Here’s a short list of the things my son Jacob, 17 and in the 11th grade, has not accomplished in his time on Earth: excel at an instrument, enter an art competition, head up a volunteer effort, qualify for a state athletic competition. Unlike many of his peers, he hasn’t even really thought about college. His post-graduate plans include … well, right now, just check the “undecided” box.
To me, Jacob seems like a normal kid. Better than normal, really. Sure, his athletic, artistic and academic performances can be summed up as solidly average (let’s face it, I’m being generous there), but he’s whip-smart, funny, confident and super-knowledgeable on a whole host of topics that interest him, like how to cure dental cavities with a consistent and disciplined low-acid diet. (Apparently, it works; ask his hygienist.)
Jacob’s bedroom is a testament to both his creativity and minimalist nature, decorated sparingly with strange objects he found in the ravine behind our house. He’s had the same four or five best buddies since the fifth grade, a tight group of kids who look out for one another and have never, to my knowledge, had a falling out. He’s a loving big brother to his four younger siblings, always the first to hand out advice, start a wrestling match or give a fierce hug, much to the chagrin of his 6-year-old sister. He never, ever leaves the house or goes to bed without telling us he loves us. He’s respectful and affectionate and still innocently playful despite his lanky, 5-foot-11 frame. And when it comes to his future, he has no doubt he’s going to do something amazing. Right now, he’s torn between starting his own political party and backpacking across the country … barefoot.
Jacob’s a great kid. It’s just that he’s not…doing much.
Mostly, it doesn’t bother me, until I’m scrolling through Facebook and see status update after status update about the amazing things other people’s teenagers are accomplishing: mission trips. Raising money for cancer research. Winning awards and making it to the top of lists. I never knew there were so many ways for a kid to publicly succeed in a culturally celebrated way, until I had one who somehow managed to dodge them all.
I’d never fault somebody for expressing pride in her kids. Hey, I do it all the time. But the pictures I share of my son reading to his little sister seem somehow not to “count” as much as high SAT scores or academic awards.
And yet, when it comes to dropping the parental hammer and insisting Jacob try harder and do more, I just can’t bring myself to do it. See, I’ve been the kid who doesn’t care about the things I was “supposed” to care about, and I know how it feels to be the late bloomer. School was a struggle for me: I knew I was smart, but I couldn’t connect the dots between sitting at a desk and some far-off future life.
It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I figured out what I really wanted to do and pulled together the motivation and discipline to apply myself.
But I did, eventually. And I have confidence that my son will, too. The road to success doesn’t always look like a linear path from high school to college to chosen career. And the last message I want my teenage son to pick up on is that he is somehow doomed or “less than” because his high school track record was about as mediocre as, well, as his actual track record.
To me, success is defined by having the tenacity and resiliency to pick up and try again, no matter how many times you fail or fall down, and the optimism and imagination to see that there is more to life just around the next bend in the road.
Jacob’s got all of those in spades. So I suppose my willingness to sit back and let him fumble a bit at this age is my way of letting him know that high school won’t make or break him, no matter how the hype makes it seem.
There are no guarantees for Jacob, whether his GPA is 4.2 or 2.4. But one thing is certain: He will always be my son, and I’ll always believe in him, no matter what. It may not always be easy, but sometimes proving that means backing off and letting him be the kid he is — instead of the kid who’s always easy to brag about on Facebook.
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