Updated: Aug 12, 2019
We were walking out of the New York Times building late one night after an emotional Posse ceremony where they honored the foundation’s newest scholars. I was beaming at my own scholars, the first in their school’s history. The proudness in my heart, felt good, like something I wanted to experience with my own child. The Posse Foundation partners with top-notch liberal arts institutions throughout the country and awards full-tuition scholarships to students who demonstrate “extraordinary academic and leadership potential”. Being a college counselor mom, knowing that my daughter, Lyla, won’t be an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) kid like her mama, my brain started to compute at 1,000 miles per hour thinking of all the ways I was “raised right” and what parts of those experiences I wanted to roll over onto Lyla. As luck would have it, next to me was my amazing fiancé, Terrell, a DePauw University Posse Scholar who could talk your ear off about it if you let him. This would be a no-brainer!
I turned to my insider, sure enough that this would be an easy feat, and asked him, “How can I raise a Posse Scholar?” I was expecting a step by step answer like: “Well, make sure her GPA is high, her test scores are competitive, that she’s enrolled in a lot of community service and extra-curricular activities, etc.” All things I already knew, and simply needed confirmation. Instead, he nonchalantly replied, “Let her be herself.”
That seemed counterintuitive.
What if I let her “be herself” and she turns out to be one of those kids that live in my house until they’re 35. Terrell read the “that was a bogus answer” expression on my face, and gave me the look he gives me when he knows I’m hearing him but not listening to him. He sighed a reluctant sigh and continued, “It is less about how you get her to get good grades and high SAT scores, and more about how you nurture her intrinsic motivation so that she wants to do those things for herself.”
Surely he didn’t know what he was talking about, he wasn’t even a parent for a full year! What did he mean, “wants to?” “Want” wasn’t a vocabulary word in my little apartment between Fort Washington and Haven Avenue while growing up. Want to? She doesn’t have an option. I didn’t have an option! I had to do well in school. It was my only job, and she would have the same upbringing because I didn’t turn out so bad, right? Her mother has an Ivy League education, there is no reason why, minimally, she couldn’t give me a Bachelor’s degree. What kind of parent would I be? Dique “want to”. Yo te digo a ti!
I find myself back in the last white dining room chair we ever owned growing up. It sat in the black and white tiled living room of that apartment between Fort Washington and Haven, where the sun hit the table luminously when it shone. The living room was always my favorite place in the house because it had the most light. I could imagine my wildest dreams in the living room. In that apartment, Papi was the enforcer of education. He was the kind of parent that believed there was no reason for me to get “bad” grades because my only job in the house was to be a student. Papi was the parent who, when I came home with a 99 on a test, asked me where the final point was, instilling within me that, “the sky is the limit.” There were no “want to’s” in Papi’s house. There were only “do’s”.
As a child of immigrant parents, I accept the burden of responsibility I carry to honor the sacrifices of their pilgrimage so that I could have a better life. My parents compared their times to my times, and never hesitated to remind me “how good I had it”. “Tu lo tiene facil aqui, aplícate!” Mami would say, reminding me that in Quisqueya where she grew up, she had to physically obtain water from a well for her morning bath. Therefore, when Papi sits with me on the last white dining room chair we ever owned to make sure I completed my math homework, he is honoring the sacrifice he made, at the tender age of 12, to come to a new country in search of a better life. He is accomplishing the things his own mother couldn’t accomplish because she had her own set of sacrifices to make in order to put food on the table. In order for all of these sacrifices to be worth it, I had to do well. There are no “want to’s” in this situation.
The clinking of the pots and pans, the running water, y la radio served as white noise to me as I sat on the last white dining room chair we ever owned, across from Papi who was staring intently at every move I made on my math worksheet. He watched for my mistakes, trying to catch them before I made them. I was a pretty solid student. The kind of nerdy kid who read for fun under a fort she built out of blankets, and wrote her feelings in a Tweety Bird journal. A good student and all, Math and I were arch enemies. Every parent-teacher conference, I walked into my math teacher’s room no matter who they were, with my tail between my legs because I knew Papi would not be happy.
“What is the answer, Destiny?” Papi’s natural tone of voice is stern, scary even. Vocal fillers were my favorite way to buy my brain some time to think, so I replied, “Ummmmmmmmm.” But of course, Papi was always one step ahead of me and said, “Um is not a answer, tell me what it is!” The bass in his voice rises, striking just a little more fear in my heart. At this point, what I really want to do is correct the grammar mistake he made, but always decided against it because “our parents always know best.” The lead of my #2 pencil brushes my math worksheet in an absence of confidence with an answer I thought was right.
Papi tells me its wrong and like every other time I was wrong, I flip my #2 pencil around and begin to erase with the edge of its soft red eraser. The sternness of his voice stops me dead in my tracks as he exclaims, “That’s not how you erase!” I look up at him, half confused and half searching for the right answer on his scrunched up face. He must have felt my confusion because he takes the pencil from me and lays the eraser flat on my math worksheet. “This is how you erase,” he says, and again I don’t have the cojones to tell him that I actually didn’t like erasing that way because it left smudges on my paper, but “our parents know best.”
So, when Terrell insinuates that I should give Lyla the option to fail, I cringe. My father didn’t give me the option to fail, and again I think I turned out pretty darn well! But, Terrell is unusually persistent. At this point, we are in a crowded uptown A train attracting the attention of strangers into our conversation about Lyla’s future upbringing, when he says, “What if Lyla wanted to be a professional whistler? There are so many opportunities, even today, that we never thought could be possible. There is more than one way to be successful and innovative.” Did he just say professional whistler? That’s what he said. Really? I couldn’t hide the disappointment on my face and automatically replied, “What the hell is she going to do with that? Whistling ain’t getting us to Harvard!”
Us. To Harvard.
How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims challenges my thinking in two ways: 1. It makes me question her going to Harvard being HER effort rather than an US effort, and that her accomplishments are a direct result of my parenting. 2. It also makes me rethink my idea that Harvard = success when that is simply not the case.
Julie takes an interesting stance on parenting, labeling this kind of all or nothing thinking as problematic and a symptom of “over-parenting”. She educates her readers, through both personal experience and factual research, on the harms of perpetuating these kinds of thoughts with our children, while offering tangible advice on how to alter the over-parenting narrative. I picked this book up initially because I am a perfectionist. I want to excel at everything and anything I do – including parenting (I wonder which eraser I got that from). But, I got so much more than I bargained for because this is a book I will base the rest of my parenting life on.
Julie explains how most of us parent from a place of fear. We fear they may get kidnapped so we are cautious of the things we let them do by themselves. We fear they may not get good grades, so we assist them with their academic life. We fear they won’t get into Harvard, so we pave the pathway for them and offer way too many opportunities for out-of-school activities. We fear that they won’t be eligible candidates for a good job, so we want them to go to good colleges. Or if you are like me, you fear that their future will not be as fruitful, so you push yourself to the brink of existence ensuring that they have a “fulfilled childhood” which Julie might call a “check-listed childhood”.
Guilty. The first step to recovery is admitting I have a problem. I am an over-parenting parent, actively trying to change my ways, and this book has helped a great deal in reshaping how I think about parenting! While trying to rewire my brain I cannot shake off my parents and their sacrifices. As the child of two Dominican immigrants, most of my upbringing was carefully crafted to result in the proud dreams of my parents. Finishing my undergraduate degree, going to Columbia University, which for a family in Washington Heights is a fable and not real life, was an accomplishment not only for me but also mostly for Mami and Papi. I am reminded of this every time Mami humble brags to her friends that her daughter went to Columbia University. Us children of immigrants feel the need to make our parents proud and their sacrifices worth it, I’m not confident that our children should feel this same duty.
Julie relates parenting to caring for a wildflower, in that when growing one, you really don’t know what you’re going to get. Your only job is to make sure it has enough water, sunlight, and food - the rest is up to the wildflower, which will bloom in its own special way. I am thankful for Julie, and this analogy, because it deconstructs the notion we have about motherhood and this need to “do it all”. Providing my daughter with what she needs and letting her flourish gives me time to do the things I love, and subsequently build a life that my daughter can admire (while not feeling selfish about it).
After reading How to Raise an Adult, I had to think about Terrell’s question again. Yes. I would absolutely support Lyla if she decided that she wanted to be a professional whistler because it is no longer my job to decide her path for her. I am merely a part of her toolkit and cheerleader, encouraging her to blossom into whichever wildflower she wants to become! Confession: This isn’t an overnight effort, and sometimes I still help her eat her pancakes. I am imperfect and want her to achieve her full potential, whether that means eating all her pancakes, or learning her numbers in English and Spanish. However, I’m learning to parent less from fear, and more from a place of encouragement. If we all adopted this mindset, the future adults of our society would be an interesting group of humans, to say the least.
Get "How to Raise an Adult" on Amazon, here.