I kick them from the house, drag my tweens to this leafy patch of monkey bars, repurposed tires, and shade. It is summer, and the whole neighborhood has stared at screens, practiced math and dozed like molting snakes for too many hours. So my children do not want to be here, and they show me; their disdain vibrates off their shoulders. Hands deep in their pockets as they kick at the gravel, then a silver slide, they sip boredom with each roll of the eyes. Even worse, I have made them leave their cell phones in the car, although their hands still reach for them like phantom limbs. They are connected in their disconnection. Without a coach or an assignment or an app, they do not know how to fill their time. Angry because I have forced them out of air conditioning, they try to wait me out, while I sit in late summer sun, read a bit, and watch them scuff their toes through dust, let the swings rock them gently, but without pleasure.
I love my children as much as any parent and long for them to find their way in a world that often seems frighteningly stacked against them, even though they are the product of college-educated, upper middle class homes. It worries me that loving our children has come to be synonymous with providing constant opportunities for growth along with schedules and expectations for reaching a level of superior success because after all, they had “all the advantages.” In the years of middle school, they have not simply played as they did when they were toddlers. Something happened to set us on a path of eating in the van on the way to our next activity. We tried on an array of sports and lessons to find their “thing” and lost the impulse for unsupervised, goal-free afternoons.
Loving children has come to be about pushing them to succeed and employing the full power of the child rearing business to do this. We begin plotting all this love and success at an earlier and earlier age, asking them to grow up on soccer fields, in off-season training sessions and with tutors who will help them prepare for the advanced tests they will one day take. We haven’t loved our children enough if we haven’t helped them build the perfect resume for college by the time they reach their junior year. Such tasks now begin long before middle school, but find their full velocity in those tricky sixth through eighth grade years where it is common practice to take several high school courses like Algebra, Geometry or a foreign language. These courses are considered “advanced”, yet schools and parents push all kids to complete them during middle school. A child moving along at the pace of “normal” from only a decade ago will be seen as behind and slow, potentially a behavior problem.
Several years ago, I received a phone call from my son’s middle school after we selected eighth grade math on his scheduling form rather than Algebra. Many of his friends were taking Geometry in eighth grade because that was the new “normal” but math was difficult for Sam and we assumed Algebra in high school was a better option. His guidance counselor explained that the only students who took eighth grade math were the kids who “couldn’t add or subtract at all.” She went on to say, “It’s all IEPs and troublemakers.” So my decision for his math course was not based on his math skill or what would be the appropriate level for his development, rather it came to be about who he would sit in class with, what sort of kid I wanted him to be. And I have known parents who insist on students being moved to high courses, some even taking Geometry over the summer between eighth and ninth grade so they can be placed in Algebra II upon entering high school.
I worry about this trend of turning childhood into a set of orchestrated maneuvers, a complicated set of chess moves to position these pawns, our children, in line to move toward certain colleges where we believe they must belong. Sometimes it seems this generation of parents, my generation of parents, has turned the utterly selfless act of parenting into a narcissistic game designed to help us measure our own success based on the accomplishments of our progeny. But it is scary to ignore it all as well, scary to imagine there are opportunities we missed for them, lessons or life experiences they might have had if only we had known. When I ask my mother about how she decided what to send us to or which activities we should be involved with, she laughs. “I didn’t have a car most days.” And therein lies her sense of our problem—expendable income combined with a desire to achieve.
And then I look up from the page I was only pretending to read. Some invisible current, conducted through the nothing of these minutes, loosens them,
. . . and they begin to run.
Slowly at first as they stutter into a chase.
Soon they are after one another like humming birds. In these new bodies stretched and made lean by days I forgot to count or even notice, they dwarf all they climb, their feet dangling, their mouths sharp as sticks. They push, holler and catapult, laugh even, as they once did when small. Without the measured pose of every day, they leap back across a time free from referees, coaches and the edge we parents try to cultivate in them from birth.