I keep thinking I know what the hardest part of parenting is, but then I find that every week, something harder comes along.
This week, I’m feeling like the hardest thing about being a parent is accepting that we don’t always know who our kids are.
It sounds kind of like that old parenting no-no of “Don’t try to force your kids to be who they’re not.” Like those dads who make their boys play football because they always dreamed of tossing a ball around with their sons, or the moms who force their kids to play instruments because they used to fantasize about being a part of the Partridge family.
But I’m not talking, exactly, about that kind of a thing. No, what I’m talking about, is when you think you know your kid, but then you find out that you really don’t.
Case in point: debate. At my daughter’s school, the sixth graders are allowed to participate in the debate team. I never did debate in school. I’m sure my high school had a debate team or club, but I don’t recall knowing anyone who was on it, or ever taking an interest in it. But if there were ever a person who I thought would like debate, it would be my daughter.
For one thing, the kid has no fear about speaking in front of crowds. She sings in front of the whole school without giving it a second thought, she performs in musicals, she gives speeches without so much as an uh or an um. Second, she’s got a logical mind and if something doesn’t make sense, she can identify why. And third, she loves to be right. Loves it. So when the email came around at the end of last year asking which kids would want to be on the debate team, I asked her if she’d be interested. She didn’t really know what it was all about, but I assured her that she’d be a natural. Yes, I emailed back. The kid is interested.
We got a few emails over the summer pointing us towards videos about middle school debate, and letting us know about the workload that being on the debate team entailed (a lot). It was suggested that if this didn’t sound appealing, now was the time to drop out. But my daughter was at camp, so I couldn’t show her the videos of middle schoolers actually debating, and I figured that she would enjoy it so much that it wouldn’t even feel like work. So I left her on the list. But when she got home from the first day of debate practice last week, she was practically in tears. She told me that it wasn’t at all what she thought it was, and that she didn’t know if it was worth all of that extra work.
I was, I’ll admit, surprised. I thought for sure she was going to come home all pumped about the chance to defend why vending machines should be allowed in schools, or to argue against boxing as a legal sport. It just seemed so her.
But when we sat and talked about it, she explained to me that it just seemed boring to have to sit and take notes while other people talked, and that the topics just weren’t all that interesting to her. Plus, she didn’t want to spend hours preparing arguments when she could otherwise be hanging out with her friends or rehearsing for the musical she’s in. I told her to drop it, then. There’s no point in spending hours doing something that’s not fun. But she wanted to know if I was disappointed in her. Of course, the answer was no. I wasn’t disappointed in her at all, and I let her know that I have no interest in her being unhappy.
I didn’t tell her, though, how sad the whole thing made me. Not sad because she’s dropping debate, but because I just thought I knew her so well. When she was little, I could anticipate her every mood. I always knew what she was thinking. I could read her like a book. And I guess I thought still could. I thought I understood everything that makes her tick.
Turns out, I was totally wrong. She has her own ideas of who she is and who she wants to be; ideas I know nothing about, and which will only broaden as she gets older. And so I realized, I just have to let go of the notion that I know her better than she knows herself. I have to accept that as time goes on, I will know only what she wants me to know, and less and less about who she really is. It’s natural, and it makes sense, and I get it. But damn, it’s a hard thing to get used to.