“I have something to tell you and you’re not going to like it,” Alpha started in. I hate it when our conversations start off that way. "Just spit it out," I told him.
“OK, but before I tell you,” he continued, “I just want you to keep in mind, that in the 7th grade I was lighting fires in the woods behind my house with Mike Hipp.”
I’m in the car, waiting for my oldest to come out of junior high. The other kids are tucked in the back, doing homework. I’m feeling increasingly irritated about where the conversation is headed.
“The assistant principal just called. Jackson was in his office because he had burned a kid with a pistachio shell. Kids were heating up the nuts under their shoes at recess. They determined that it was not bullying. It was not malicious but he had to be called in because the kid went to the nurse to get a band aid. It's just part of the new rules.”
Junior High. We had been warned about it. The big step. Kids are a little too mature. Major attitude. A parent who'd already been down this road warned me the junior high years were by far the worst. So, having braced myself for all of it, the first month turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise. Jax went into an enormous school ensconced in a great group of friends, surrounded by 100 other students from his elementary class, plus numerous sports acquaintances. He came home euphoric over the freedom -- walking in the hallways unsupervised, switching classes every period.
It was all proceeding so smoothly.
Hanging up the phone with Alpha, I watched him approach the car. His body slumped, his face crestfallen. All the tween ‘tude was gone. As he slid into the car, it was clear he was devastated. My oldest, the rule followerer. The kid, literal to his core, who worked really well inside the box, was completely out of sorts.
He was in trouble for the first time in his life. Looking at him, it killed me. I'd never seen him so down on himself. I had to stop myself from hugging him.
On the way home, I glared and yelled a little for show. “What were you thinking? I didn’t raise a son to end up in the principal’s office,” came out a couple of times. His head hung lower with each barrage. The other kids, aghast, listened intently as their older brother repeated over and over how stupid he was.
But inside, I was replaying my conversation that I just had with Alpha. At his age, I was lighting fires in the woods. We have marveled that our kids do follow the rules as much as they do. They don’t light fires, they rarely talk back; they produce for us on demand. It makes us proud for sure. But that rebellious spirit that Alpha has described about himself led him to be an entrepreneur. Made him brave enough to take on incredible risk. To move his family to Santa Barbara; choose a path that was not the norm for a kid growing up in Westchester County, New York.
Do we want kids to be compliant, produce perfect grades, never test their boundaries or look for chances to stretch, even break, the rules? Excel in all they decide to do but never experience failure? It truly sounds intoxicating, doesn’t it? But the reality is it’s not preparing them for life. For real success.
If I intuitively know that, where is there room to waffle? In school? Where the stakes are so high one misstep could jeopardize a college ticket. (On a side note, when I was growing up it never occurred to me to think about college in 7th grade. I get to hear about it all the time in carpool.) On the sports field? Where club sports are demanding more out of our kids than ever before. One false move and they can land on the B team.
Who cares? You could ask. And that is where the answer lies. I care. Probably too much. Because when I see my kids excelling, in a way, it is a measure of my own success. All the effort Apha and I have put into them. They are living results of all our hard work. But, as I write this column, seeing it in print, my own kids’ path is so clearly not about me. It is about them. They have to develop their own expectations for themselves. Not mine. Not Alpha's. In a more holistic way.
Once home, I stormed into my room with Jackson in tow leaving the rest of the tribe huddled in the kitchen wondering what punishment was about to befall their brother. I slammed the door for effect and listened to him apologize. And then I told him point blank. “Jackson, part of being in 7th grade means you're going to do stupid things,” I told him. “How are you going to learn if you do everything right?”
Stupid is just starting, I told him. Even more stupid was going to a party in high school, drinking, then getting into a car and driving friends home. Maybe you get home okay. Or maybe you get in an accident and no one survives. “How are you going to learn that if you don’t make enough wrong decisions to learn the right ones?”
As he left the room, I could tell that was not the conversation he was expecting. But we are now in junior high. Where there is a lot more gray than black and white. And he may do things that surprise me. But, in turn, I will parent him in a way that may surprise both of us. Because, at the end of the day, we are all just trying to figure it out.