Confession: I can be a bit of a control freak. It comes out at the most inopportune times. Often I’m in the middle of trying to convince someone to do something my way when I realize I have to stop talking and take minute to really listen.
This year I have found myself in a leadership position as PTA president at my children’s school. Thus far, the experience has been a lesson in patience and humility—one that is making me a stronger and more compassionate human being. It has made me realize that it is a terrible idea to try to change people or expect them to do something that they aren’t really passionate about. The most important thing is to be a good listener and to celebrate others’ talents and accomplishments. By giving myself permission to let go and avoid micromanaging, I better appreciate what they bring to the table.
This applies to kids too, of course.
My oldest daughter started taking piano lessons when she was five from a wonderful, classically trained teacher. As the years passed, I noticed she was getting more and more frustrated. Frustration turned to dread, and even willful defiance at times. It was clear that this was not working for her, and yet I kept asking her to persist. I told her, “Sometimes you have to work through the frustration. You are so talented; you can do it.”
Little did I realize that my cheer-leading and attempt to build grit in my eight-year-old was failing miserably. Our entire family felt stressed and upset. Why were we doing this, again?
Finally I decided that enough is enough. Life is too short to sacrifice the present for the promise of some future badge—and to be honest, I don’t know what that future badge even was. I was caught up in a hamster wheel of expectations. Somehow, I had lost sight of the big picture.
When I was a child, my parents let me off the hook with piano after I complained a couple times. This pattern repeated itself across every activity I started, so by the time I got to high school I played no instrument nor sport and boasted a non-existent list of extracurricular skills. But you know what? It all turned out just fine. As a ninth grader I chose to join the swim team and learned to play and love water polo. My casual art hobby became my passion, fueled by the encouragement of a few teachers who recognized my skill and interests and became my loudest cheerleaders. Because I had so much time to focus on just being a kid in elementary and middle school, I had plenty of time to do what I wanted. That’s the key here: I did what I wanted to do, not what my parents forced upon me. They stood back and encouraged me, supported me, and always held high expectations for me. They trusted me to figure things out on my own, loved me unconditionally, and left me feeling like I could do anything.
My parents’ unconditional encouragement and trust, combined with unwavering high expectations, made me who I am today. I entered my freshman year at Yale University ready to conquer the world, secure in the knowledge that at 18, I was a free thinker, resourceful, and independent.
While I don’t expect either of my daughters to go to college alone with a one-way plane ticket like I did—I mean, come on, I want to at least help them move in!—I do want them to feel the way I did growing up: that they can do and be anything they want, not what I pressure them to be.
Giving my eldest permission to let go of classical piano after years of dedicated lessons was a good starting point for us this school year. Once we made the decision to say goodbye, we all felt a huge weight lifted off our shoulders. After we sat and talked for a while, I came to understand that she still really wants music to be a part of her life; she just doesn’t want to play classical piano. Together, we tested out a couple of options and found the perfect fit in a laid-back teacher that allows students to pick their own instruments and songs and form their own bands. A couple lessons in, my daughter is a new child. She can’t wait for her weekly lesson and always leaves with a huge smile on her face.
Looking back, my only regret is not listening to my daughter earlier. But as they say, better late than never.