Letters to My Children: raising optimists in a complicated world

I have been writing in series; pieces that are written independently but which come together as a collection of related thoughts. “Letters” is one of them. I started writing these several months ago, when my children were all living at home due to COVID restrictions, but at the same time, they were getting ready to move on to their respective destinations: college, after college, work. John Mayer sings “say what you need to say” and while I try to always do this, sometimes it comes out better for me in writing. So this series is for my children. While some letters have been written with a single child in mind, these are equal opportunity messengers, and my hope is that each child will find their own meaning in every letter.

For Nacho: On Relationships and Getting What you Deserve

When you were younger, you used to always say that your stepdad and I were biased, and that we never really saw you for who you were because we loved you so much.  You genuinely believed that we thought you were the smartest, most handsome, most athletic kid in school.  Maybe Dave thought that – in fact, he did think that – but I always tried to be realistic.  I never wanted to be one of those parents that built their kids up so much that they didn’t know how to pick themselves up when things didn’t go their way.  Working in a school for so many years meant that I had seen plenty of parents who genuinely believed their kids were the best.  Or at least that was what they told themselves.  And worse, what they told their kids.  So when the time came that one of them would fail – and they all usually did eventually – their kids would be devastated. As a former school counselor and principal who worked closely with the counseling team, I saw countless kids who ended up with anxiety disorders that stemmed from the trauma of not meeting the expectations established for them in their small circles of society.  They didn’t know how to take a C on a test, and often, they would go back to their teachers to argue that they “deserved” an A or a B.  If a student who had been told how wonderful they were their whole lives did not receive an award at the end of the year ceremony, I would get the occasional phone call or email from a parent who wanted to know why their child wasn’t recognized for being wonderful.

When you were little, you played baseball, and you were good.  You had a lot to learn, but you had the gift of athleticism, and that meant that you caught on to things quickly. But baseball did you no favors because at the end of each season, regardless of the results, you went home with a trophy.  After about 5 years of t-ball and baseball, you moved to soccer.  Most of your friends had been playing already for a few years, and you were a little bit behind.  Thanks to the fact that you had a natural athletic ability, it didn’t take too long for you to catch up to them.  We loved watching your games and you always seemed to have fun, so we always had something to celebrate at the end of a match.  I remember the day, after a few months of playing, when you walked off the field feeling pretty good about your play.  You said to me, “I played really well, didn’t I?”  I looked at you and thought about how to respond.  You wanted the encouragement, and I knew it would please you.  But I also suspected that what you needed, more than anything else, was a little bit of a reality check.  Without wanting to knock you too far down your pedestal, I knew it was time for you to open your eyes a little.  So I said, “Actually, son, you played okay, but you could have done better.”  I challenged you to think through the game and identify where you might have been able to improve your play.  You were a little taken aback, but you played along.  You said, “maybe…. I could have tried harder?”  So I said, “Okay, let’s start with that.  How do you mean?  What might you have done differently?”  We talked through the game and at the end, even though you weren’t too happy with my lukewarm response to the suggestion that you were amazing that day, you had a thing or two to work on next time.  

After three years of playing soccer on the school’s team, you had made a lot of progress, and now in JV, you were easily faster than most of the boys on the team, and just as skilled.  You also had courage, and you weren’t afraid to put yourself out there, taking a few calculated risks for the score.  It usually worked in your favor.  You decided that fall that you might want to play soccer in college and so we agreed to sign you up with a scouting agency.  We wanted to be supportive of your goals, and so we invested in a top of the line video camera for recording your games.  We didn’t want to be the parents that pushed too hard, though.  If this was going to be your dream, we weren’t going to kill it by making it about us.  And so I remember one evening in the car on the way from home school, I told you “Son, I will push you as hard as you want to be pushed, and then when you tell me to back off, I’m done.  This will never be about me.”  You appreciated that, and we agreed that we – your parents – would follow your lead.

By the beginning of 11th grade, soccer stopped being as fun, and your coach told you that the one thing you were missing was intensity.  You didn’t like being told that, and it hurt your motivation, or so it seemed. Throw on top of that increased expectations in your academic life – especially in light of impending university applications – and soccer started to take a bit of a backseat.  By the middle of the year,  you asked us not to record your games anymore.  And so we stopped. I was sorry to see your dream fizzle, but it was your dream, not mine. And to be honest, it was a relief to be able to see the game with my own eyes, and not through a tiny 3 inch screen.  

That same year, you began to set your sights on an adventure through Iceland, and you started to work on a plan for a gap year, which you would take after graduation.  Once again, we were fully behind you, always supporting your goal, and as much as possible, challenging you to keep your feet on the ground.  Our goal was to give you the support you needed to be confident in your choices, and at the same time, instill in you the understanding that you would have to work hard for things – that they weren’t going to just fall into your lap.  Iceland was the ultimate challenge and taught you incredible strength and resilience, particularly when it all fell apart. 

I have called this letter “On relationships” and here is why.  In spite of the fact that we didn’t blow smoke, build up unreasonable expectations or hide your flaws, we do actually think that you are pretty goddamn amazing.  While I might think at times that no one will ever be good enough for you – I have to tell you that my greatest wish is that you find someone who is.  That person will challenge you in all the right ways, helping you stretch yourself even higher and wider.  They will tell you how wonderful they think you are and they will believe you have limitless potential.  They will also tell you when you aren’t loving them the way they need to be loved, and you will have to adjust.  They will tell you (with love in their hearts) when you have been an ass, and you will want to change.  You will want to be better for them, because they have opened your eyes to joy and meaning.  They will help you find inner balance, but you will also balance one another. Together you will be greater than each of you is alone.   

Relationships are hard. They require work, compromise, and sometimes sacrifice.  When you fall in love, you’ll walk around feeling like you did when you finished that soccer game – incredibly confident and convinced that you could do no wrong.  Allow yourself that moment.  And know that pretty soon, you’ll need to up your game.  Don’t ever get complacent.  Love breaks us down, builds us up and makes us want to change.  We tell ourselves we don’t have to change for anybody, until we meet the one.  The one who makes us feel larger than life.  We see who we can be in the way we are loved.  And note:  we shouldn’t settle for anything less.  It’s not that you are the best, greatest, most handsome man on the planet (it’s not that you are not, either).  But if they intentionally make you feel anything less than that, then you might consider it time to move on. Know your strengths, know the limits of your sacrifice, believe in yourself, and be happy.  With love.

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Even as a child, I would study the unexpected turns in my life and try to find the lessons in them. I am nothing if not reflective. As an American citizen raised in Sao Paulo, Dallas and Madrid, I am a classic adult TCK*. Perspective is key, and I look at everything through multiple lenses. It used to make my son crazy when as a boy he would press me for a firm stance on something and I would often answer “well, that depends…” I am a thinker and learner, writer and story teller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, I am now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When I was around 8 years old, I starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. I have been blogging since 2010, have published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn, and I am currently working on a couple of manuscripts. One is a collection of motivational essays for women leaders in international education which I am co-authoring with my friend and colleague, Debbie Lane. The other is more of a memoir, a personal story about love, sacrifice, and hope. Hope and gratitude are common themes in my writing, my work, and in my life in general. Everyone has a story to tell. Thank you for taking some time to explore mine. I hope you’ll come back. *A TCK is a third-culture kid, someone who has spent a significant number of their formative years outside of their passport country. It is an experience that typically has a profound impact on the development of self and identity.

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