With children, you do have the world on a string

January 29, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

Generally speaking, the four things one hopes for most when staggering out of bed to face a new day are:

1. That you will not be greeted by a raging ice storm.

2. That you will not be faced with a bad hair day.

3. That your boss will not decide that today is the day to do your job evaluation.

4. That it's Friday. Or better yet, Saturday.

What one hopes for in the routine of everyday life, I have found, usually consists of such mundane wishes as these. After the age of 21 or thereabouts, one does not rise up from bed hoping for the world on a string.

A nice, uncomplicated commute to work, yes. A supper hour uninterrupted by phone solicitations, yes. But the world on a string? No. In fact, no thanks. I've always been a person who enjoys hoping on a small scale.

Small hopes, I've observed, are a lot like dogs: they tend to come when they're called.

Big hopes, on the other hand, are more like cats: you can call them all you want but if they don't want to come, forget it.

There is, however, one exception to my small hope-big hope philosophy. It has to do with my sons.

When it comes to one's children you want them to have big hopes. Ofcourse you don't tell them this. Directly, that is. But in subtle and not so subtle ways, parents are always telling their children to aim high in life.

That's the easy part, of course. Aiming high. The hard part is having your hopes --ed when you miss your target. And the bigger the --ed hope, the bigger the disappointment. Helping a child to get past the disappointment and move on is one of the most important tasks facing a parent.

And, unfortunately, one of the most frequent.

But occasionally in the life of a parent, something wonderful happens. The phone rings, for instance, and suddenly hope -- the thing with feathers that perches in the soul -- flies out. It's in your son's voice, crackling across the telephone wires.

"I passed," my twentysomething son says, his voice filled with happiness and disbelief at having gotten past a major hurdle in his academic life. It was hard for him to accept that what he had so hoped for had actually happened.

Hard for me to accept it too. Over the last several months I had invested a lot of my hope capital in this son's account. But that's what parents do as their children move into adulthood: They transfer into their children's accounts a lot of their own hopes and dreams.

"Happiness makes up in height,"Robert Frost wrote, "for what it lacks in length." He must have had the parent-child relationship in mind when he wrote that. When it comes to children, every parent knows that happiness has a short shelf life.

On the other hand, there seems to be no statute of limitations when it comes to worrying about a child. "When is it over?" I wonder. When does this intense identification with a child's hopes and disappointments end? The answer is: never.

The night of the phone call from my son I wandered into his old room. It's still pretty much the way he left it, a teen-ager's shrine to his passion for skiing and climbing.

Such bright, happy reminders of a child's life. It made me think of something a Japanese poet wrote more than a thousand years ago about her wish to see her infant child grow into adulthood.

"I wish I could live long enough to see him soar high above the clouds," she wrote, "when his cloak of crane feathers has grown out with the years."

And for a moment I did see him, my son, soaring. And it didn't sadden me that in a sense he was soaring away from me. Like a string to a kite, I felt the tug of connection.

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