When my oldest son was two years old, I found him trying to insert a fork handle into an electrical outlet. I explained why he could not do that, and asked him to return the fork to the kitchen. He did. He then returned with a spoon, which he proceeded to attempt to stuff into the same outlet. I got smart and told him that nothing should touch the electrical outlet, at which time he changed tactics and allowed the spoon to “hover” over the outlet by 1/2 inch. Not touching, but causing me a fair amount of irritation and wonder at the difficulty of raising toddlers. Unfortunately for my son, he then tripped and smacked the spoon against the outlet anyway. When I imposed consequences, he was furious, since tripping was technically an accident and he had not intentionally struck the electrical cover.
That is parenting in a nutshell; trying to figure out what criteria are, and how to hold the line in a world which is never black and white but rather shades of grey.
As I look back on my children as toddlers, I now believe that my primary job was to keep them from killing themselves. The good news is that it appears I have succeeded in this one task, since they are still alive. The bad news is that what I had assumed, that my children would eventually learn to listen to me because I am usually proved correct, has not happened. Nothing in dog training or learning theory prepared me for this preference of my children to experience repeated failures rather than taking my perfectly good advice.
The fact is that my children do not listen to me. They do not hear my sage advice. They do not value my wisdom, gleaned from making exactly the same mistakes when I was young, and I find this quite frustrating. Sure, they listen when we have casual conversations, but the important stuff, where I am imparting golden nuggets of wisdom, not so much. Infuriating!
Wherever I got the idea that children were mine to be molded…I have learned that this is not so.
Yesterday, for no good reason whatsoever, I had a parenting epiphany. I realized that not listening and finding one’s own way may be essential for creating the kinds of adults who do truly spectacular things with their lives. If my children listen and accept my experiences as the truth then they are handicapped by my accomplishments and they cannot exceed me. A child who adopts my wisdom is surely impressive and advanced at a young age, but nothing unique as an adult. Accepting my past as their future is simply more of the same; it has been done before.
My older son and I are very similar by temperament. Neither of us follow directions well. Neither of us seems capable of listening without thinking about how to do it differently. Neither of us endear ourselves to those who are responsible for teaching us how to do the things that we need to know. It is exceedingly frustrating to watch him repeat exactly the same mistakes that I made as a child, and being helpless to make him see why he is wrong.
I don’t want my son to grow into a follower, though on a day to day basis I often wish he would follow at least a portion of the time. I would not want him to accept my past and make it his future. I would not want him to become so accepting of the typical goals parents have for their children that he lost his stubborn determination to do things his way. I’m trying hard to remember this, even on those days when I am convinced that he was put on this earth to torture me.
Like my son, I am often wrong. I take perfectly good dog training methods and refuse to follow them. Not because I necessarily think the method is wrong, but because I am temperamentally uninterested in achieving goals using the standard process. I am more interested in how I might change those processes, because change intrigues me and being wrong strikes me as a minor inconvenience. Yet on those occasions when I am right, I am sometimes really, really right. Sometimes in the process of disregarding the known path we have a chance to discover something unique, and I am grateful to those individuals who have allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted, most especially when I was wrong.
When I teach seminars, I encounter students who are afraid to take new ideas back to their trainers. They fear they will be ignored, removed from class, or ridiculed. If the student is neither disruptive nor causing harm, it’s worth considering what their willingness to take risks might bring to all of us. With time and experience they have the chance to make true strides forward, not only in scores or accolades but in other areas that hold value.
When you have a student who is making you crazy with their wild ideas, unrelenting questions, a stubborn refusal to simply cooperate, or an apparent willingness to fail repeatedly while exploring their own path, maybe it is best to swallow your irritation and find a way to support them. Yes, these students are frustrating and yes, it appears they are wasting your time. On the other hand, breaking from tradition and what we believe to be true might just allow them to stumble on something really interesting and unique. Rather than talking about them behind your hands, rolling your eyes in disgust, or ridiculing in an effort to force conformity and reaffirm our importance, maybe a better answer is to watch with silent consideration. Help them pick up the pieces when the blunders are impressive and keep the channels of communication and support open. Because one day, their failures just might allow them to gain the experience and wisdom to break through what we had believed to be the pinnacle and go where no one has been before. Our students do not exist to reaffirm our methods; they are individuals with a right to their own ideas, even when we are sure they are wrong. Your tolerance allows for their growth. You can choose to give them that gift.
I am trying hard to approach my son differently, because I’m starting to believe that when he finds his way, he’ll be more than right, and he’ll accomplish something which is more than good. Rather than meeting the goals set by others, I’d like to believe that he is going to do something or become someone who is truly special and unique. Rather than punishing him for his refusal to follow a known path, I’m going to try and be there to pick him up when he makes his worst mistakes. When the future comes and we look back on the past, I want to believe that he’ll count me as part of his team rather than a hindrance to his journey.
What a gift we give when those who rely on us are allowed to be wrong without judgment. Supporting excellence is impressive, but supporting failure leaves room for spectacular.