Every child’s a miracle. Well, if that’s true, then for my son Ebenezer it’s even more true. His coming into this world stumped the medical professionals. The problem is that he knows he’s a miracle. He’s heard it his whole life. Eben is mostly convinced that he is the awesomest kid on the planet. His enthusiasm and optimism knows no bounds. Literally. One day we went to a local park to launch some small, solid-fuel rockets. On the way over there he asks, “Dad, do you think it will make it to the moon?” On the way to enter our first Pinewood Derby he asks, “How big do you think our trophy will be?” His baseline assumption for anything that interests him is “I am probably awesome at this.”
And here’s the rub. He’s a normal kid. Estes rockets don’t go to the moon. Our pinewood derby car was average. And he throws a little like a girl. (Full disclosure: he might actually be a genius. I’m just happy that he doesn’t know that IQ is something for him to think that he’s awesome in). The parenting gauntlet involves daily statements like, “I really do like that story you wrote, Eben but no, I will not look into finding a publisher for your book Ninjas Don’t Eat Lunch.” It is not right to dampen his spirits. It is also not right to have him try out for American Idol one day convinced he’s the next Rick Astley. Some kids need to be told this rocket is not good enough to go to the moon. And if you want a rocket to go to the moon then work your rear off in physics, math and chemistry, become a rocket scientist, and build a better one than this. The great thing about Eben is that he eyes the horizon and it doesn’t seem that far away because he’s all sails.
On the other end of the self-perception spectrum is Tate. His basic presupposition is that he’s pretty terrible. While Eben asks “Will this rocket make it to the moon?” Tate asks, “Will this thing even fly?” Hang around our house long enough and you’ll see Tate run down the hall screaming, “The family hates me. Everybody hates me. The world hates me. Everything is a butt.” When he does this my wife and I usually grin at each other because it’s funny. Then I go to him and let him know that none of that is true; that we love him; that it doesn’t matter that his sister beat him in Mario Kart; that his value comes from a place in which Wii game performance is not taken into account. But he can’t hear me.
The good thing about having a kid as grounded as Tate is that he has fire in his eyes. He pushes himself because he knows he needs to. What he sets his mind to do he will give it everything he has. He’s a fighter. There is great strength in him because he’s all anchor.
So, if you’re keeping score, that means I have one son who thinks he’s a combination of Chuck Yeager, Mario Andretti, and J.K. Rowling and the other who thinks he’s a combination of a stomach virus, a traffic jam, and a pen that’s out of ink. To the one, I have to remind him that he hasn’t done enough to reach the moon. To the other I have to build his spirit by letting him know he actually could.
Then there’s Tyler, my daughter. When I say that her hair looks nice she doesn’t assume I’m suggesting she be a model for a shampoo ad. She takes it at face value and finds delight in it but not identity. When my daughter didn’t get the role she wanted in a school play she was not diminished. The real disappointment in her voice sounded like contentment by the time she was done telling me how her audition went. Tyler possesses both a sail and an anchor in wonderful balance. The challenge is that she often uses neither. She’s content in the current. No need to dream. No need to fight. Much of her life involves furled sails and a dry anchor.
At the end of the day I am a father of three opposites. Hegel would be proud that at once my progeny represents the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. Each of them demand nuance in our parenting- from the way we encourage to the way we discipline. Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. At the end of the day every child needs to understand that there is a sail and an anchor and that they need both. Parenting is the joyous work of helping them discover both and imparting the wisdom that allows them to know when to use each.