Friday, December 20, 2013

A different beat

Among the many mixed messages our culture gives kids, the advice on conformity must be among the most confusing. Officially, we value individuality. We urge them to "think outside the box," "march to your own beat," "dare to be different," or in the words of Apple, "think different." When we seek to inspire, we praise non-conformity. But woe to the teen who takes this to heart!

In reality, the last thing many achievement-oriented parents want to encourage in their children is non-conformity, unless they define it as "getting a 4.0 when the rest of the class is below 3.8." Otherwise, parents are more likely to encourage their children to fit in by steering them to popular activities, clothing styles, entertainment choices and like-minded peer groups. 

she made her own Halloween costume
Even in my social circle, in which disdain of the "dominant culture" was a recurring theme back in the playgroup days, the acceptable box is only slightly more accommodating. Enlightened parents may celebrate some examples of coloring outside the lines, such as little boys in pink or a family's refusal to own a television set, but questions on academic attainment are usually confined to "how" or "where," rarely "if" or "why." Much debate may occur on whether little Zooby will fare better at Montessori, public, charter or home school, but the unquestioned assumption is that Zooby will go to college.

Let me be clear: I include myself among those parents. For most of the past two decades, I've approached my parenting role with the assumption that my two children would share similar views on how one should navigate life. While my favorite metaphor to describe my ideals was that I was a gardener nurturing seeds, not a potter shaping clay, in truth I behaved as if I were growing bonsai or topiary rather than wildflowers.

To escape my box, I needed a good teacher, and fortunately I had one in my daughter, the proverbial square peg who will not be pounded into a round hole. [I'll refer to her as "Matilda," in honor of her favorite childhood literary character.] Through strong non-violent resistance to most efforts to "school" her or train her to productivity, my Matilda has taught me to reassess my own notions of success and purpose in a more radical manner than I had previously experienced, even through my studies of voluntary simplicity.

I have learned that time spent staring at the ceiling may be the most valuable of all. This has been a difficult lesson to absorb after decades focused on perfecting my multitasking skills to the point that I almost can't read a book unless I'm simultaneously engaged in another activity. If I had been a student of the Harry Potter generation, I may have been nicknamed Hermione after J.K. Rowling's smarty-pants heroine who shifted time to take more classes. Watching my daughter sit for hours, doing nothing that I could detect, was puzzling, and for many years, a problem to fix. (I think I've read almost every advice site returned by a Google search on "gifted and unmotivated.")

The first clues that Matilda might be on to something emerged when I began to notice that some of my adult friends welcomed her company. Matilda has always, even as a toddler, generally preferred the society of adults and has accompanied me to activities and social engagements whenever permitted. My adult friends tolerated her society with equanimity, and as she grew into her teen years, their interactions evolved. No longer just a tagalong, she increasingly participated in the conversations, and I observed that adults seemed to enjoy and even elicit her contributions.

It finally dawned on me that Matilda's agile mind was far from idle during those countless hours spent staring at the ceiling. She was engaged in one of the activities most endangered in our crazy-busy culture: thinking. More specifically, sustained and critical thinking. Like Charles Darwin, my young naturalist needed time to sort and catalog her observations. I thought she was "doing nothing," but her mind was a hot oven, baking something new from the ingredients she had kneaded and left to rise. The result would much later be issued as a report, typically with a "did you notice" or "I figured something out" prologue, often to the astonishment of an adult unaware that teens thought about such things.

But most importantly, that "doing nothing" time was key to her well-being. When I let go of my beliefs of what should be happening and observed what was happening, I acknowledged that every single incident of discontent, meltdown or outright misery came on the heels of parental pressure to do something. If I just let her be, her inner butterfly emerged -- curious and ready to explore the world, vitally engaged with every interesting thing she encountered, and comfortable in her own beautifully unique skin.

Tomorrow: my muse's muses