Finding out what really matters

Essay: A generation has grown up protecting its children from inconsequential things.

October 01, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

I heard that 16 people from the Princeton, N.J., area died in the terrorist attacks last month, many of whom left behind spouses and children. And I think an unanticipated enemy crept in while parents, including myself, were worrying about truly petty things.

Growing up in Princeton in the 1960s, my friends and I were raised in consummate baby boomer fashion by imperfect parents who loved their children and had high hopes for them but didn't supervise their every move.

Our parents came of age during World War II. Many had withstood hardship. Bearing children during a burst of post-war affluence, they weren't yet oppressed by the "how to's" of child-rearing. More than a few of them first-generation Americans, they were probably content just to have a family and the means to care for it.

We bicycled everywhere in the middle of the night. We walked barefoot uptown and played in the "Fountain of Freedom," next to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, housed in a building designed by the same man who designed the World Trade Center. We held co-ed (and chaste!) sleepovers.

Not every kid was happy or had a stable home life. Alcoholism and drug abuse, mental illness, family tragedies indelibly scarred some. Still, most of my friends and I overcame such traumas.

Yet, being a parent feels very different now. It's become a struggle to leave anything to chance when it comes to rearing children. Maybe it's because I didn't experience World War II, or any genuine physical hardship that would force me not to sweat the small stuff.

Lacking a true threat to my children's well-being, such as a war or terrorism, it has been all too easy to invent causes for anxiety; to fear for example that a lousy math grade, a stubborn streak, a disorganized notebook will doom my children to a difficult and/or unhappy life.

It's also easy to invent the solution: perfection, an almost superstitious, "step on a crack, break your mother's back" kind of perfection that protects against evil. To keep something bad from happening, you have to control everything, make everything perfect, including your children. If you're beyond reproach, nothing can hurt you, or so it seems.

With that in mind, I've seen parents - many of them as comfortable and educated as were the parents of my Princeton friends - trying to micro-manage their children's well-being from birth through college so they'll never have to step on a crack. I don't think I am one of the worst offenders, but the urge is always there to make my kids invulnerable by encouraging them to become high achievers whose abilities will allow them to advance painlessly through life.

Since Sept. 11, the false anxieties and fears we invented and then tried to eliminate through the pursuit of perfection have been replaced by real ones.

On the Diane Rehm Show on NPR recently, I heard author Patricia Van Tighem, a woman who had been mauled by a grizzly bear in 1983, say that everyone has a bear in their life. Until now, for me, it was a pretend bear, something to justify my irrational anxiety about my kids and how their lives will unfold.

A caller to the radio program, a breast cancer survivor, told Van Tighem of the frivolous way the word "survivor" is bandied about these days. "Survivor," as in a silly television show, or as in an actor who has survived a really bad movie.

In the same way we've invented imaginary enemies, we've invented false survivors.

It turns out we have real, if elusive, enemies, and real survivors, such as those children in Princeton whose parents I could have easily frolicked with in the 1960s.

As a mom of a certain age, this is the test: to throw myself into the beauty of family life, but discard those worries exacerbated by artificial fears. Yes, they have to do their homework. Yes, they have to try their best. But always know that anything can happen "while you're busy making other plans," as John Lennon said, and that obsession about grades or colleges might rob you and your children of the very thing you seek: joy, an always-fleeting thing in this volatile world.

This is a terrible time to obsess about things that ultimately don't matter. Things that, no matter how hard we try, won't necessarily protect us from bears, imaginary and real.

Without the pressure of perfectionism, by understanding failure and happenstance, children may be able to face an uncertain future with even more grace and finesse.

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