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Life with Liz: Some things kids must do themselves

Published April 13. 2019 06:10AM

I can’t look away from the college admissions scandal that is currently unfolding in the press and the courts. Sure, there is the allure of Hollywood drama, the soap opera nature of the players involved, but I think what is drawing me in is knowing that we have just a few more years until we have to start looking at colleges, taking SATs, and trying to figure out how to pay for it all.

When I first read the headlines, I thought this was some nonsensical, trumped-up gotcha kind of story. I mean, haven’t families been building libraries and endowing chairs forever just to get their not-so-bright offspring into college? How was this news and how could it possibly have involved a yearlong undercover investigation?

As the details started to emerge, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t quite the typical “wink, wink, here’s a check, build your library, and accept my kid” kind of situation. The more I read about it, the more I realized that there are parents out there who have gone beyond the helicopter parents, the lawnmower parents, even the snowplow parents, who barrel ahead of their kids, pushing every obstacle to success out of their way. I don’t know that we’ve come up with a term for parents who are willing to spend any amount of money and flat-out lie to get their children what they want, but I’m sure the term will be invented shortly.

As I continue to read the accounts, I keep trying to put myself in their shoes, and I keep asking myself, what would I be willing to do for my child? Having three kids that started out with the health problems my kids had, goodness knows, I would have done anything to take their spot or have any of the surgeries and treatments they had to go through happen to me instead. Not quite the same thing.

Most parents are familiar with sacrifice. Our time is no longer our own. Reading a novel has been replaced by reading 10 bedtime stories. The same 10, over and over again. Privacy is a thing of the past. Even if you do get into the bathroom for five minutes, they’ve probably already learned how to pick locks. Or, the need to go is contagious and the line outside the door is loud and urgent. We forgo gourmet meals in order to follow a diet that consists mainly of chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, and pizza. Our friends circle becomes the parents of the kids that we chaperone the class trips with and the people who join us as we suffer through manning the baseball concession stand.

This is something different, though. As much as I keep trying to put myself in the shoes of these parents, I keep ending up in the shoes of the kids. I presume a lot, and maybe I’m completely off base, but I keep imagining the kids being hurt and angry and saying something along the lines of “you didn’t believe that I could do this on my own, did you?”

Now, some accounts of the stories, it sounds like maybe these kids were in on it. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were completely on board with it, maybe they weren’t. I don’t know those things at all, but I know that if I found out that my parents had done something along those lines, that’s how I would have felt.

I think back to when the kids were little. From the time they started walking, we enrolled all of them in an activity class at the YMCA. For an hour a week, they could go and play games, sing songs, and run around the gym playing on various little play sets. There was a little balance beam that was only about 6 inches off the ground. It was made from a 2-by-8 piece of wood. At first, I held my kids’ hands as they inched across it, however, we all knew that goal of our many practice walks was for them to walk across that beam without my help.

It took A a long time to build up the confidence to do it alone. G picked it up quickly, probably because he had watched A practice so long. E was somewhere in the middle. She got a little extra help because she also took a preschool gymnastics class, but there they were walking on the actual beam, which was only 4 inches wide and several feet off the ground.

At any rate, accomplishing the walk on their own was such a moment of triumph for them. The hundreds of times that I helped them walk across the beam meant nothing compared to the first time that they did it alone. It was bittersweet. I was nervous that they would fall. I was worried that they would give up. I wanted the world to stop and for all the other kids waiting impatiently to just be quiet so my babies could concentrate. But, I stood by silently, fixated on every wobbly step they took.

It seems so insignificant now, but I’m glad we came across that balance beam when we did. It was such a clear example of how we as parents can be supportive, can provide all the right tools, and the best learning environment, but until our kids take ownership of their own actions and accomplish something on their own, it really doesn’t mean as much.

It’s a lesson that’s come back to me as we stay up late finishing science projects that someone should have been more responsible and started earlier. It’s a lesson I’ve remembered when less than perfect grades have come home. And, it’s a lesson that I’m going to remember when college applications start going out. As a parent, I can be a great coach. I can tell them how to execute the plays and provide them with the best possible training facility. I can also be a big cheerleader, enthusiastic and supporting when the situation merits it, and consoling when it doesn’t. But, at the end of the day, I’m not the player on the field. I can’t carry that ball across the goal line, only they can do that.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.

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