StorkNet presents . . . Celia Straus'
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The Price of Admission
by Celia Straus
A few weeks ago I spoke at length to a friend of my daughter's, a beautiful, talented and intelligent girl filled with spirit in the best sense of the word who sobbed in anguish because she was not accepted to the college of her dreams. She felt that she had failed her family, her school, and most of all herself. The fact that she had been accepted to three excellent colleges, any one of which will give her a wonderful life experience, entirely escaped her. The process had had a negative impact on her soul and the soul of her family. And I couldn't help but wonder how many other high school seniors and their families were coping with the same feelings of bewilderment and rejection.
The college admissions process has finally ended for the graduating class of 2001, and I, for one, have learned much about perspective and balance during these past few months. From personal experience as the mother of an eighteen year old senior, and from the dozens of emails I have received from distraught teenagers, I am convinced that many of us parents contribute to the emotional barriers our children must overcome to survive in this increasingly competitive educational environment. Moreover, the competition may culminate in admission to college, but the process of judging and competing starts as early as pre-school. Of course we all express dismay at how other parents use their precious children as projections of their own personal needs to win - to be the best, but often we, myself included, also justify our own projections as "only wanting what is best for my child."
I remember wincing at the sound of my voice when "pitching" Julia and Emily's attributes to admissions directors of pre-schools here in Washington, D.C. I knew there was something "wrong with this picture" as I watched first one and then, four years later, the other daughter toddle off at age three for a half hour of "play group" guided (and judged) by several well meaning teachers whose job it was to select out the problem child, the slow learner, the immature one. How could one make any determination whatsoever about a child based on their behavior over a thirty minute time period in a completely foreign environment with a group of total strangers?
Meanwhile we parents sat in the school cafeteria with smiles pasted on our faces nodding intently as the headmistress orprincipal gave us an introduction to the school's philosophy (a good one and always the same) of nurturing the "individual child." Pretending to take notes, I would secretly steal glances at the couple next to me to see if they seemed more confident, more complacent about what they were putting their child through. A sure tip off was if they demonstrated an easy familiarity with the speaker, indicating their candidate had older siblings at the school. Half an hour later, our children would be brought back to us, intact, usually smiling. I have no idea what Julia or Emily really thought about these periodic competitive block building and picture drawing sessions. They always tried to please whomever was asking to be pleased; they always did their best to be polite, engaging, attentive, creative, focused.
I am humbled by what our children willingly, happily, spiritually do to please us, whether it's applying to kindergarten, auditioning for the school play, attempting a goal for their junior soccer team, getting an "A" on a book report or seeking admission to one of the "Ivies." I am grateful for their trust in our demands that they take risks; dare to dream; try just a little bit harder; shake off defeat; give it their all. I wish we were as capable of growing them in the presence of the Divine as we are of keeping them aware of the demands of our own egos. In eighteen years of parenting, it has been difficult for me to walk that tightrope between wanting the very best for my children -- basically setting the bar higher for them than my parents did for me - and foisting on them hopes and goals that cause needless anxiety and fear that they will disappoint me.
I am only too painfully aware that I often "talk the talk but don't walk the walk." For example, although I say to Emily that as long as she does the best she can in school, a grade of B or C is acceptable, when she shows me her report card, do I betray my disappointment in subtle ways? With a forced smile or a too effusive "good job?" I encourage and support Julia's sense of right and wrong, her independence, her taste, her creativity, her essential ability to be herself, but do I then sabotage my support with judgments about her tendency to be sloppy, absent-mindedness, self-absorbed view of the world and lack of appreciation of what things cost, and, occasional lapses when it comes to competition. "I SO do not want to take another AP," she tells me. "I just don't care anymore." Burnt out at eighteen? I hope, and pray not.
And so I urge you: Think clearly, carefully and most of all, spiritually about the messages you send your children regarding their self worth in all you set out for them to do, whether it is getting into the "right" kindergarten, winning a place on the select soccer team or getting good grades. Never in all our years of parenting are we so challenged to maintain a nonjudgmental, reassuring and loving presence for our children as we are in today's competitive society. For, although we may pay lip service to the axiom that: "every school has its positives, and it's likely you'll enjoy your experience whether you attend your first, second or third choice," our children will seek in our eyes, our tone of voice, our body language, and our hearts, the truth. And sadly, many of them will find the truth is that their parents' hopes, dreams and need to compete and win have been projected onto their children. At a time when our children are often their own severest critic; at a time when the bar has never been raised so high for them to compete and excel across the board, in all ways; at a time when our children's time is organized into schedules that no adult could maintain, our children desperately need perspective, balance and the guiding light of the Divine. Our children might express it like this:
When I'm hurried through life
From the moment I wake
Rushed from home right to school,
Told there's no time to take,
When I'm bundled like groceries
And carted around
Fulfilling a schedule
That's getting me down,
When fun becomes offered
As an in-between treat
And everyone's screaming
About deadlines to meet
Then let me find peace
In a place without stress,
A place deep inside me,
A place I can rest.
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