The horror stories about junior year are urban lore. Cautionary tales spread far and wide about overburdened students pressured by parents to score high on college entrance exams and AP tests while simultaneously compiling a long list of noteworthy extracurricular achievements.
I’m not objecting to parents pushing for excellence. I’ve seen it lead to success when it suits the child. But I’ve also seen it level kids and wreak havoc on their families. Excellence, by definition, is to be outstanding, to be set apart from the mean. I think we’ve lost sight of that.
Despite the warnings, junior year took me by surprise
Yet, despite all the warnings I’d heard about junior year, my son’s outbursts that year took me by surprise.
The harder I tried to help him, the more doors he slammed in my face — any advice I tossed his way burned up in his red-hot force field. I confessed to my husband my fear that our son was not equipped for college, much less life in the real world.
Then, the August before his senior year, I had an epiphany.
I was downstairs cringing at my son’s gut-wrenching cries followed by the crash of objects hurled against his wall, like the disquiet between a lightning strike and a thunderclap. We had already gathered a graveyard of collateral damage from his previous meltdowns: a cracked photograph, decapitated trophies, numerous divots, and a fist-sized crater that defaced the walls of his room.
When my son was small, I would wrap myself around his squishy little body and hold him until his temper died down. But he was taller and stronger now, so I paced helplessly instead, wincing with every thud and waiting for the right time to intervene.
After the last projectile landed, I walked upstairs and put my ear to his door. Silence. I took a deep breath and cracked the portal open. His bed was covered in strewn papers and splayed-out textbooks but was otherwise empty. As I opened the door further, I heard a small cry between a gasp and a choke.
I felt like I had failed my son
First, I spotted his feet and then his legs, stiff and sticking out from the beanbag chair that until then had only been used as a way station for his dirty laundry. Warily, I stepped inside. His face was flushed and swollen from crying. He looked defeated. I moved toward him, and he didn’t resist my offer to help him stand to my surprise.
He looked into my eyes, a sad shell of the studious and levelheaded boy I knew. He pleaded with me to let him drop out of school.
Decades earlier, when I’d imagined myself a mom, I vowed I would do a better job than my parents by doing everything the opposite. Where my mom and dad had been absent, I quit my career to be with my children 24/7. Where my parents had not understood or appreciated my traits, I encouraged my kids to be exactly who they were. Where I had rarely been shown affection, I expressed and verbalized my love to my children every single day.
But looking at my broken boy this August day, seventeen and already waving the white flag on life, I felt ashamed. Being his mother had been my only job, a job I’d worked so hard to perfect, and I’d screwed it up big time. In desperation to out-parent my parents, somehow, I’d failed my son.
I wondered if my peers and I were justified in casting aspersions on the laissez-faire child-rearing style of our parents’ generation. Maybe they were onto something by letting their children roam unsupervised and having a less exacting approach to college. Maybe the latchkey kids of the twentieth century were better off than our helicoptered heirs.
I questioned which carried more weight, nature or nurture, genetics or environment. I had read articles about the effect of ancestors’ stress and anxiety on their descendants. Maybe no matter how secure a situation I had created for my child, I was no match for his DNA. If that was true, neither were my parents or their parents before them. Fact or fiction, I began to feel better, enough to stop blaming myself and start helping my son.
I decided to step back from my son’s life
That day I agreed, along with my husband, to step back. It was counterintuitive, contrary to so much of the parenting advice I’d read or heard. But by heeding that counsel, I’d lost what was most important to me, open communication with my son. I had nothing to lose by trying. I needed to accept that my son had to walk his path, however winding and full of rocks. If that meant he didn’t perform to his potential (as I measured it) and chose a road in life that I hadn’t desired for him, then so be it.
The change was swift. My son’s tantrums trickled down to a few. He stopped hiding in his room and resumed speaking in complete sentences. I came to know and appreciate him as a maturing young man — his wit, charm, and intelligence. With glee, I admit, we started liking each other again. Without my hovering, he sought me out for advice. I listened, offered my opinion, and then told him the final decision was his. He continued his work in school and sent in his college applications on time.
I’m not going to lie. It’s been a nail-biter, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ve spoken up on occasion when I thought my son stumbled. I made a phone call in a situation that I should have let him handle. Countless times I’ve had to hold myself back when every cell in my body screamed to lean in. But I am doing my best and learning as I go along, just like my son.
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