman in high school), making straight A’s in his classes, confident of his abilities, looking forward to a summer of exploring all the things his future might hold for him. His talents are numerous (empathy, insight, creativity, determination, grit) and his interests are broad-ranging (marine mammals, ecology, genetics, animation, art, programming, music, dance, film, critique). This kid’s future is so bright I need shades. 😎 And staying out of his way in just the right way was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Hopefully, my kids won’t hate me for sharing this!

But I think it can help parents of younger kids to see the trajectory, to have the faith, to know that when the world beats down on you and says you should be hounding your kid to get better grades, get involved in those activities, make more friends, cut their hair, and for the love of God, focus for once, would you? That most likely the thing you actually need to do is step back, breathe, listen to your kid, let them fail (now, when the stakes are low), and let them know at all times in all ways that you love the snot out of them and have faith in their ability to thrive in the world.

That’s all they really need from you, anyway.