Monday, 19 September 2016

When I Was a Lad...

I was once like you are now.
And I know, that it's not easy
to be calm, when you find something's going on. 
But take your time.
Think alot.
Why, think of everything you've got.
For you will still be here tomorrow. 
But your dreams may not.

Summer is turning to autumn and we are settling down into the routine of work and school. Our son has this August turned eleven years old - hard to believe - and is now on to collège (middle school; he is enrolled in a French-based curriculum after our return to the US from a couple of years in France).

Yesterday, his school (Lycée Français de San Francisco) held its annual back to school picnic for families up in San Rafael, California. It was a tremendous, warm, sunny day on the edge of the bay. As our son, and indeed all the new kids in collège, move into a brand new school, they face the excitement and challenges together of a new building, new kids, new teachers, and new rubrics.

For the first time, all have to confront changing classes - your maths teacher in one room on the first floor, your science teacher on the second floor in a separate room, of lockers and combination locks.

All of these experiences are familiar to us as adults; I don't reckon that trying to retain your combination, planning which books to leave in the locker for period four and which to bring to first period, the choice of whether to leave period two behind in the locker to grab on the way to third, or bundle with first has changed much in the 35-odd years in between my first day of junior high (as it was known in those days) and today. And of course, the fear of the five paragraph essay and multi-day assignments looms much as, I suppose, it did back in the Reagan administration.

As a parent, I've found that as often as not, life becomes a bit like the never-ended Groundhog Day scenario where victories, defeats, challenges, and thrills replay in the lives of our children, very much like they did in our own.

With apologies to Cat Stevens (see above), as the song goes, one cannot help see in your child flickering glimpses of the past - of the road taken, how it played out.  But also, of the choices not made.

Some of those choices turned out well, but not all of them. And therein lies one of the most difficult challenges of being a parent.

When you see an opportunity where a collision is (almost surely) down the road, when do you choose to act? Are some lessons worth learning (a second time), and which are best so that the learning is virtul rather than real?

When I was younger, my own personality could have been accurately described as aloof. I've never been an extrovert, and have struggled virtually my entire life trying to socialise with strangers. "Making friends" was never a long suit, though I always have recognised it as an extremely valuable strength. Just not one that I have.  I'd like to think that I'm much better - more "friendly and outgoing" now than I was, but still, my wife is the gregarious one in our family. And I'm not a close second.

As a kid, my older brother was far, far more naturally personable - many friends, homecoming king in high school. It all looked so easy from my side of the virtual window peering in.

Being able to "fit in" is an extremely valuable life lesson; one I've tried to instill in my own son, with mixed results.

Yesterday, as my wife and I tried to encourage our son to approach a group of boys at the picnic, I got one of those "through the wayback machine" looks at my own youth. Not at all unlike my own experiences, our son stood at the side, watching the other boys running around, laughing.  Eventually, he mustered the motivation to join the group, for a little while.

When we asked him, why he was reluctant to approach the other kids, his answer struck me - "What if they reject me?"

The answer caught me off guard a bit.

Trying to be re-assuring, and to disarm a bit with humour, I suggested that a) they are 11 year old little boys shooting each other with water pistols; it's not likely that they are going to reject a recruit into the aqua army,  and b) it's not like he's asking them out on a date - THAT'S 'rejection'.

(As you might expect with a pre-adolescent boy, that second comment went over rather like a lead zeppelin.)

It's terrific to see our strengths reflected in our children - our son is a thoughtful, well-mannered little boy who loves to read. He is curious about the world.  It's even better when we see our weaknesses and failings overcome (at that age, I personally was an awful student who talked back to his teachers).

But it's equally terrifying to see our own failings reflected back, mainly because of this gnawing feeling that we know how the story is going to end. And I just honestly don't know how to help here.

Parenting is a juggling act to say the least. You balance intervening and avoiding the pain of a mistake, while at the same time recognising that there are times you simply have to let your kids figure things out.

Most of the time, keeping the balls in the air is thrilling, and we are good at keeping them in the air.  But sometimes, they fall. And sometimes when they fall, they break.

We just hope that we can put them back together when they do.

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