Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are cowering together, looking over each other’s shoulders as they make their way through the dark forest?
“Lions and tigers and bears,” says Dorothy, putting names to their fears. They have convinced themselves that unseen menaces are stalking them, coming closer with each step they take along the yellow brick road.
Sometimes I feel like I am on that same road, but instead of hearing the footsteps of voracious predators, I am besieged by voices telling me that I had better make sure my son is ready for college.
You know: Has he taken all the right tests? Can he squeeze more, more, more into his schedule? What clubs and organizations does he belong to? Any special talents? Volunteer work? Colleges like to see leadership qualities. What has he done to show that he is up to speed in that department?
Most days, I would rather take my chances with the lions.
There is such pressure to be competitive, to stand out. The whole thing is a sham. I don’t know who is responsible for generating the hype, for creating this false idea that there is only one road to success: “Follow the yellow brick road,” and that success is limited to those who get to Oz.
It would be so easy to take my eyes off of my son’s emerging self and shift my focus towards what the colleges say they want. Checking the College Board website for the dates of the PSAT test, the drop-down menu offers information on a slew of other tests: CLEPs, SAT subject tests, and so on. It is all “highly recommended.” It is tempting to believe that it is worth molding him into a shape that would fit the college admissions process. It is easy to believe that our children must jump through the right hoops at the right time or they will miss all of the golden opportunities.
I resist this idea for a whole host of reasons, the primary one being that we are raising human beings, not college students. I have absolute faith in the value of a college education, but it is easy to forget that college is a means to an end, not the end itself.
Instead of driving, striving and aiming for outcomes, I remind myself that it is my job to attend to the foundation. Instead of pressing our son to make choices based on what will look good on an application, my husband and I encourage him to choose based on what suits him best right then. When I worry that this is short-sighted—those voices!—I remember that we do our living in the present. Whatever we learn now, do now, build now, is what we stand on to reach the future.
Besides being concerned with his credits and grades, I ask other questions. How can my son pursue his passion, or even a passing interest? What is challenging for him that needs attention? Where does he need to find some balance? Where is it safe for him to fail, to reassess, to reconsider? Does he have the down time he needs to dream, digest, digress?
I am not a fan of the free-for-all. Teenagers benefit from hard work and high expectations, but those must be tailored to the individual. Our son is an introvert. He does not gravitate towards groups. Instead of pressing him to be a “joiner,” we have encouraged him to be comfortable with himself as he is. After many years of keeping to himself, he has found ways to be involved that feel right to him.
He enjoys small children and teaches at the local rink’s learn-to-skate program. He was not chosen to be captain of his high school hockey team, but in his quiet way, he is shepherding the freshman boys through their grueling first year. Developing his self-awareness was the first step towards developing leadership, that oh-so-valued quality that colleges are seeking.
Look for ways for your teenagers to become more themselves, and then find what fits, rather than the other way around. There are many roads, and not all of them are made of yellow brick.
Lea Page’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Boiler, Krista Tippet’s On Being Blog, Tiferet Journal and Hippocampus, among others. She is also the author of Parenting in the Here and Now (Floris Books, 2015). Visit her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.