2014-THANKSgiving

Parenting An Average Student

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One of the most challenging aspects of raising my son was accepting the fact that he was an unmotivated student. Though his father and I tried not to let his grades define how we saw him, especially during high school, they did have an impact on how we viewed ourselves as parents. We had moments of self-doubt and, at times, questioned the way we had raised him. What had we we done wrong?  What did we miss or fail to do to motivate him to succeed?

Nothing really, it turns out.

It was never up to us to motivate him in the first place. He had to find the motivation within himself.

In the hyper-competitive world of AP classes, honor rolls, valedictorians, students-of-the-month, perfect SAT scores, 4.0 and above GPAs, scholar athletes and more, having a child with average grades is considered a serious problem by many parents and can even be viewed by some as embarrassing and shameful. A “C” student might as well be a high school dropout as far as many top-tier colleges and universities are concerned. Some high school counselors, who can be overloaded by the sheer number of students they manage, and private admissions consultants, concerned about their reputations and admission rates, are quick to dismiss average students as junior-college bound.

Just because a student has average grades in high school doesn’t mean he or she won’t succeed in college.

My son was an average high school student, graduating with a GPA that was just shy of 3.0. There were a number of reasons for his less-than-stellar performance in high school, including a mild learning disability (ADHD) and a severe lack of motivation. His father and I did everything we could think of to ignite an interest in academics in his intelligent but disinterested mind. Among other things, we hired tutors, including the one PhD English teacher at his high school who had been so inspirational to our older daughter. As I surreptitiously listened each week, I was struck by how utterly bored my son was, despite the fascinating (if somewhat exasperated) way the teacher explained the text. For me, a voracious reader with an English degree, my son’s disdain for literature was both sad and a little terrifying. How would he ever make it in college without the skills to interpret complex writing?

And yet, when it came to sports, my son was a font of knowledge. His recall of baseball and football statistics was encyclopedic. He could dissect and evaluate every play in a football game the way mathematicians solve complex calculus equations. What good would all of this information do him, his father and I wondered. On the other hand, we felt the life lessons he learned playing football in high school – commitment, discipline, respect and teamwork – would be of great value to him, so we supported our offensive lineman and his team. We hoped that his zeal for learning about sports would someday translate to his academic pursuits as well.

The belief that attending a top 50 university is the only path to success is not only untrue, but impossible for the 95% of high school students who don’t have the grades and/or the financial ability to attend one of these elite institutions. There are thousands of excellent schools that will admit average students and offer them the growth experiences and education that are the reasons to attend a college or university in the first place. My son was fortunate to be accepted to one of those universities.

Parents of average students might want to consider doing things differently than we did and fight their understandable instinct to constantly push their students to perform better in school. Many teenagers don’t reach a level of maturity to find the impetus to work hard until after high school. The fighting and arguing about getting him to work harder, study more and do better was futile and frustrating, and caused unnecessary stress for both my son and for my husband and me.

In my son’s case, it wasn’t until he went to college and found something that captured his attention – in his case, American History – that he was able to earn the grades we always knew he could.

My son graduated from college – in 4 years – in the spring of 2014. The key to his success was finding support and counseling throughout his college experience, along with simply growing up. His senior thesis was on the history of the Mexican baseball league and it’s impact on the sport in the United States. He received a B plus on his paper. He now has two jobs, one in management for a college football team and the other in public affairs for a large energy company. He succeeded despite being an average high school student – and without his parents breathing down his neck. He did it on his own, which for me is the most gratifying thing of all.

It’s unlikely a potential employer will ever ask him about his high school GPA. Why would they? There’s so much more to him than that.

Note: This post was written with my son’s blessing and encouragement.

Related post: About a Boy

The Child I Didn’t Adopt

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It was something about the phrasing that got to me. Something about the cadence of his words, the staccato of his speech.

“Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.”

It is an odd turn of phrase, isn’t it?

Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

He was buckled into the backseat of my Toyota, still too little to sit up front. At seven he had already moved more times than the total number of years he had been on the earth. And this time, like the times before it, he moved with his belongings in a trash bag. A suitcase, at least, would have added a small degree of dignity to the whole affair – to being “placed” in another and another and yet another foster home before reaching the 3rd grade. Trash bags break, you know. Trash bags can’t possibly support the contents of any life, and certainly not a life as fragile as this.

They break from the strain, eventually.

This move was harder for Stephen than most. It was a home he thought he would stay in, at least for awhile. He had felt affection there. When I went to pick him up, after his foster mother gave notice that he could no longer stay, he came easily with me; head down, no reaction on the surface of it. It was only when he got into my car that he began to sob the kind of aching sound that leaves you limp in its wake.

He could barely get out the words. Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

Months later, in a repeat scene (another foster mother, another removal), he would put up a fight. He would run around the living room, ducking behind furniture, refusing to leave. But on this night he had no fight in him.



That was Stephen at seven.

Nine-year old Stephen grips his report card in sweaty hands. We’re headed to an adoption event, where we will meet families who want to adopt an older child; families who do not automatically rule out a boy like Stephen with all of his long “history.” And he wants to impress them, these strangers. He wants to win them over, and so he brings his good report card along as tangible proof that he is a child worth loving.

A child should never have to prove they are worth loving.

Twelve-year old Stephen tells me that I’m his best friend. I’m his social worker, and he should have a real best friend, but I don’t say this to him. We’re at a taping for Wednesday’s Child, the news spot featuring children who are up for adoption. Stephen is engaging on camera. Maybe somebody will pick him this time. Maybe he is offering just enough evidence, at twelve, that he’s a boy worth loving. And he is lovable, truly. But it is not enough. A family never comes.

Years later, long after I’ve left the agency, I get an email from my old boss asking how I’m doing, and ending with a short P.S. “Stephen is in DYS lockup after running away from his foster home. You need to adopt him.” My stomach drops. I’ve had this thought many times. I should adopt him myself. But I don’t.

I heard about his murder from a friend who had seen it in the news. Shot outside a party over some foolish dispute. Dead at 18, dead just as he became a man. Not my Stephen, I prayed. When I realized that it was really him – that it could be no other – I sobbed gripped by the kind of anguish that leaves you limp in its wake.

The newspapers ran very little about the murder, as if it were an afterthought. Barely worth a mention, really. Anonymous strangers posted nasty comments online: “Just another gangbanger,” they said. You don’t even know him. You don’t know the first thing about this boy. You don’t know that as a child he would trace letters into my back with his finger to pass time at the doctor’s office, asking me to guess what phrase he was spelling out. “I ♥ U” he traced between my shoulders, the last time we played this game.

Stephen had been wrong, that night in my Toyota. His mother did love him, in her way. She was there, at the funeral. She greeted me kindly. I think she knew I loved Stephen as I knew she did. We both failed him in the end, and that joined us I suppose. Neither of us could give him a family.

There were no photos from Stephen’s childhood at the funeral home. No images of the green-eyed boy with the sweet smile to remind us of what had been lost. There were no pictures of Stephen with his brothers, and so I printed up snapshots of the four boys together, taken on a supervised visit, and brought them to the funeral to give to the family. It was something I could do, against the larger backdrop of nothing I could do.

There were very few social workers at the funeral, and none of Stephen’s many foster mothers. Stephen spent more of his life being raised in the system than out of it. If you claim legal responsibility for a child, you best show up at his funeral. You should show up when he dies. He was yours, in a way, wasn’t he? You owe it to him. And if he did not belong to you, then who did he ever belong to?

His mother was there, at least. His mother who gave birth to him. I hear the echo of his voice from those many years ago.

Somebody does love you, Stephen. I want to tell him. But it’s too late.

Stephen was the one, for me. The one who embodied all the failures of a system so broken that to heal it would take far more than the casts that heal the literal broken bones of the children growing up within it.

They break, you know. These kids we leave behind. Eventually they break.

November is National Adoption Month. For information on adoption from the foster care system, visit the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

*Stephen is a fictional name for a real boy the world lost.

The Story of Ferdinand

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charlie

One Saturday morning about five years ago, I took all my boys to the baseball field to sign my then-5 year old firstborn up for spring baseball. While I struggled to decide what size hat and tiny baseball pants he would need so I could complete the forms, a few of the coaches who were pacing around the crowd approached me.

“Hey, how old is that guy?” one coach asked, pointing to my second son, Charlie. “Does he play?”  I looked up at them over the head of my newborn, asleep on my chest in his Ergo. “Uh, he’s 3,” I answered slowly and incredulously. “No, he doesn’t play… anything.” Except Star Wars, I added in my head. And superheroes.

“Wow,” said one of the coaches, nodding his head with approval. “Listen, which high school are you zoned for? I coach football over at the local school. Let me know if he’s heading my way.” I stared at him, smiled because I didn’t know how else to respond, and silently steered my children toward another corner of the fray, away from the crazy coaches who wanted to recruit my preschooler for high school football eleven years early.

Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.

My now-8 year old Charlie has been asking for the same bedtime book every night lately:The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. Every night, I read it to him and his little brother — the boy who was once that baby in an Ergo — and they end my sentences for me.

All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand.

When he was four, we signed my Charlie up for soccer. It seemed like a good beginner sport, and some of his preschool classmates were playing too. He was excited to wear the jersey and to have a team, and his coaches were excited because he was at least a head taller than anyone else on the field. But every Saturday, we would trek out to the soccer fields, and Charlie would walk — not run — onto the field reluctantly. Instead of going for the ball, he would lag behind the pack. His coaches would yell, “Go after the ball! Get to the ball! Run, Charlie!” and he would instead search the sidelines for me and jog over to where I was sitting. “Is it snack time yet?” he would ask me with desperate hope in his eyes. His coaches’ shoulders sagged. He never even kicked the ball one time that season. He did, however, greatly enjoy the cupcake and trophy he received on the last day.

Sometimes, his mother, who was a cow, would worry about him. 

At six, we thought we had found Charlie’s sport. My son loves to swim. His father swam in high school and college, and it seemed to make sense that our children might follow suit. We signed the boys up for the year-round swim team and we attended practices three days a week for months on end. But while the other kids learned their strokes carefully and whipped their arms through the water like curved swords, racing ambitiously toward the wall, my son had a tendency to… well, dip. And cruise. And dive to the bottom now and then, like a dolphin. His young, boyish coach’s voice would ring out across the pool lanes: “Hey Charlie, what’re you doing? Charlie? Hey Charlie, how about freestyle?” But Charlie rarely heard him, because he kept his head underwater. He was swimming to the beat of his own (slow, perhaps reggae?) drum.

But Ferdinand would shake his head. “I like it better here where I can just sit quietly and smell the flowers.”

Eventually, Charlie stopped swimming. For a while, he took karate twice a week. He tried flag football. Finally, this year, we decided he would  take a cartooning class that he absolutely loves at the local art school every Saturday morning and just one hour of group tennis one time a week.

Charlie is a tall, broad child. He looks like a natural-born lineman or a burly water polo player in the making. He might make an excellent heavyweight rower one day, like his uncle. But at the moment, he wants nothing more than to spend his afternoons at home, playing in our backyard or drawing elaborate pictures of his own made-up characters and worlds or indulging in Minecraft with his brothers or friends. It takes some restraint, in this parenting environment and especially where we live, to have confidence in our decision let Charlie be who he is and not expect him to play a sport. At times, I still have small, fluttery waves of panic when I hear about his classmates and their travel teams, their game-winning catches, and their new personal best times. I wonder if Charlie is missing out, falling behind, or if I should be pushing him harder.

His mother saw that [Ferdinand] was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.

But what we have learned and accepted, over time, is that Charlie is not — or not yet — interested in competitive sports. He is our Ferdinand the bull. He wants to draw. He wants to  make up elaborate, imaginative “games” in his head and act them out in the yard. He wants to sit on the floor of the family room with his Lego minifigures and  build his own creations — he prefers that to following the instructions to build sets. He wants to make funny faces for his baby sister and make her giggle and squeal. He doesn’t, however, want to go to a practice, or run plays, or do drills. I want him to be physically active, and I like that he is now acquiring a skill in a social sport like tennis that he can use for the rest of his life. I know, though, that no matter how much he resembles the dream of Pop Warner coaches everywhere, my son is not that kid. That, we have decided, is just fine. There is a place in the world for the Ferdinands. He is quite the artist and quite the storyteller. I like him the way he is, and more importantly, he likes himself the way he is. He doesn’t think he needs to be an athlete.

“This is my favorite part,” Charlie says with a smile as I turn the page in the dim light of his bedroom.

And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly.

He is very happy. 

5 Reasons Balloons Should be Banned

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Balloons… who doesn’t love balloons? Me, that’s who. Here is why:

1. No matter how many times you tell your child to hold onto it. No matter that you tied it on their wrist. Or the stroller. Or any other stable object. Or used knots and loops any sailor would be proud of. That balloon is going to take off like a baby bird from the nest. Slowly at first and then once the wind gets under it—GONE. This loss will only occur once you are at least a half mile from where you procured said balloon and cannot return for a replacement. You brace yourself for the actual end of the world as your child freaks the freak out like they lost a limb. If a sibling has a balloon, your only hope is to distract them long enough to disengage their balloon into the sky as well.

2. If it doesn’t float away, it will pop. LOUDLY. This will most likely happen when you are in the car trying to merge onto a six lane highway with the grill of a tractor trailer bearing down on you in your rear-view mirror. Once you regain control of the vehicle, and your heart rate, you will soothe your child as they hold the sad, shriveled latex that now represents everything that is wrong with your parenting skills and their world at large. The car ride will then deteriorate into a torturous, whiny affair; similar to most outings with your kids except today it is about the balloon.

3. If the balloon actually makes it home, it will then become the center of your child’s universe and the bane of your existence. It will repeatedly rise to the ceiling out of your child’s reach at which time they will scream “MOM” until you come and they pinky swear to hold onto it TIGHT! But because a pinky swear with a toddler is really only valid until you leave the room, that same balloon will get stuck in a ceiling fan in the middle of the night. The entire house will wake up because it sounds like an AK-47 assault rifle is spraying bullets everywhere. After 30-minutes spent restoring order, you concede that the only way the balloon’s owner can be soothed back to sleep is to have said balloon in their bedroom with them. Other children without a balloon will writhe on the floor distraught because they do not have a balloon for their room. You will let balloonless child/children sleep in your bed and get approximately 1 more hour of sleep.




4. The only thing worse than a balloon is a balloon animal. The talented folks who provide these intricate designs are called Balloonatics. The literal interpretation of that title is: LUNATICS WITH BALLOONS. After entertaining your child in line for an hour, you receive the requested balloon animal that, ultimately, does not look at all like they expected. After approximately 20 seconds of “fixing”, your child hands you all that remains of his efforts which is an absurdly long, boring balloon. You twist it, turn it, and get one part to vaguely resemble a head which flattens back out again when you twist the other end. The Balloonatic line now snakes twice its previous distance. You vow that this new balloon animal will not be touched by your child. EVER. You sigh, file in behind 100 other frazzled parents and pass the 90 minute wait by allowing your child to rub the long, boring balloon on your head creating static and making your hair stand on end.

5. Mylar balloons NEVER, EVER DEFLATE. Make sure you pick one you really, really like and that possibly matches your home décor because that puppy is going to stick around a while. Recently, while my neighbors were vacationing, a Mylar balloon completely took over their house. Like a bad house guest, it just drifted from room to room, making itself at home and triggering motion detectors, alarms and ultimately the police along the way. It bumped into all kinds of objects and never popped or lost air. Mylar is the devil’s handiwork. There are actual statistics stating that Mylar balloons can last for months. MONTHS. They are like the lice of the kid’s amusement world.

So, the next time you consider offering a balloon to a child, think twice. Save a mom, save a child, save the world and keep all that hot air to yourself.

Related post: 10 Ways Birthday Parties Suck