I have an absurd photo of my son. He is 5 years old wearing a karate outfit, holding a trophy nearly half his size. If he were some sort of child prodigy, a mini Bruce Lee, destined for martial arts greatness, the scene, perhaps, would make more sense. The fact is, he got this piece of hardware for showing up.
With three kids, our house was soon filling up with trophies for ... showing up to all sorts of things. Sports, singing, cooking class and then there are the boxes of diplomas, one for each year of pre-school (that’s 6) and for graduating kindergarten.
I don’t recall getting a trophy until I was in high school, yet I believe I showed up for 4 years of softball, including one year in the nationals, broom-ball, flag-football. I also entered my guinea pig every year in the county fair and graduated kindergarten.
I thought my mom was a great mom but by today’s standards she would be a candidate for a child welfare investigation. I learned to swim in the Mississippi river, we had a rope swing that looked like a noose, walked the train tracks, wandered the neighborhood well after dark, and hold on to your hats for this one, played with sticks and never lost an eye!
So it was like a bucket of cold water in the face when I realized how far I had strayed in my feelings about what a childhood should look like and a mother’s role.
I was at the typical Westchester, NY birthday blow-out for a first grader, complete with ponies and the requisite goody bags. (Don’t get me started on goody bags.) We mothers had gathered off to one side and in an artfully, self-depreciating manner were trying to trump each other with the number of activities, accolades and accomplishments our children were accumulating. The host of the party’s 70-year-old father overheard us and said, “Jeeze you girls act like you’re the first generation to ever love your children”.
The truth hurts. I know because I was smarting after I digested what he had said. In a world where so much is based on tangibles that can be measured--homes, salaries, vacation destinations--I wanted to apply the same measurability to myself as a parent. But being a parent is one of those great life experiments with no definitive answers. Perhaps, I am of the generation of parents where there has never been more uncertainty, insecurity or powerful outside influences tugging at our children.
Being a mom or dad is not divided into graded semesters, it can’t be measured like stocks with profits and losses and it never neatly wraps up like a sports game where there is a clear winner and loser. No, parenting, I find, is a continuum of days filled with equal parts confidence and uncertainly.
Like the insecure middle-aged man with the Trophy Wife, have we as parents tried to quell our insecurities with Trophy Kids? The sports, the pageants, the grades, the colleges, the magnetized athletic figures on our minivan doors that all say, in some meager way, I am winning as a parent.
The competition has never been fiercer. And I am not referring to wrangling between parents, but the competition for our children’s hearts and minds. I feel that never before have drugs and guns been more attractive or available. No matter how we serve up the lesson of body image and sex, MTV’s message always looks more delicious. Conflict resolution is not learned on the playground but through video games. Tweeting, texting and Facebook are all vying for the communication we are so desperate to engage in with our children.
Media reports say the dream of giving our children a better life than the one we had, is becoming increasingly elusive. The measurement of a better life is being calculated not in terms of happiness or self-esteem but on our sons' and daughters' ability to make more money and buy more things than their parents. Are these kids not only inheriting our debt, but our sense of materialism as well?
Could we perhaps still achieve the dream of giving our kids a better life by leaving a legacy of kindness, tolerance, and hard work? By showing them that all that glitters is not always a golden trophy but sometimes it’s the sun skipping off the water, laughter at the end of a long day, or complete and utter silence?
I showed my son, (now a teenager) the picture of himself with the over-sized karate statue. “Oh,” he said “I learned and important lesson that day.”
“And what was that?” I excitedly inquired.
“I learned to never eat a cupcake bigger than your head. I tried and puked all over my uniform.”
Ah, very good grasshopper, very good.