I tried to wiggle the spoon out from my toddler’s grip.
“Let me help you,” I told him.
Spaghetti sauce was in his hair, on his cheeks. There was even a splotch on the ceiling. My son let out a yelp and yanked harder. The spoon was his now. His gaze had never left mine. He wasn’t yet two, but I saw his fierce intensity. His independence.
I let him have the spoon even though, technically, he couldn’t feed himself yet—and his attempts left me with a huge mess. As a first time mom, I wasn’t thinking about long-term outcomes. I didn’t know then that I was setting a precedent. That he would still be yanking spoons away from me, spoons that he couldn’t quite control, even after he was away at college.
D grew into the kind of child who naturally questioned authority. He acted betrayed when he figured out I was skipping words in his bedtime stories to move it along faster. He tested as gifted by second grade. I encouraged his independence, his firm need to figure out everything for himself. He thrived with this approach as a younger kid. I didn’t realize how my lenient, freewheeling approach would set him up for hardships in high school and beyond.
In elementary school D loved creative assignments like the one where they dropped an egg from the roof of the school. The kids were supposed to design protection for the fragile egg to keep it from breaking. D spent hours cushioning an outer box he created.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wrap the egg itself? Let’s think this through,” I offered.
D shook his head like usual. My voice was interference.
Of course, he was disappointed with his demolished egg. I watched him work through his error in his mind as he stared at crushed yolk: “I needed a cushion inside too.”
I didn’t say, “I told you so.” Or “You should have listened to me” or even “I know what I’m talking about.” I knew by then that D was the kind of kid who needed to go at it on his own.
He was a typical gifted child. School bored him. His friends were usually older. He worked on intensive projects beyond the regular curriculum. Card games. Time machines. Exhibits for museums that only existed in his imagination. He got stellar grades without trying. He didn’t like advice on homework or projects. He was insistent that it be his own work. He knew I was a writer and a professor. But he didn’t want my eyes on his papers. He would rather have a point deduction than let me proofread any of his work.
By junior year in high school, his grades took a dip. Nothing devastating, he still made honor roll, but he wasn’t living up to his potential. As for studying and homework, he did the bare minimum.
At one point he told me that he couldn’t be bothered to “aim for more than an 85.”
I kept trying to take back the spoon. To take control. I implemented mandatory study hours at home. He lost privileges until homework was done, until grades were raised. We had hours of conversations about the importance of hard work. But I couldn’t get him to genuinely care about academics or his performance.
I was thrilled when he was admitted to a college honor’s program, the one he wanted. From his perspective this was an expected outcome. I saw it as miraculous after his skate through high school, and a record that was fine, but not excellent. Before he left, I gave him all the talks.
About the difference between high school and college. The requirements. The necessary study time. The increased difficulty.
I hoped he was listening.
Half way through the first semester he realized he was in trouble. But his attitude was casual when we would discuss it. As the semester ramped up, so did the difficulty. He was figuring out how hard it was to dig out of a hole.
[More on the academic mistakes of college freshmen here.]
I got involved—from afar. And without much influence. Still, I gave him study tips, due date reminders, time management advice. But he was still nonchalant.
“Let me read your paper,” I offered, “let me help you.”
“Mom,” he said for what felt like the millionth time, “I can do it myself.”
He hadn’t let me assist with his papers in high school either. Or his presentations or his projects. Once, he let me help build a model of the Globe Theater. His English teacher loved it so much she asked to keep it as an example for future classes. D wasn’t proud though, “She only wants it because you helped.”
He couldn’t take pride in anything he didn’t accomplish on his very own.
Because he had always been a smart kid, he ended his first college semester with decent grades—they just weren’t good enough to maintain his status in the honor’s college—he was on probation and would now have to raise his cumulative GPA to meet the requirement.
Now he finally had a problem. He wanted to be in the honor’s college. He loved the niche program. And he was bothered by the publicity of the Dean’s List. His name wasn’t on it—and some of his classmates noticed.
He started to really study. He did all extra credit. He worried over exams. He was constantly calculating what he needed on this or that test to meet his goals. He read textbooks, carefully, instead of skimming. He turned in all the homework.
Even with all the studying, his final exam grades were not a sure thing. He had plates spinning in every course to pull the grade to what he needed.
I was with him when the report card came in. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d seen him so giddy. So happy. It was pride. And the joy was stronger because he had worked hard and he hadn’t been certain of the outcome. He finally got to feel the payoff, the reward.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t teach you discipline and hard work,” I said.
“Mom,” he told me. “There is not a thing you could have done or said. I had to figure this out on my own.”
He was giving me that intense stare again. He didn’t know that I still see all that splattered spaghetti, the smashed egg yolk, all those minor disasters. That I might always regret letting him have the spoon.
Then I realized that I had been letting it go since the very beginning.
He had always been fine with that. And now, finally, I was too.
Clean is Sexy and 58 Other Bits of Advice for Sons
Molly Pennington Bio:
I’m a writer, a mentor, a speaker, a wife and a mother, and a lover of insight and whimsy. My default setting is perpetual cheer, but I don’t shy away from the wounds of the world. To me, nothing is more vital than social justice and I believe that perception and compassion are curative. I’m here to make the world a little less mean. Instead: smarter, brighter, better. You can find out more about me at www.mollypennington.com or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.