Cultivating deep thoughts in our kids

by Kristin on March 7, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by sparkyc84

Yesterday morning as I was lying in bed listening to a story on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, I went from “preach it” mode to dismay to full-on disgust in record time.

The story wasn’t really about anything that’s affecting the balance of our life on this planet. It wasn’t about Libya, or the working class protesting in Wisconsin, or cancer research, or the state of the environment. It was, in essence, about parenting. But by the time I finished listening to the story, I was pretty sure that our future does indeed rest on our ability to do just that—parent—and do it well.

Here’s the gist of the NPR story that got me going: A dad, Andrew Ferguson, has written a book about his experience getting his son into college (Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College). In the radio interview, as he painted a picture of parents who are out of control about getting their kids into the right schools, “compiling their brag sheets, as they’re called, kind of horrifyingly, for their children all the way back into fourth and fifth grade,” I was pretty sure I was going to like what this guy had to say.

I think many parents are trying way too hard to shape their children into something they (the parents) want them to be, rather than helping them become all that they are. I also think that kids are completely tuned into their parents’ expectations of them, and probably even elevate those expectations in their minds. How can a kid ever measure up? How can they ever feel truly good about who they are, even if they’re considered amazing by societal standards?

As parents, it’s possible to be too accepting

But then Ferguson went on to describe his total acceptance of his son. That’s when my cheers turned to dismay and then anger. When it came to writing essay responses on college applications, Ferguson said “…he’s a 17-year-old boy; he doesn’t have innermost thoughts, and if he did you wouldn’t want to know what they were and neither would I.” When I expressed my dismay to Jason, he said “When I was 17, I was reading about the revolution in El Salvador and getting ready to go over there.”(Jason, in case you’re wondering, went to a public school and grew up in a very middle class family, where caring about the world around you was valued more highly than grade point averages.)

And then Ferguson said this in the NPR interview:

Our first meeting with his college counselor at high school involved him telling the counselor what kind of school he wanted, and my son being my son said, look, I want to go to a school where I can go to a football game, take off my shirt, paint my chest in the school colors and major in beer. And you should have seen the look on that counselor—this was the guy who was going to write him his recommendation. I was just delighted that my son was like that.

I’m going to take a deep breath and start by saying a little something in this dad’s defense: I do think many parents are getting too involved too early in their child’s getting-into-college process. I think most families could stand to relax more when it comes to finding and getting into the “right” school. And I think most parents should be more accepting of who their kids really are. But being “delighted” that your son wants to “major in beer” takes that acceptance too far.

The fine line between who they are and who they can become

As parents, we have dual responsibilities: accepting and loving our kids for who they are, and helping them see who they can become. It’s a tricky tightrope walk, I’ll admit. Most of us tend to veer off in one direction or the other, but I think a balance can be found. We can say “OK, I get that you’re 17 and you’re looking forward to partying in college, but I also know you’re going to grow and change and want more out of life (we hope) than beer. Part of my job, as your parent, is to help you stretch and imagine who you might be at 20 or 25, and how the choices you make now can either drive you toward or away from that best, future version of you.”

And yes, maybe the preparations do have to start earlier—not creating “brag sheets” of all our kids’ accomplishments, but exposing them to conversations and experiences that can help them see beyond themselves, and have “innermost thoughts.” Last night, my 13-year-old and her youth group met up with teens from the Mosque to read letters from prisoners and package books to send to them (through our local Books To Prisoners organization). She couldn’t stop talking about it when she got home.

The idea that 17-year-olds don’t have “innermost thoughts,” is offensive. The idea that a parent (or a society) would accept that as a “teens will be teens” or “boys will be boys” reality is horrifying. If I was a parent of boys, I would be angered by that stereotype; as the parent of girls, I feel more concerned than ever about them reaching the age when they might be asked out on dates by such boys.

It’s time to put down the report cards and track medals for a moment, and admit that this is part of our job as parents: not to just follow the lead of our kids’ narrow interests, but to take them on little adventures outside of their comfort zones. Kids have a rich ecosystem, just waiting to be tended, and planted. As parents, we can help cultivate a broader world of ideas, compassion, and  innermost thoughts. Sure, the garden will start out small, and might even seem incapable of producing much fruit, but eventually it will flourish, and our world will be better because of it.

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  • Sam

    Yes, yes, and yes. It is a fine line between learning who your kid is/accepting who they are and then pushing them to do better or become a better person. Yes, you could push too hard, or you could not push enough. Seventeen year olds are FULL of deep thoughts – especially if they’ve been alllowed to cultivate them! I feel for this kid, whose only thought of college is fun and beer and football. College is about SO much more than that! And, speaking from experience, it can be about fun WITHOUT beer or sororities or any of that stuff.

    I really hope that we guide our kids along a path that gives them opportunities for growth, for learning about a big, interesting world – that’s why I’m committed to taking our son on vacations to somewhere besides Disney World (as opposed to families we know who go once/several times a year) and broadening his landscape from what he knows from everyday life.

  • Laura

    I could not have said this better. I have always tried to live by quote “I am not raising children, I am raising young adults whom one day will be the person I love having dinner & conversation with” I think it is what you do as a parent and expose your children to that inspires them to have more thoughts in there head than just beer & parties.

    I agree it is a fine line in letting your child be who they are, but as well hold them to standards and show them that life does have boundaries.

    Loved the post, so well written.

  • Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell

    My kids, both my son and daughter, have “innermost thoughts.” You just have to know how to get them to share their thoughts. I find shared tasks like cooking help coax out some great conversations.

    I frame my approach to parenting as seeing the grand finished work of their life stories, then helping my children revise their stories through thoughtful engagement. As writers, our first draft of anything is usually crap, and our children’s first life story draft always needs some thoughtful and sincere parenting revisions. But with this caveat, if I’m not engaged with their life interests, then I will try to force them to live out my life goals. Again, it all goes to back to engaging and being fully present with your kids at every age.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    I’m left wondering who gave this guy a book contract! Or perhaps he was attempting to rock the boat in order to sell books? I’m left yearning, “There’s gotta be a catch,” in hopes that no one is that irresponsible as the father of a teenage boy. And you’re right to worry about your daughters dating such guys. The father would probably teach his son that the stand-up thing to do if a girl gets pregnant to to offer to pay for an abortion.

  •!/emalwitz Esther

    Wow I’m completely appalled that a parent would be delighted in their son saying such things.
    Funny this morning I was actually thinking about your daughter and the outreach she was involved in yesterday. And I was thinking how important it is that she is doing something like that. The exposure it gives her and the place it allows her heart to go can ignite such good thoughts and desires in her for others.
    My brain is a bit fried today so I wont say much more other than I think this is definitely a topic that parents and faith communities should be talking about and creatively thinking about.
    Oh and the innermost thoughts of my three year old and five year old are amazing and often eye opening, if I simply take the time and give them the space to share those with me

  • Genevieve

    The story prompted many an eye roll from me, too…but I have a different take on it.

    I wonder if the problem here wasn’t that the author failed to intervene with his kid–but rather, that he sent his kid a message, early and often, about the kind of man he wanted his son to be (drinker, partier, athlete, shallow thinker, “manly man”), and his son is delivering. Why should we take the author’s word that this kid is being who he is, that this kid just IS this way, all on his own, no interference? Could be that dad is so proud of who his kid is because that’s who he raised him to be. Now dad is defending that personality in the only socially acceptable way. He can’t admit to TRYING to make his son this way; but he CAN say, oh, look everyone, look how kind and accepting I am of my son’s identity! You know all that buzz about loving your kids for who they are? Well, that’s me, dad of the year, right here, guys!

    I just find that in most cases, deep thoughts come naturally to kids. When I see a teen who seems like he doesn’t have them, I’m not inclined to think that’s who he is naturally, when the adult under-parents or under-interferes. I’m more inclined to think, wow, those parents did a great job of stomping out their kid’s natural creativity and thoughtfulness. Just my hunch.

  • Meredith

    “As parents, we can help cultivate a broader world of ideas, compassion, and innermost thoughts.

    I’m not a parent, but I completely agree with you here. I owe so much to my own parents for doing just that. They taught by example, showing me there was so much more than the world I lived in. I remember tagging along to work with my single mom and sitting in the back of her classes, soaking up all the information she was giving. My dad and stepmother engaged my siblings and me in daily dinner-time conversations about current and cultural events or politics. If I didn’t understand something, I asked and they explained, but they never once dumbed down the conversation just because I was there. They took me with them when they volunteered someplace and introduced me to all sorts of different people, places and things.

    I was better student in college because of it and I never once felt like they were trying to make me into someone else. Instead, I can look back now and see just how hard they worked to help me become the very best me that I was/am.

  • anieva

    I can’t believe he said that – or that anyone reasonable would say that – about innermost thoughts. I feel sorry for his son. You don’t need to be very bright to know you can and very often do think deep thoughts at that age. How horrible that a father should have such expectations of his child (who is nearly legally an adult, by the way.) So dismaying.

    Thanks for your post.

  • Trina

    The line may be fine, but it is still there. I can accept my son for his ‘antics’, but I can encourage him to learn there’s a time and a place for everything. Save the pit farts for his friends, share his own accomplishments in an ‘interview’ situation.
    Big audible sigh here pertaining to anything related to ‘boy will be boys.’ Doesn’t being proud of a son for his ‘honesty’ lay ground for self indulgent behaviour ad-nauseum
    As always, enjoyed your thoughts.

  • Kristin T.

    Sam, it seems like we can conclude that parenting is hard! And there will always be something we will blame ourselves for or wonder if we should have approached differently. Being aware and deliberate about family priorities and choices are big steps in the right direction, at least.

    Laura, that seems like a good way to think about parenting–at least the long-term aspect of it. Sometimes we don’t hold kids to higher standards about things like compassion and helping others, because we just see them as kids, and forget that they’re on their way to becoming adults. If we can think about character building in kids, and imagine how it will translate to adulthood, that’s probably a good exercise.

    Sarah, you’re so right about shared tasks and how they encourage opening up. I also think taking walks together is a great way to encourage conversation. I remember opening up to my mom while we walked the dog together. I love your writing/revising analogy, too!

    Ray, apparently the book is more “humorous memoir” than how-to manual, but I still find it very disturbing. I guess it’s too closely in line with how much of culture *feels* but I want to believe it *isn’t*.

    Esther, yes, I thought “delighted” was a very odd word choice. :) My church reorganized its youth program last year, so we had a lot of discussions about youth group–what good things can come out of it, what we want for our kids at our particular church, why it matters at all, etc. After thinking more about the activity last night, I felt pretty sure that’s the sort of thing I want her to get out of youth group–compassion, a heart for service, and some serious stereotype busting, all happening within the context of her faith.

  • ThatGuyKC

    An excellent post and I second your assessment of Mr. Ferguson’s interview.

    What a sad testament to the general lowering of expectations society has of boys to become men. At 17, I definitely wasn’t the most mature, but I had “innermost thoughts” and was held to a standard of behavior and performance that would put Mr. Ferguson’s offspring to shame. Just think, that boy can vote next year and drives a car (a.k.a. death machine).

  • April Karli

    I just was writing yesterday at my blog about how children are deeper than adults give them credit for. The ages of the kids I was talking about range from 3yrs – 8yrs!! It’s unfortunate that so many parents are pushing their children to be something they don’t want to be. But it’s equally unfortunate that some parents aren’t pushing their children at all. That’s why for my family it’s paramount that we surround ourselves with like-minded friends who can help me and my husband stay out of the ruts and carve a different, hopefully better and healthier, path for our girls.

  • Kristin T.

    Genevieve, as usual, you push me to think in new ways. :) I think we both have a point to make–each point applies to different families and kids. In some cases parents are too hands on and just need to get out of the way, as you suggest. We need to provide more open-ended spaces for kids to develop in, and not send as many strong messages about our expectations (especially if they involve stereotypes we hope our kids will fit). But I do think that in most cases, parents need to be more proactive in providing opportunities, discussions etc that help their kids grow. Deep thoughts might come naturally to kids but they need a bit of help when it comes to expanding their vision/subject matter. That doesn’t always happen naturally on Facebook, at school, or while watching TV.

    Meredith, you touched on one of my favorite things: eating dinner as a family and enjoying interesting discussions as you eat! I do feel like most kids growing up today are missing out on that, along with opportunities to volunteer as a family, or at least witness their parents giving back to the community. Sadly, it seems like most families are too busy for these types of things now.

    anieva, yes, obviously it was upsetting to me, too. I’m sure the dad was trying to have/display a sense of humor about it all, but I think much of our joking can have serious consequences and send serious messages–especially to kids.

  • Kristin T.

    Trina, “there’s a time and a place for everything”—indeed! And it’s good to hear from a mom of a boy. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t complain about the “boys will be boys” mantra, seeing as how I’ve never had to directly parent a boy, but as the parent of girls who, as toddlers, often got run down by boys at the park whose parents just shrugged sheepishly, it seemed very much like a cop-out response.

    ThatGuyKC, right—that 17 year old who doesn’t have any innermost thoughts can drive now and enlist in the armed forces next year. He could even run for mayor! Frightening! There’s definitely a disconnect in a society that gives kids adult responsibilities and privileges but doesn’t expect them to rise to the occasion.

    April, yes—kids definitely have a lot going on inside their heads, just naturally (as Genevieve also pointed out). When we take them seriously and engage/challenge them, they tend to really step up. I like your point about the importance of community in raising our kids and showing them different angles of a consistent message. Very true! As parents, we don’t have to do all the work ourselves. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  • Genevieve

    Yeah. I’m definitely not saying hands-off is always best, or that parents shouldn’t be actively trying to expand their kids’ horizons–quite the opposite. I’m just sort of heading off in another direction here, and questioning the author’s reliability, motivations, and honesty. If there’s anything a lifetime of reading has taught me, it’s this: the narrator may do the most talking–but he’s often a liar.

  • Sarah@EmergingMummy

    Un-freakin’-believable. I hate that attitude (I know I sound judgmental and I keep trying to find a way to be more gracious about it but GAH!). Both of my tinies are very, very young still and yet, they are thinking individuals with deep souls. I sometimes feel like my role as a parent is lay the feast – good books, good ideas, good example etc. Instead of letting them become emotionally or intellectually or spiritually anemic on the fast food mentality/books/ideas/examples of our society. The truth is that kids respond well to good stuff – and know the difference. I am constantly inspired by teenagers around us – their passion, their questions, their drive is amazing!

    Sometimes, I think that half of this attitude is to let themselves off the hook for the vacuous. (And I have to wonder how his kid feels about being described this way – ignorant, uninformed, lazy etc. – to the general public….?)

  • ed cyzewski

    While my childhood had some really insane moments where I was quite alienated from my parents, I’m really grateful that my dad helped me figure out what I liked to do during my high school years. He encouraged me to look into literature and writing and to go to the best college I could find for it. While I went through seasons where I was at odds with my parents, that particular time of my life was immensely important, and I’m grateful for it.

  • Susan

    My parents never cared about my grade-point average much, even though they were well aware I could have easily made A’s instead of low B’s. They felt my other interests and writing habit were just as valuable.

    They didn’t always encourage me outside of my comfort zone, but they didn’t really confine to their expectations either. They had their own life, and I was part of that life, and I had mine as well. As a result, they didn’t appear to really have that empty nest syndrome when I was the last to leave. We had cultivated enough of a real relationship and identity we could all evolve as individuals and as a family.

  • Kristin T.

    Sarah, I love how you described your role as a parent–laying the feast, in contrast to being emotionally, intellectually or spiritually anemic. Great metaphor. Sadly, I suspect that the kid being described in the interview is as proud of his approach to life as his dad is proud. We set the tone–our kids are so eager to please us that they usually comply if they can.

    ed, I really appreciate what you’re saying (or what I hear you saying): parents don’t have to be perfect all the time to have important influences on their kids at important moments. I’m glad your dad was there to help guide you toward writing, too!

    Susan, that sounds like a really healthy balance: being able to evolve as individuals and as a family. You’ve inspired me to think about what that does/would look like for my girls. Thanks!

  • Jacqueline Burke

    Wow! I’m glad I missed that. I always say that I was the smartest when I was 17. I was reading The Fountainhead and learning about archetypal criticism. I can’t imagine having such shallow interests at that point in my life.

    Great post-I’m glad to find your blog, will totally keep reading.

  • Kristin T.

    Jacqueline, you were a deep teen! I think the biggest issue for most 17-year-olds is that they don’t have fully-developed communication and analytic skills. They’re having lots of deep thoughts, but aren’t always able to put them together (at least that’s how I remember my teen years). Thanks for reading and commenting!