I recently read Keith Richards’s autobiography. I read it to learn more about the recording of some of his band’s seminal albums, and about how he survived doing so many drugs but it got me thinking about what I would do if my son decided to he wanted to be an axman. While describing his childhood, Keith never really discusses what his parents thought of his choice of career, making it seem like they were just bystanders while he chased his dream. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, maybe he doesn’t remember their names. But it got me thinking.
I don’t yet know what my son’s dreams will be, but I plan to support them as best I can. The thing is, as a parent I’m sure to have a different perspective on his life and his dreams than he does. Mostly because, by virtue of being older and having lived more life, I have some perspective – which can be both valuable and damaging, and he doesn’t – which can also be both valuable and damaging. The young and the
old less-young usually disagree on where the value lies.
This is a source of conflict.
My son loves to play his toy guitar (and his toy drums, and his toy keyboard, and his toy maracas, and with his toy microphone…). As someone who can hardly go more than a few hours without listening to his iPod (and who was a not-too-shabby
clarinet saxophone player in high school), I’m thrilled he likes music as much as he does. I genuinely hope he maintains his enthusiasm as he gets older, and I want him to actually learn to play real versions of some of those instruments.
On the other hand, despite the fact that my first thought when I see him playing his toy guitar is almost always:
KNOCK IT OFF WITH THAT RACKET AWESOME!, my second thought is often: shit, I hope he doesn’t grow up wanting to be a musician. Because that’s not a realistic way to make a living.
My son is still only two-years-old; so there are days that he’s more interested in running around naked and eating napkins than he is in chasing rock’n'roll dreams. Kindergarten is a few years off, and we’re a good decade-plus away from high school and college and all the stress that comes with helping him plan his future. He has a long way to go before he knows what he’s good at, or knows what he wants to do with his life (I still question this, at thirty-six!) let alone announce that he’s dropping out of school to try and land a record deal. But I hope he decides what he wants to be relatively quickly, and that when he does he has the focus to stay the course and carry through with it. In my experience, people who do that are some of the happiest people on earth. They are also rare.
It’s more likely that it will take some time, some exploration, and some false starts before his path is clear, and those years are often when it’s toughest for parents. It becomes a tightrope walk between trying to give your kids a happy childhood and support their caviar wishes and champagne dreams while simultaneously making sure they have the practical skills they need in order to have a shot at boring stability and basic contentment. And that is not an easy tightrope to walk. The things a teenager needs to do in order to succeed later are usually not the things a teenager wants to do now. And without the benefit of experience and perspective, it’s nearly impossible to convince a kid who knows everything (nothing) to listen to an out-of-touch (been through it all) parent.
The awareness of the power of later – that realization that your parents were right about the need to prepare for the future – doesn’t actually come into focus until it actually is later. Such is the curse of youth and the agita of parenting.
Have you seen the 1980s BMX-themed movie RAD? (Who am I kidding: OF COURSE YOU HAVE.) Cru Jones is desperate to sign up for Helltrack, but the qualification rounds take place on the SAME DAY as the SATs! And Adrian (his mom/Rocky’s wife), is NOT HAVING IT. Never mind that Cru can take the SATs in six months, his mom thinks he’s wasting his time on childish pursuits and wants him to focus on his future TODAY. He doesn’t understand why she doesn’t understand that BMX IS his future, and she doesn’t understand that it actually could be until he actually succeeds at it. (You owe it to yourself to watch this movie again, if only for the bicycle ballet scene.) Which is kind of bullshit. There’s a big difference between supporting your kid wholeheartedly and supporting your kid after it all works out. Ask Eminem.
But it’s not an easy balance for a parent to strike.
The challenge is in supporting your kids’ dreams while making sure they don’t get burned by the dreaming. But how do parents promote a back-up plan, which seems nothing but practical to them, when the very idea feels like betrayal to the kid? Because even if my son has talent at playing guitar, or throwing a football, or eating lots and lots of hot dogs, talent alone isn’t enough to become a rock star or a high draft pick or a competitive eater. And even if he has the drive and dedication to practice and commit to his goals, careers like that aren’t always dependent on such things. They often require luck, and a break or two. That’s what makes them impractical. That’s why you can’t major in Being the Next Keith Richards. And that’s why parents always want their kids to have other skills, in case plan A fails.
And then there’s the question of what the back-up plan might cost the kid. Perhaps the perceived betrayal will cause him to doubt himself; perhaps the time he takes away from chasing his dream to do his homework will handicap his ability to achieve it. But even with the potential for such negative consequences, parents need to hedge their kids’ bets, at least a little. It know it’s important to prepare my son for the future, but I desperately want to do so without him paying too high a price in the present, or having to sacrificing his dreams.
Having only recently come into the awareness that my parents pretty much were right, and having only recently come into possession of a child with whom I am sure to repeat this age-old cycle of wisdom vs. youth, I can still see both sides of the issue. Yes, I get excited when my son executes the Pete Townshend windmill on his little guitar, but I also foresee a day when I’ll be telling him to put down the goddamned guitar and finish his Mandarin homework. I just hope he finds a way to strike a healthy balance between appeasing me and staying true to himself, and that I find a way to let him.
Because I never did listen to my father when he told me to study computers and take Chinese, and now I’m sitting at home writing blog posts in the middle of the day. Apparently, he was pretty much right.
At the very least, he kind of predicted Firefly.