On raising children

By lex, on October 11th, 2004

Licenses are required to operate an automobile, or boat. Minimum competency standards must be demonstrated. The state has a compelling interest, the public good, and so forth.

But while the Hobbit and I were required to get a license from the state to marry, quite a few years ago, nothing further was required of us (from the state’s point of view anyway) to procreate. It was a labor of love, if you will, even when we were only practicing for proficiency’s sake. And following the Good Book’s guidance, we went forth, were fruitful, and multiplied.

To the tune of three entirely unique windows on the universe. I emphasize that point “unique” because, even though the kids are products of the same gene pool and environment, they are three entirely different personalities. Which makes trying to raise them up to be happy, self-actualized, contributing adults a little challenging. They have different interests, desires and world views. Much of our leisure time is spent reconciling these differences.

This, we are assured, is not a bug, but a feature.

This weekend was almost entirely taken up with an equestrian show at the Del Mar horse park. And our youngest, the Kat, is as I have pointed out before, an enthusiastic equestrian. She lives and breathes horses, and at the age of 10, has already determined that her career in veterinary medicine can best be furthered by a four year degree at Cal Poly, followed by extended professional education in the sphere. Not least because Cal Poly apparently has a formidable equestrian team. If you should be so rash as to suggest even the existence of alternative possibilities in the law, business or politics, a deprecatory wave of the hand will put you back into your proper place.

Here’s the thing to understand about the Kat, before we go into the rest of this tale: While all of my children are of course superior, the Kat is truly exceptional. She has always been something of a force of nature – Ever since the day we brought her home from the naval hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, she has been completely invested with the moral authority to impose order on what had been, prior to her arrival on scene, an evidently chaotic world. Furthermore, while such an immense responsibility might have been crushing to a more fragile ego, the Kat has always borne this burden comfortably on her slender shoulders, as someone to the manor born. Noblesse does oblige, after all.

Some kids have to be prodded into activity. The Kat chooses things to do, and then commits to them. Your input is neither required nor desired. Drive.

And she’s damn smart, too. She maxes out the standardized tests in every category, 99th percentile. Last night we had a dinner in Old Town San Diego with some old friends, who like us, had also contributed more than their fair measure of devotion to ensuring the continuation of the species. The Kat was seated at the younger end of the table, but her attention was entirely devoted to the teenager’s conversation. Sitting there silently, but with shining eyes, you could almost see the machine working; she was taking it all in, categorizing it for later examination. Later there will be an interrogation – why this? What did they mean by that?

You had better choose your answers cautiously, because your answers will be weighed carefully. There may be follow-on questions. If you try to shade or fudge, the Kat will know. And she will let you know that she knows. She does not know how to quit, on anything. If she cannot win through force of mind or effort, she will win by dint of continued determination. She wears problems down.

The Kat has real potential. She could be whatever she decides to be. And I’m not just saying this because she’s my daughter and I love her (which of course I do), but because of the sense that having a prodigy as a daughter incurs an extra special kind of parenting responsibility. You don’t want to screw it up…

So anyway, the equestrian show.

I have determined, parenthetically, that equestrian shows are how rich people get dirty. It’s what they do rather than camping, or gardening. They get to associate with like-minded people – people who appreciate the intrinsic value of hurling tens of thousands of dollars into the dust in the pursuit of Stone Age transportation mechanisms jumping over little fences.

The Kat hasn’t competed recently. The cost of a competition is non-trivial, and when added to the weekly and recurrent training bill, the whole thing can get a little out of hand for the scope of a mere naval officer’s salary. Still, it’s her passion, so we signed up for this weekend’s competition. She has in the past ridden equitation and “under saddle” competitions, and earned quite a number of interestingly colored ribbons. But this was her first “short stirrup, hunter equitation” contest, which essentially means that the daughter and the horse will often break contact with the turf leaping over various obstacles, in between intervals of racing around the dirt ring at high speeds. The daughter weighs perhaps 50 pounds, and the horse, so far as I can tell, is immeasurably heavy, a tangible and living example of a gravity well. As an additional design feature, all of this weight comes down to the meet earth in what can only be described as unfortunately and unnecessarily sharp feet, also called “hooves.”

It’s readily apparent to the casual observer that there is a certain degree of difficulty maintaining one’s position atop a leaping horse even under normal, everything-according-to-form conditions. But the horses, for no observable external reason, occasionally choose to “refuse” or balk at jumping. They will often do so by suddenly planting their hooves at the obstacle, coming to a quick stop just as the rider is gathering herself for the forward leap over the jump. This combination shatters the trembling balance of forces, resulting in the rider, who might very well be your own daughter, being launched out of the stirrups over the horse’s outstretched neck and into the non-supportive and insubstantial air. From there, like Vince Lombardi’s forward pass, there are a lot of things which could happen, only one of which is good. Good in the sense that “we are no worse off than we were when we woke up this morning.”

A father can fret.

Saturday was a good day, as no one we loved had been hurled to the turf or wooden fence, or otherwise trampled underneath any hooves. During one course, the Kat, who as I previously mentioned had not competed in this fashion before, took an obstacle out of sequence. The judge called her off the arena, regretting that she had gone “off the course.” The Kat left the arena, apparently taking it all in stride. Tomorrow would be a new day.

During the third and final competition on Sunday, yet a new course was carefully described to the Kat and her two fellow barn-mates by their instructor. The final course contained what is known as “rollback,” essentially a short turn after a straight leg into a diagonal jump. It was slightly more complicated than the previous day’s effort. And suddenly, the Kat – not a person I would have ever expected to see cry off from any challenge – came over to me with tears in her eyes, determined to drop out of the competition, rather than compete on that course – the term “rollback” had defeated her utterly, as the shame of withdrawing competed in her heart with a palpable fear of failure. Even though she was nearly sure she understood the course, there was clearly a desire not to be called “off the course” again.

Her coach came over and talked to her at length – the Hobbit and I moved a respectful distance away. I could see the Kat shaking her head, and her little body shuddering with suppressed sobs. Eventually the coach moved away, I returned to her side. And this is where the parenting deal gets complicated, because there’s nothing in the manual about what you’re supposed to do.

You can be the supportive dad who says, “that’s OK, dear,” and helps her off the horse. And tell her that she was wonderful just for considering doing something hard. And maybe build a habit of excusing effort, a habit of taking the path of least resistance. But that’s touchy-feely, and it’s frankly not me.

You can be the Great Santini, and rant “that no daughter of mine” is going to be a quitter, by God – so get in that arena. And run the risk that your 10 year old will refuse, and so drive a wedge between the two of you. Or an ever greater risk that she doesn’t refuse and instead goes in the arena with tears in her eyes and falls on the first jump and gets trampled, and then it will be “what the hell were you thinking?” for the rest of your life…

This all comes down to who you are as a person, the things you personally believe are really important, and how you pass them on to your children:

I believe in playing hurt.

I believe in facing your fears.

I believe that while it is acceptable to try and then fail, failing to try is a different thing entirely.

I believe that success is a habit, and so is losing, and so is quitting.

I believe it’s better to be a loser than a quitter.

I believe in the power of small choices. That choices are actions, that actions have consequences, and that it’s not always apparent at the time how important those consequences may be.

So I told the Kat all of these things, and she told me that I “wasn’t helping.” And my heart was breaking just a little bit, and I didn’t really know if I was right or wrong, and there was nothing in the manual. So I finally told her that I thought she could do this. And that I thought she should. But that it was her call, and we’d love her either way.

She ran the course.

And she came off the arena with a huge smile on her face, and a profound look of relief and we were all very proud of her.

And so we took the right approach, yah? Everything worked out in the end?

But the problem is that it didn’t have to have ended that way. She could have left the course. She could have fallen. She might have gotten hurt. And the fact that she didn’t doesn’t mean that we were right, but just that fate did not choose that particular moment to tweak our nose, right when it was most exposed. And that’s the hardest part about being a parent – not knowing if you’re doing the right thing, and even when you think you know, not knowing how it’s all going to work out.

Which again is, I suppose, not a bug, but a feature.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Lex, Uncategorized

12 responses to “On raising children

  1. NaCly Dog

    This is absolutely one of Lex’s best essays. Heartfelt and wise.

    It should be spread wider to children starting out an independent life.

  2. Bill Brandt

    Good advice for young and old!

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