Prepare your child for the path not the path for your child, and he will find his way. ~ Unknown, Native American
I don’t hate anything or anyone quite the way I hate math. As a teenager, algebra was the bane of my existence. While sitting through math class was rough enough, algebra homework was pure unmitigated torture. My homework fantasy involved my parents breezily hunched together over the kitchen table doing my algebra for me. That fantasy never came true. But what my parents did do was tell me I was smart enough to figure it out. Eventually, painfully, I did manage to learn enough to pass my tests and move onto college where all things math became a distant nightmare of youth.
I was reminded of this when a few weeks back two friends of mine got into an ethical dispute. Friend Number One wrote a thank you card for her son. The recipient of the card (Friend Number Two) was disappointed that Friend Number One wrote the thank you card for her son because, she maintains, the son who is sixteen, is capable of writing his own thank you card. Two knows One’s son is autistic, but she also knows he is able to write, he is able to speak, and he is able to enjoy gifts.
In sharing this story, another friend shook her head with a sad memory of her own. She took painting classes as a youngster. One day she arrived early and saw the teacher retouching another child’s painting. Caught, the teacher explained she was ‘cleaning up’ the canvas, but the damage was done. While her parents proudly hung her paintings, my friend was haunted by the belief that the paintings were not truly hers. She did go on to an art college, but dropped out after a year, never quite believing she was as talented as the other students.
Then she told me of a distant relative who would finish her son’s homework when he’d give up and collapse in frustration. After a while, her son’s teacher sent home a polite note asking the mother to refrain from proving what her son did (or did not) learn in school.
When I was an art educator at the LA County Museum of Art, a few parents would take the brushes out of their children’s hands to fill in their children’s ‘sky’ because they wanted the project to look ‘finished’. I wish I could forget the disappointed and confused faces of these children, who had been enjoying the process of creating, until they were interrupted, or ‘completed’ by their parents. What will the future path be like for these children? Will they wait for their parents to show them the right way or will they expect their parents to finish the journey for them?
Is the mother simply helping her autistic son by writing his thank you cards, or is she denying him the pleasure of crafting into words his gratitude for being remembered, thought of and loved? And if thank you card writing is just a chore, especially for a child, isn’t that the lesson? Of course, we all know it’s much faster and easier to just do the thank you notes ourselves, and not have to cajole, bargain or beg our children to do it themselves. But what are we teaching them by doing it for them? Doing chores builds character, discipline, responsibility, stability and order. Do we patiently, and endlessly teach our children how to exhibit good manners (in their own inimitable fashion) or do we exhibit the good manners for them? And if we do for them, aren’t we only robbing them of the ability to do for themselves- even the stuff that no one really wants to do?
If we feel compelled to ‘finish’ our child’s work, we interfere with their ability to deal with challenge, frustration, and failure. If a child works on his/her own level and is permitted to learn and/or ‘fail’, their self-esteem is actually sturdier than a child who is ‘protected’ from struggle, from trial and error and the meaning of loss. If we can’t let our child experience loss, how will they ever know how to enjoy what it feels like to honestly win?
Is it our job to push our children to participate in this world or is it our job to protect them from the world? Do we strive to find a balance between protecting and preparation? Do we do our loved ones a service by making the way smooth and safe for them, or does that only serve to make them need us more and rely on their own abilities less?
My older brother Phillip is severely autistic. He cannot speak. Phillip will always need help with many aspects of his life, like shaving himself. Yet, he has his assigned daily chores at the group home where he lives in North Hills, California, which is administered by New Horizons, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping adults with developmental disabilities. The pride he takes in accomplishing his chores is something I would never want to take away from him.
As tempting as it is, I endeavor to not speak for him, but I know Phillip has developed a strong sense of self in his needlepointing. He doesn’t need words to express his palpable sense of accomplishment in creating his needlepoints. I design the needlepoint patterns for him and sometimes I make the designs fairly complicated. He never hesitates to take up the creative challenge. I like to think our collaborations in yarn, needle and canvas are how we communicate our love and need for each other.
Despite how proud I might sound, his needlepoints are beautiful and many people collect them, frame them and display my brother’s work on their walls. People who don’t even know Phillip have purchased them! Phillip loves seeing his framed needlepoints in other people’s homes. I can only imagine what he must feel when he sees his creations living in the world for everyone to enjoy. I wonder if he feels like he exists because he can look at and point to the proof of it.
The world does seem to be becoming an increasingly frightening place, if our only source of information about the world is the news that spills into our emails, on our radios and TVs at the speed of light. The instinct to protect is an honorable one, and as it is instinct, it is automatic to want to spare our children pain, rejection and failure. But if we cannot allow them to experience pain rejection and failure, as well as unfairness and cruelty, we deny them the ability to become resilient and strong in the face of these facts of daily living.
In the glory of grown up hindsight, I respect my parents immensely for letting me struggle, suffer and learn not only math but also how to cope with scary subjects on my own. My artist friend with the teacher who repainted her pupils’ work was less fortunate. She took the teacher’s weakness as evidence of her own lack of talent. I wonder sadly what would she had been able to accomplish if her teacher had let her learn and fail and grow. In giving our children their own adventure-filled journey, we are giving them the tools to make not only their life, but the lives of others, richer, braver, fuller and riddled with life’s perfect imperfections.
Lena Rivkin, M.F.A., is an artist and graphologist living in Los Angeles.