As an abused child she knew the negative power a parent could have, but she didn’t know the power of positive parenting could be almost as frightening.
The expectations we have for our children often dictate our parenting decisions. How we think they should behave, the moral compass we want them to adopt, and the goals we have for their adult life are all guided by our expectations. While we set them with the best of intentions, sometimes they have unintended consequences. I had no idea that expecting my son to get an undergraduate diploma would cause him to make a life choice that left us both with regrets.
When my son was first placed in my arms, I had a dream that he would obtain a college degree. From that day until the moment he graduated from high school, I made it clear to my son that I wanted him to go to college. It was non-negotiable, like brushing his teeth and saying “please”. A high school diploma was not enough. He would obtain an undergraduate degree.
It hadn’t been enough for me either, but not because of expectations placed upon me by my parents. To the contrary, my family did not expect I would ever amount to anything. I was the one who saw college as a must in my life. It was both a ticket out of my horrific childhood and an escape from the possibility that I would never be able to live anything other than an equally awful adulthood.
I worked hard to reach my goal. As much as I was allowed to, I was active in activities like band, orchestra, chorus, and swimming. I kept my grades high, a difficult task when my life at home was focused more on day-to-day survival than the frivolities of studying. My family would never have the finances to send me to college, so I set my sights on earning a scholarship.
In my senior year, I received word that I had won the tuition scholarship I had been wanting for. I could finally make my escape from my abusive home into a world I was certain would offer me a better, happier life. My father helped me gather the remaining resources I needed to make my college dream possible. But before I could use them, my mother stole them to fund her lifestyle filled with drugs and alcohol.
I was devastated. My dreams were crushed, as was my will to fight against the myriad of negative forces ruling my life. Instead of going to college and launching into a life beyond day-to-day survival, I moved into my boyfriend’s house. Within two years, I was a teenage single mother.
Like many parents who had a less than an ideal childhood, I wanted a better life for my son. In my mind, the ticket to entry into a happy and fulfilling life was still a college education. I believed that would give him both the freedom and opportunities that I never had. I still carried powerful shame and disappointment that I hadn’t had the chance to go to college. What happened to me wasn’t going to happen with my son. He would have the ticket to a better life that was stolen from me.
I was unyielding in my expectation that my son go to college. I mentioned it often and kept it as the main focus of his life. When he would fuss about doing a homework assignment, I launched into a lecture that ended with my asking him if he would like to end up homeless someday? “So you don’t want to do that assignment? How will you get a good grade in math this year? You won’t pass the seventh grade! How far do you think you’ll get in life when you don’t pass the seventh grade? Do you want to live under a highway overpass or push a shopping cart?” I can still hear myself predicting his ultimate failure due to one-seventh-grade math assignment.
The older he got, the more I pushed this expectation on him. Everything he did, in my mind, would impact his ability to go to college and live a life filled with happiness. Classes, extracurricular activities, going to church, and even his behavior at the grocery store all had to be excellent. Nothing less than that was acceptable because there had to be a 100% guarantee that he would attend college.
My son never voiced any opposition to my expectation. It wasn’t as if I gave him any choice. I made sure that college be the focus of his life. Little did I know that my insistence that there be no consideration of a choice other than college would leave my son feeling powerless in his ability to make his own life choices.
In his senior year we received word that my dreams for my son would come true. He earned a college scholarship! I wanted to celebrate, but he had other plans. In an uncharacteristic act of self-sufficiency, he made an appointment to meet with a Marine Corps Recruiter. When he came home and told me what he had done, I was shocked and taken back in time to the moment I found out my mother had stolen my chance to go to college. I stood in awe of the courage displayed by my seventeen-year-old, fearful to a depth beyond explanation, as our country was at war.
College, he told me, was my dream. But it wasn’t his. He wanted freedom. He wanted the opportunity to prove himself capable of being a man in charge of determining his own life path.
My son has been in the Marine Corps for four years now. He’s currently in the middle of his second deployment. Instead of sitting at an office with a white-collar job made possible by his college degree, he is thousands of miles away from me in another country.
Every day I regret that I placed unrelenting expectations of a college education upon my son. They are what I feel pushed him into making the decision to enlist in the armed forces during a time of war.
In hindsight, I know now that I never should have insisted on my son fulfilling a dream that had been stolen from me. He’s not me. I never honored his being an individual separate from me. I never made room for him having dreams for the future different than those I placed upon him. Instead of insisting he move into the life I had wanted for myself, I should have fostered solid reasoning and decision-making skills in him. Teaching him to be an independent man capable of wisely governing his own life should have been my goal. Instead, the Marine Corps taught him that skill.
As parents, we should not manipulate or make decisions about our children’s adult life path. Our job as parents is to focus solely on fostering an environment of healthy growth, and to help them discover their own path and develop their innate talents. Two of our highest priorities should be encouragement and unconditional love.
This will ensure solid reasoning and decision-making skills in our children. When they make mistakes we should help them navigate the negative consequences and get back on the right path. We need to teach our children to have strong self-confidence as well as trust in their own abilities. All of these valuable skills, learned while they live under our roof, will enable them to successfully launch into an adult life that they find fulfilling.
I am proud of the man he has become, but I wanted to be an integral part of his launching into adulthood. I am watching from the sidelines. I stand by powerless, thousands of miles away from him, hoping I don’t get that ominous phone call announcing his injury or death. Praying uniformed men never walk up the steps to my front door. Every day I pray that he’ll come home. He may never hold that college diploma in his hand. But that’s fine with me, as long as I am not left holding a folded American flag.