Recently, my oldest daughter, who is a senior in high school, had an old friend come to visit her for a week. This particular friend had been her best friend for the first couple of years of high school before moving out of state. The girls have stayed close over the years, but it had been a while since we had seen her and the girls’ lives have, clearly, evolved in different ways.
If you have, or have had, a child in their senior year of high school, then you know the special hell I speak of when I say “college application season.” This is a time when, as a child, you’re faced with the looming prospects of a future in which your mother no longer does your laundry. As a parent, this is the point where you stare inquisitively at your child, the same person who, just three days ago, could not find their own pants, and think that perhaps you should request a do-over.
With college application season fully upon us, it was interesting to watch my daughter interact with this friend, who in many ways is her exact and complete opposite. While they both like to laugh a lot and text each other while sitting two feet apart on the couch, that’s where the similarity ends. My daughter is getting her applications done. I think. She doesn’t like to talk about it much. Her friend, on the other hand, has been done since October, has already received some early acceptances and has a full academic ride to at least one school.
I listened to the girls for several days. The friend talked almost exclusively of her International Baccalaureate program, her extensive studying, her continued anxiety over her “low” test scores (which were WELL above national averages), her anxiety about getting into Ivy League schools and the intense competition present in her high school. She talked about how much she studied and bragged about how, when other kids were hanging out, she was at home studying.
To put it mildly, this kid is impressive. She’s smart. She’s driven. She doesn’t get into trouble. She’s pretty much every parent’s dream for the teenage years.
Then I look at my kid.
Her room looks like a rummage sale gone wrong. Her homework is usually “pending.” Her grades are…well, let’s just say she’s passing. I spend more time reminding her of deadlines than it would take her to simply meet them. She is scatter brained and quirky and a bit of a hot mess all around. I worry about her. I am exasperated by her. I attribute at least half of my carefully hidden gray hairs to her.
But, while she is far from perfect, she is never, ever boring. Although she is very smart, her grades don’t always reflect her intelligence. Instead, she’s very clever, which is a lot harder than being book smart. She gets moody, which drives me crazy. But she is hilariously funny, which is a powerful gift that gets us through the rough times. She doesn’t remember to pick up her towel off the bathroom floor, which makes me worry about her ability to survive as an independent adult. But she is tremendously thoughtful and kind, which is the highest achievement for any person, child or adult. She flounders and procrastinates, which means that I am constantly worried about what tasks she’s left undone. But she has had the same dream since she was five and has pursued it with a single minded focus, which is a quality that cannot be taught. And when she talks, she talks of life. She tells hilarious stories of awkward social situations. She discusses politics and world events. She revels in nuance and obscurity.
And I’ll take her beautiful imperfections any day of the week. She stresses about things that are easily avoidable. She worries me with things that common sense could easily solve. But she tackles the world with humor and grace (despite being one of the clumsiest people I have ever met). She is not the ideal teenager, but she’s the ideal HER.
We will all stumble and fall at some point. We will flounder and fail. We will have struggles and grief. But how we handle those moments and situations is the true test of our character. I would much rather have my kids get some experience with these things at home while I still have them to shape and guide and support. By being imperfect now, they have the chance to learn with a safety net. And when life hands them an imperfect situation down the road, they’ll tackle it with determination, a well-equipped emotional tool box and an intimate knowledge of the power of a well-timed joke.
I used look at “perfect” kids (the ones who always seemed to have it all together), and I wondered what their parents had done to accomplish such a feat. I questioned my own methods and thought about what I could have, or should have, done differently. And, yes, I know that no child (or human) is truly perfect and that we all have our faults. But I also know that there are rigid societal standards of perfection and that our children face intense pressure to live up to these unrealistic ideals. I’ve seen my kids struggle with their “failure” to be perfect, or at least as good as the friends that seem perfect in their eyes.
These days, my only goal as a parent is to make sure that none of that pressure or sense of disappointment comes from me. When I look at the gorgeous mess that my kids are, I see their curiosity and willingness to challenge the status quo. I see their ability to fail, yet get back up and try again. I see their desire to take risks and put themselves out there. I see their perfect imperfections and I wish desperately that they could see the beauty that I see when I look at them.
For years, I have had a Zora Neale Hurston quote hanging on my kitchen window. It says, “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
I don’t ask my children to be perfect. In fact, I don’t want them to be. I just want them to jump and see where they land. I want them to experience life in its purest forms. To find joy in the simplest things. To laugh until they cry. I want them to live a life filled with childlike wonder. And to be happy. More than anything, I want them to be happy. This will not guarantee their success in business or fill their bank accounts – and it most certainly, won’t get them into an Ivy League school. But it will make them the kind of adults that I want to know. And really, that’s all any parent can ask for.