On the Limits of Dreams and Gumption

23 Feb

Return to homepage at

I remember sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch of my mother’s mountain home with my infant baby, my second child, in my arms.  I had just received a job offer  in Tennessee less than three hours drive from her.  We were delighted when we got the news but this day we were there because my partner and I had travelled from Indiana with our infant son and 6 year-old daughter to find a place for our family to live and a job for my partner.  Ours was a colicky baby and stress levels were high all around.  I was crying and rocking, myself and the baby, and my mother told me hesitantly that she wished I could get OK about where I was at this juncture because “it gets harder,” she said.  It’s a statement that probably reads harsh; it feels a little that way as I type it, but don’t remember being put off by it then.  And I certainly now understand the motivation to say it.

I was talking with my daughter recently, who is now not six but twenty, about her own junctures, and found myself invoking my mother’s acknowledgement that life is actually very complicated and, in many ways, becomes increasingly so as we move through it.  Now, as it turns out, life also provides innumerable opportunities to grow and get stronger and become more deeply rooted so that one isn’t buffeted about so by its forces. But those are just opportunities, not guarantees.   And the movement of and through life does offer different vantage points that provide wider-scope and longer-range vision.  The terrain gets more complex but one can see it with greater clarity.  And in some ways, this helps one to navigate it more adeptly.  But adult life is tough.  And taxing.  And many parts of it are totally unrewarding. And “unfair.”  These facts are troubling for any of us to cope with, but particularly so for those who moved through their youth with a sense that things would go a whole other way.

An article in Huffington Post ten days ago, and an article at ten days before that highlight the difficulty that adolescents and young adults are having in coping with the fact that their lives will be hard, competitive, and “unfair;” and they seem rather incapacited by this difficulty.  The NPR piece is about “helicopter parents” who “hover in the workplace,” sending out resumes for them, arguing with employers for better pay or benefits for their children, and, if you can believe it, coming with the kid to the interview (!).  These young adults learn that there is much more justice in who gets employed where than there actually is, and that if they (or their parents) follow particular formulas then the outcomes they seek will materialize. They learn that mediocrity is just the same as excellence.  Although such reasoning is absurd to those of us in the know, it comprises firmly held beliefs among our children who, I’d like to point out, didn’t make them up.  They learned them us.  It’s too hard for us to face the terrifying facts that we do not have enough power to set our children up in happiness for life, that all the gumption in the world will be insufficient, that it actually isn’t true that they can be whatever they want to be, and that the children’s gifts and raw material, plus a whole lot of luck of the draw, are the major determinants of their future, not their “dreams.”   As Mickey Goodman argued in the Huff Post piece, we have focused so much on making our kids happy, that “now it’s difficult for them to generate happiness.”  We’ve made the building up of “self-esteem” primary and the hard work of building up of social and intellectual skill sets and the ability to handle defeat quite secondary, at best.  You know, if you believe it you can achieve it, even if you don’t have the skills or drive.

But the fact of the matter is that adult life is hard.  That your “dreams” (and while you’re dreaming, dream big, we’ve told them) are not the thing to ground your whole future in.  That Facebook relationships are fine and fun and affirming, but you also have to learn how to negotiate face-to-face relationships with people who are not your “friends,” who do not “like” everything you say and believe, and who do not see your birthday as something remotely significant.  And that as parents we finally are not powerful enough, no matter how much we say we’ll “give ‘em hell” and “set ‘em straight” to get the universe to conform to our familial fantasy world that our babies will get what we think they “deserve.”  Mediocrity is not just the same as excellence, the future is uncertain even for people with spunk, and yes, in fact, “it gets harder.”


Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 responses to “On the Limits of Dreams and Gumption

  1. Patrick Cronin

    February 23, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Wow was that on the money. In class today all of these issues arose and in cases we handled them well and in others, the students were left feeling let down. We can’t fix everything and sometimes the bad guys win and sometimes spunk and vision is no better than no spunk and no vision. Hard lessons indeed. Maybe it finally is Ed Asner saying to Mary, “You’ve got spunk; I hate spunk”

  2. lakeshaanderson

    February 23, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    AMEN. I am completely fascinated, but appalled (of course!), almost every day I walk into a classroom. Fascinated by the lack of respect, care, or concern. Fascinated by how easily they can access information, but how they Just. Can’t. Seem. To. DO. It. And just disgusted by it all. It’s heartbreaking.

    I know I risk sounding mean and callous, but do you remember the article on Tiger Mothers? It came out a bit more than a year ago. You can find an NPR article on it here if you need a refresher:

    Anyhow, I am deeply offended that Chua (the only Chinese “Tiger” parent who will come forward and take the heaps of criticism leaped on her for not adhering to Western parenting traditions) is continually referred to as being “nuts.” She pushes her kids. Hard. Does she go too far? Maybe. But who the hell am I too judge? Because you know what? There are kids sitting in my classroom right now who might be passing if they had mothers like her. Instead, they had parents who didn’t want to hurt their feelings so they said, “it’s okay, I’ll talk to your teacher about why you’re not passing math.” And voila! Math was passed. That’s why they’re failing my advanced methods course. They’re flipping terrified of numbers! My mother is a case study in this. She treated me like I needed no self-assurance yet fought every battle on the planet for my brother because his self esteem was in the toilet. Even as a child I remember thinking, “Well, my self esteem is higher because I value myself. I value myself because I work hard. He watches television and is rewarded for doing nothing. End of story.” Now, my brother is 30 and still depends on my parents to navigate any difficulty to comes his way.

    I relate more to Chua’s parenting style than I do any of this helicopter parenting, needless self-esteem raising nonsense. I recently told my daughter that a B+ in Math was unacceptable. Not because it’s an unacceptable grade. Hell, I was have been thrilled to get a B+ in Math in 2nd grade because I was already victim to the 1980s “Girls Aren’t Supposed to Be Good At Math” generation. But, it is absolutely unacceptable for her because her problem is that she lied about her homework. She would come home each day and show me work she claimed was homework, I would check it. And she wouldn’t turn it in. She had a 40% homework return rate. Her grades were fine, but her return rate brought her to a B+. So I took her recess away. That’s right. I went to the school and said “My daughter is not allowed to participate with her friends in recess for the next week. Instead, she is to report to the principals office and work on Math problems each day until you are notified of anything to the contrary.” The school was shocked. My daughter was SO mortified. She never told a single person why she had to go to the office. But, you know what? She’s doing her homework. Every. Single. Day.

    Chua says that Chinese mothers, “Assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.” Same here. I assume my children are strong. I raised them to be. And by raising them to be strong children, I am raising them to be better teenagers, and better adults. So that when my children reach college-age and they are in one of my colleagues’ classrooms they’re not one of the majority we talk about now. Because I will not be calling professors. Or going on job interviews. Or saying it’s okay.

    Life sucks. It’s not fair. It gets hard. And then harder. And then even harder. We give them the skills they need to verbalize and cope and navigate or we set them up for failure.

    And what is so ironic about that is that, as in the case of my mother-brother, the child isn’t ever taught how to work hard or communicate themselves, and then why they do fail as adults, the parents is displeased. The parent then blames the “systems” for failing their child or blames the child for failing to locate a steady job. But rarely ever does the parent have the self awareness that comes through reflection. Damned reflection. I left your class in tears once because, as I learned, self discovery is HARD. But, it’s the best tool we have – if we can use it to teach others if becomes ever more powerful.

    I just wonder, 20 years from now, what we’re going to truly “learn” from these helicopter parents.

    I, for one, can only hope and pray that my children come to appreciate and accept that their mother is a bit more “nuts” than hovering helper.

  3. Lila Gail Walters

    February 23, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    Ditto, Dr. Mama !! from Nutso!

    Amen! Dr. Mama!

  4. Dr. Mama

    February 29, 2012 at 8:37 am

    Thanks so much LaKesha for reading and for your thought-full comments.And for sharing your bold parenting strategies. Yes I think I’m seeing too the effects of softer parenting in my classroom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: