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Lucky Dad No. 13: Summer Vacation Programming

When our girls were little, Francine had a discussion with some of the other mothers as the school year ended, regarding what the kids had lined up for the summer. One by one, they listed the activities, programs, camps, and all the rest on the schedule. There’s definitely a certain amount of one-up-Mom-ship going on in these confabs. Then it came around to Francine, whose response I’ve saved for the end.

But first, a little background. When our first daughter was born, we had an aspiration which is common to many new parents. We were going to make a perfect human being. There was an enormous conceit—two, really—behind this laudable if laughable goal. First, it implied that the newborn child in our hands was capable of perfection, or of being made perfect. Second, it implied that Francine and I, imperfect clay that we were, could somehow make anything perfect, let alone a human being. We will pass lightly over our gradual disillusionment about Katie’s perfectibility (she’s wonderful, yes, but not perfect).

Each of us is prone to the human error of thinking that we are the first person ever to experience whatever Big Thing is happening to us right now. No one has ever fallen in love this way before; we are the first person to grieve as deeply for a parent who has died; no one could possibly understand how it feels to have such a badly broken heart; and, certainly, no one has ever felt such immense joy in cradling a newborn son or daughter. This being the case, I won’t try to convince other new parents of the folly of believing they can raise the Perfect Child. They wouldn’t listen, anyway, and it is probably for the best that new parents start out with a wholehearted optimism about raising their kids. It’s a long haul, and you need all the early momentum you can get. But for those who are a few years into it, and are beginning to wonder whether their child will really turn out to be an Ivy League superstar and Nobel Prize winner, I have some words of comfort.

It’s largely out of your hands. In the debate about Nature versus Nurture, I’ll lay down a large bet on Nature, and before you take the other side of that bet, I’ll encourage you to Google studies about identical twins separated at birth, starting with the famous Minnesota Twin Family Study. Despite these twins being raised in different environments, they tend to emerge with remarkably similar personalities, IQs, and interests. My parents unwittingly conducted a similar if less rigorous study on our family. There were seven siblings; three older boys, and then four younger girls. There weren’t any identical twins among us, but we all had the same parents, so we all came from the same gene pool. Our parents put all seven of us through approximately the same upbringing. Big house. Big family. Compulsory attendance at mass on Sunday. Same K-12 schools, same opportunities for college, same music lessons, etc.

And what were the results? Seven very different people. You can’t explain that on the basis of Nurture, and you can only ascribe so much to birth order, so I put most of it down to Nature. It may be that all men (and women) are created equal, and are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, but we are also endowed with different genes, and our genes dictate our destinies to a remarkable degree. So, next time you despair that your son or daughter might be a future criminal deadbeat, take it easy on yourself, and on the kid, too. It could be genetics, rather than your fault for feeding them too much ice cream, or not playing Mozart at bedtime.

When it comes down to Nature versus Nurture, here’s my theory. A newborn child is like a seedling that you have to care for until the plant is fully grown. Nurture matters, and you can definitely screw it up—you can neglect your children, or abuse them, or make them miserable by nagging them incessantly—but you can’t fundamentally change the way your kids are wired. So your job from Day One is to give the seedling sunlight, water, fertilizer, and a little room to grow. After that, all you can do is wait to see what kind of tree, or bush, or whatever, your child turns into as the years pass.

But enough of theory and mixed metaphors. As parents, we can never quite let go of that initial impulse to create the Perfect Child. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we are trying even when they are teenagers to turn them into virtuosos on the violin, or star quarterbacks, or scientific geniuses. We just know that they could all get into Harvard if they would only do what we tell them to do.

The fact is, kids need a lot of free time, but the older they get the less of it they have. Our daughters fought to protect theirs. We were extraordinarily lucky to have three kids who were healthy and active, but not jocks, so we were spared the endless practices, tournaments, games, and road trips that consume the lives of so many athletic children and their parents. We signed them up for tae kwon do on Saturday mornings one year (they asked for it), but within a few weeks their interest flagged and eventually they became actively opposed. Their rallying cry became “We want our Saturdays back!” We briefly debated turning this into a Learning Opportunity (see previous Lucky Dad installment) with a lecture along the lines of “You committed to this, and we paid for the lessons, so by God you’re going to finish the season.” Reason prevailed, however. There’s already too much Have To in our children’s lives. Tae kwon do lost out and we returned to unstructured Saturday mornings.

Music lessons are at the top of the torture list for a lot of kids. I stuck with my music lessons and I’m glad I did. Today I enjoy playing the piano and I occupy a solid position in the ranks of Lesser Amateurs, but I am the exception, not the rule. How many times have other adults told me that they wished they had stuck with their music lessons as kids? Maybe this is why so many parents push their children to keep taking lessons way past the point of diminishing returns. They are trying to save their children from the same regrets they have. But get this: I wanted to play. I never asked to quit. I don’t think I have ever heard another adult say that they are glad their parents forced them to take music lessons for years against their will, because now they joyfully play those same hated instruments as adults. It doesn’t work that way. If the kid hates the lessons and refuses to practice, then after giving it a year or two, let her stop. If the kid wants to be a musician, anywhere on the spectrum from crummy amateur to brilliant professional, she will prove it by sticking with the lessons on her own, with a small crumb of encouragement from you.

One of the ways you see parents grind on their kids in this area is around summer activities. Pity the poor child who survives the school year and emerges blinking into the freedom of a sunlit June, only to find that her parents have programmed every minute of her summer down to a fare-thee-well. I get it that we all want our children to have deeply enriching experiences. And I get it that, when both parents are working, summer is essentially a three-month child care challenge. There are solid studies showing that kids can benefit from continuing their school work during the summer. All good points. But I say, let’s not burden the little souls with more than they can take, especially during summer vacation, and especially when the purpose is tied to building the resume of a Perfect Child rather than keeping them occupied and out of trouble.

So, there Francine was, in a group of other mothers, talking about summer plans. When it came to her turn, Francine simply said: “This summer the girls are going to play.” After a brief silence, one of her friends said: “Actually, that sounds pretty good.”


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