How did That Happen?
This will be the last writing posted on fiveminusthree as our daughter is soon to be married and the intention of this blog has been fulfilled. I may or may not continue with a new name. Fiveplusthree? Perhaps.
My husband and I have been asked a time or two, “What did you do that your kids are so successful?” Sometimes it comes out more like, “How did your kids turn out so good?” And then we try not to be offended by the sting, especially when it comes from our siblings of origin. I can’t answer for my husband, but as I tamp down my fluffed-up feathers, the answer is always both long and short. The short answer is: “We were lucky.” The long answer? Beyond being incredibly lucky, I say it wasn’t all that complicated. They inherited some pretty remarkable genes (I take no personal credit—all that goes to my lineage), some genetic predisposition for hard work (credit due again to lineage and Mullenbach German “just get it done-ness”), but above all, a level of unspoken expectation to learn, to try, and to be curious.
As a child, I was an avid reader. More than anything else, I wanted to read, to learn, and to be a good student. (Under all my layers of laid-backness is a small kernel of competitiveness.) As a mother, I passed this along without any intention. It was just “what I knew.” I was horrible at playing with Legos, Lincoln Logs, and decent with a puzzle, but more than anything, I read to my kids. A lot. I read to them until they could read for themselves, even if it was just cereal boxes. There wasn’t a “good night” without a few stories first. Thanks to the public library system, books were abundant. And free.
As a child, I was also encouraged to try any and all sporting activities, thanks to my father who was a physical education teacher and hockey coach. If the kids wanted to try a sport, the answer was always “yes!” Some sports naturally fit with our kids, and some just didn’t. The point was to TRY. Two of our children loved sports; the third, well, his love became music. Where did that come from? I’ll tell you.
My mother played the piano. We had an old upright in the basement of my early childhood home. She played for us kids out of John Thompson’s 3rd Grade Book. Like a lot of young girls who admired their moms, I wanted to “do what she did.” Nobody had to push or prod me to play the piano. I begged for lessons and took them until well into high school. I would say I was “above average” as a pianist, “a good enough singer to get into a good choir in high school”, but I held no illusions of a future in music. The best I can say is I was more musically than athletically gifted. And yet I ran as fast as I could and tried really hard to like softball and even the short-lived, freezing cold season of broomball. Gymnastics scared the shit out of me. But I did it all: tap dance, baton twirling, touch football, tennis, golf… you name it. But this isn’t about me. If MY kids wanted to play an instrument, sing, play a sport, anything that expanded their minds in any way, the answer was always a resounding “YES.”
As young parents, my husband and I wanted to expose our kids to the best of what we had and to open their eyes to opportunities we may not have had. Between the two of us, who had very different upbringings , we collectively exposed our three children to what WE knew was important in life: education, reading, music, physical activity, nature, a belief system, the family unit, and good old- fashioned hard work.
We were not ‘helicopter parents’, a phrase nonexistent when we were being or raising kids. We did what our parents did: expected our kids to do their best on their own. We were involved, but not overly. I checked the “Friday Folder” to make sure they did their work, but after that? They were entrusted. Their failures? They earned them. Their successes? Theirs alone. We were happy bystanders, there to offer support in the case of failure and praise in the case of success. Sounds simple, right? Praise for success is sweet and easy. But failure? How do you not dive in and rescue? How do you let them sink just a little? Feel the pain of rejection, poor decisions, falling short? You fall back on what you know. What I was taught by my dad: You can’t learn to ski until you first learn how to fall.
So there were those uncomfortable moments when one of the kids wasn’t good at something, wasn’t invited to a party, did poorly on a test, came in last place. Cried in public. Many times it was simply hold them tight and don’t say anything.
One thing I made sure of as their mother was both the simplest and at times the hardest. We had family meals. I’d love to say Every Night, but come those crazy high school years, that wasn’t possible. And Dad had a traveling job. But as often as possible, we gathered together as a family and ate dinner. It was routine. It was expected. It was as expected as it was that I would be there when they came home from school and would be there in the morning to send them off. The sun rose and the sun set, and they knew where home was, where mom and dad were, and where their bellies were fed. Whether each or any of us had a good day, a bad day, or a routine, ordinary one, there was breakfast, there was lunch, and there was dinner. And there were WE, a family, a safe place to land.
What we didn’t do was spend a whole lot of time talking about “what we wanted to be when we grew up”. (My husband and I are still figuring that out for ourselves.) We had no expectations that our oldest son would become a neuroradiologist, our daughter a PhD candidate, or our youngest son a data scientist (still fuzzy on what that even means). We just let them figure it out, find their ways, explore their options. Try new things.
The best part of parenting, the ultimate joy, the glory that I fear many parents these days are missing, is truly enjoying the surprise. The watching, the waiting, the unfolding. Watching the seeds we planted, watered, fed, and then just held our breath and trusted, become the blossoms that are our children gradually open and show their beautiful individual colors.
If forced to give an elevator speech, I’d say this: Give them books, expose them to music and arts, religion, nature, movement, and stability. And without a doubt, a shout-out and quote from our very first pediatrician, Dr. Lawson from Indianapolis, this gem, “Love them unconditionally. The rest comes easy.”