It starts early — the desire to slot our child into a neat, easy-to-sum-up box.
“How is she? Oh, she’s great. Thriving.”
Cue breathless list of accomplishments, from getting into the gifted program to playing a REP sport to being the go-to student for reading the morning announcements — “she has to get up super early to do it, but she’s up for cross-country anyway, so…”
My older daughter was that kid. She won hockey trophies and principal’s awards and wrote songs that could make you cry. And I enjoyed bragging about her. Always casually, of course, always slipping it into a larger conversation about education, extracurriculars or family time. But my firstborn was a joiner. It was in her nature.
My younger daughter, however, had zero interest in being reduced to a few pithy lines in the schoolyard for my benefit. There was no putting her in a box. No way to neatly sum her up. She hated lessons of all kinds. Despised clubs. Sports were her enemy.
But if after-school sign-ups were arduous, her creativity knew no bounds in the unstructured coziness of home. She built things and sewed things. She was an inventor and a performer. She wrote plays and made films. The problem wasn’t her lack of motivation.
The problem was me. It was hard for me to watch her do anything simply for the joy of it. The moment I saw a flicker of potential, I’d start Googling lessons to take her to the next level. Give her a focus. Put her on a path. “Mommy, just because I like to do something doesn’t mean I need a class,” she’d tell me wearily. “Don’t waste your money.”
On top of that, I tended to idealize certain overachieving friends of my daughter. “She’s already a CIT? All summer?? Wowww,” I’d say, even though I knew my kid hated being away from home almost as much as she hated bugs. Or, “she’s on the basketball team and volunteers at the Humane Society? Cool.” Or, “so you’re telling me a bunch of 12-year-olds just decided to go to the art gallery? Huh!”
“I get it, Mommy,” she’d respond with an eye roll. “You wish they were your daughter.”
“Oh my gosh! Sweetie!!” I’d hastily reply. “Of course I don’t!” Of course I didn’t! But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a bit of their can-do attitude to rub off on her.
I also saw the virtues in extracurriculars, so each fall, I’d insist my hobbies-averse child sign up for at least one after-school club. Any club ― glee, drama, yearbook, crocheting, hula-hoop ― it didn’t matter. I wanted her to be “that” kid. The kid that’s up for anything. The kid with boundless energy and a great attitude. Flexible. Easy-going. A future leader. I believed being in an after-school club meant my kid would be all those things.
After much protesting, she would begrudgingly settle on an activity. Invariably, it would be a disaster. It always played out the same way: me with visions of a utopian world that saw my daughter forging new friendships and finding her voice while unearthing a passion for folk dancing or the glockenspiel that she didn’t know she had, and her coming through the door with a scathing report that it was awful, no one was there, the teacher was terrible and — worst of all— it was boring.
My heart would sink. What did it say about her that she didn’t know how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? That she couldn’t find the fun in a run-of-the-mill after-school club? What did it say about her future?
I kept looking for “obvious” signs that she was thriving ― the clear markers we’re told predict future happiness: optimism, enthusiasm, a sunny disposition— and when I didn’t always see it, I’d fret. Why is her friend running for school council and not her? Why did those kids sew masks during the pandemic and donate them to the local shelter but my kid didn’t? Where did I go wrong?
And when she was altruistic, I’d make a meal of it. In grade five, she had a bake sale and spontaneously decided to donate the money to a children’s hospital. I got way too excited. I chronicled the entire trip there, taking photos every step of the way. “Here’s us walking through the door.” “Here she is handing over the adorable jar of money.” ” Here’s them giving my kid a certificate.”
“Mom ― I think you got it,” she said dryly.
“Oh, OK!” I laughed while furtively firing off a bunch of “casual” texts alerting family and friends of my remarkable and precociously empathetic child. “Look what we did on the way home from school todaaaay…” It pains me now to think about it.
“Why is her friend running for school council and not her? Why did those kids sew masks during the pandemic and donate them to the local shelter but my kid didn’t? Where did I go wrong?”
Now that my oldest daughter’s in university and my youngest is nearing the end of high school, I finally have clarity about how invested I was in them being standouts. A good chunk of it was about me — a way to feel better about myself and my parenting. And even more than that, a way to feel better about my own unremarkable youth.
I did not excel as a young person. I was a terrible Brownie, for example. While my high-achieving older sister had so many badges she needed a special banner to display them, I only ever got one — the cooking badge: a stitched pot that floated aimlessly at the top of my arm (where it must be noted, it was pinned and not sewn). “I think your pot is boiling dry,” my dad would routinely joke. And though the implication — “Make an effort. DO something!” — did fill me with shame, I never earned another badge.
At the same time, I was a happy kid. My talent was making friends, dreaming up stories and finding almost everything funny. I’m not sure if it was because I was raised pre-internet or because I was the youngest of four, but for whatever reason, my mom had faith that I was on my way to becoming the best version of myself, and she trusted that I knew what that version was. That I would get there on my own terms in my own time.
Looking back on raising my daughters, I realize I was so busy with the big things ― the achievements, the teams, the accolades ― that I sometimes missed the tiny moments: the character, the empathy, and just being a person without the need to be remarkable. I don’t for a second regret signing my kids up for Taekwondo or sending them to an urban wilderness camp every winter (even if I was a bit smug about the urban wilderness camp). And I do believe in encouraging our kids to get out of their comfort zone, take calculated risks and fail beautifully. But if you have a kid who, for some reason, chafes at the idea of organized sports or summer camp, try listening to them. You might have a different kind of child on your hands.
I’m so proud of the person my younger daughter has become. She’s genuinely kind. She’s funny as hell. When she asks about my day and actually wants to know, I’m touched by her curiosity. When she recounts a heartbreaking passage in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” I’m moved by her depth. These things will serve her one day — they’re already serving her.
I still constantly think I know what’s best for her. “Oooh, what about studying humanities next year,” I asked the other day, picturing her strolling through a leafy campus en route to philosophy class. “It’s so you!”
“It’s so not,” she said, shutting me down without even looking up. “Right,” I remind myself as I accept for the hundredth time that week that she is not me. It’s her life to live. It’s her course to chart. I’m just along for the ride.
Chris Deacon is a Toronto writer and filmmaker. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Chatelaine, Broadview and Today’s Parent.
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