Friday, March 8, 2013

Loving Guidance

This is an essay I wrote in answer to a question as part of my La Leche League leadership application process. It is an example of how I practice what I preach in my 5 Steps to Creating a Healthy Family. It took me 17 years full of lots of mistakes to come to this. I hope you can learn from my experience. 

Question: From infancy on, children need loving guidance, which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings.  Describe how you practiced loving guidance. 

I love my son but I have come to understand he is not a self starter. I AM a self starter and this has created conflict between us at times. As we parent, our children's true natures are slowly revealed to us. My son is a dreamer, a reader, a talker. He is intelligent, opinionated, sensitive, polite, and helpful. He is not a risk taker and is slow to transition, whether that is from sleep to wakefulness or childhood to adulthood. One of the best books I read that helped me understand my wonderful son was, "Raising Your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Joe isn't spirited. He is in her spunky category. He naturally has a very regimented body schedule but his emotional needs are like those of a spirited child. Once I started using many of her suggestions for structure, our lives together got better. My other favorite book was "Your Child's Self-Esteem" by Corky Briggs. This book gave me approval for how I was already interacting with my son. Her advice to never speak to your child any less respectfully than you would interact with a co-worker became the underpinnings to our relationship. When I have strayed from this it has always lead to conflict and Joe quickly lets me know I'm being inappropriate.

Taking all this into account I approached Joe's senior year with some trepidation. I knew there was lots to think about, lots to get done, and big decisions coming. That meant Joe was also going to know all of that and would be very slow to start. Refer to above; not a risk taker, slow to transition.

Step one: I scout ahead. I read the book, "Colleges that Change Lives", by Loren Pope, loaned to me from another mother whose son was 2 years older. I loved this book all about colleges who can really make an impact and who engage students in a different way. I fell in love with a few of the schools and longed to be the one going away. I didn't mark any of these as the ones I liked. I wanted him to choose what he liked. 

Step two: I encouraged Joe to read the book. I waited. I talked to him about my excitement about the book and college. I waited. I eventually gave it as a family chore requirement. He reluctantly began reading but finished it very enthusiastic about going away to school.

Step three: I listened to Joe tell me why he had picked out his top school choices. I asked my husband Mike to read through the book and look at Joe's choices. He too became excited and did further research with Joe on-line.

You need to understand that we had been exposing Joe to the idea of college and different colleges since a very young age. We had been to Cal Poly's Open House numerous times, walked Cal Berkeley's campus many a time, toured UC Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz already and, learned about a special program at Santa Barbara for art students. But I had a hard time visualizing my son being happy and successful at any of these schools. There was something about their bigness, their impersonal quality, their regimented structure that I thought would not match well with Joe. So I was thrilled there were other schools to choose from.

Step four: Joe applied to 4 schools out of the book and 3 UCs. He was not interested in Cal Poly because he knew we would want him to live at home. This was not an easy process. I will forever be grateful to his AP English teacher for requiring this as part of their grade and supporting them in writing the college essays.

Step five: I found out that Whitman College was sending a rep to Santa Barbara to do interviews with possible students. Mike took the day off and the 3 of us went down. We made a nice family day of it.

Step six: Joe was accepted into several schools including 2 UCs, 3 across the country and Whitman in Washington. My heart ached at the thought of him going to school in Tennessee or Arkansas but I didn't tell him that. I hope he never knew. He was up for a special scholarship at the school in Arkansas so Mike and Joe flew back there to see it and go through a competition.

Step seven: Joe had a serious high school relationship. They were both seniors and trying to decide what to do. She wanted to go to UC Santa Barbara. Joe was leaning toward UC Santa Cruz. We went with her family to tour Santa Cruz again. It was very difficult for them. Joe asked me what he should do. I told him it was up to him but his dad and I had done some school apart and although it wasn't fun our relationship had survived. I made sure he knew it was up to him; his dad and I would be happy no matter where he chose to go to school.

Step eight: We visited Whitman together over spring break. I scouted ahead and made appointments for him to have a tour of the art department and talk to an art professor. As soon as we arrived I knew this school was a fit for Joe. The more we saw, the more people we spoke to, the more sure I became. I kept these thoughts to myself as much as possible. I was trying hard not to influence him but I'm sure Joe could tell I was excited. But Joe became quieter and quieter all day. When we got back to the motel he said he needed to call Marisa. I gave him some privacy. I didn't know what to think. 

On the way back home I asked him what he thought of the school and it came out in a slowly increasing flood; all the things he liked about it and how excited he was to get to go there. He had discussed it with Marisa the night before. She had told him he should go where he wanted to go not where she wanted to go. He was so happy.

Step nine: Joe and Marisa needed lots of time that last summer together. Although eventually they did end up breaking up I am glad to say she is still his friend and ours. I will always be grateful she was wise enough to tell him it was okay for him to choose to go away to school.

Step ten: I scouted ahead and found out they had a special wilderness program for incoming freshman before school started. I knew right away this would be a great way for Joe to start. He had been hiking and backpacking with us before he could walk. I knew this small group would be way easier for him to create friendships. My husband wasn't keen on spending the extra money. I asked Joe if he wanted to do it. He said yes and I advocated with his dad. The trip was a huge success and the best way Joe could have begun his Whitman career; feeling confident in his friendships, confident in his abilities and confident in his surroundings. He has continued to thrive at Whitman and I no longer have to scout ahead.

I know my son. I listen, watch and think. I use my intuition combined with my adult wisdom. If he has an idea I encourage him to act on it. If he is stuck I present an idea to him. I create a structure for that idea to flourish. I support him physically, financially and emotionally as he works on his idea. Sometimes I have to push because he is a dreamer, content to dream rather than do. I am thrilled to cheer his successes and to lend support if he falls. We talk about what he learns from both. I hope he knows he can always turn to me because I am his biggest fan. Joe and I have a very strong connection and I am learning just how far that connection can stretch as he roams farther afield and moves into adult relationships. I am content that intuition, respect, investigation and learning, communication and allowing freedom for him to move as far away from me as he is comfortable while always welcoming him back to my side has been a successful way to parent.