A long time ago, my great-aunt used to shake her shaky fist and tell me, “You must KILL her. You must fight and work hard and next time you must KILL her. She is nothing. She is from a family of pigs. She must not beat you again.” Why? Because I had placed second in class instead of first, and some other girl had gotten better marks than me in school examinations. My great-aunt wasnt the only one driving us kids on the road to perfection. If we came first in three subjects at school, our parents wanted to know why we didn’t top the other two as well? If we didnt win at sports then our family never came back to watch us again. And we all knew that activities like music, painting, art, and etc were not REAL subjects at school…they were not suitable academic pursuits on the road to becoming doctors, lawyers, Nobel-Prize winning scientists or shockingly intelligent Professors. No, music and drawing and dancing and even sports were for those other people who weren’t smart enough to be doctors, lawyers, Nobel Prize winning scientists and so forth.
It was rather tiring to be perfectionists and academic over-achievers all the time…
I resolved long ago to do things a little differently with my Fab5. I decided I was going be that ever-supportive and encouraging parent who would be happy with you even if you weren’t the bestest, most brightest lightbulb on the planet. I wasn’t going to only emphasize acadamics. I would let my kids know that art and music and dancing and hell yeah, even sports were worthy of their time and effort.
So how am I doing? I cheer them on at every game – even when they’re complete losers. I tell them ‘the most important thing is having fun! Trying new activities…making new friends…and just trying your best!’ (Said with the most cheerful of voices and the most smiley of faces.) Back in the day, I would drive Big Son to every soccer game and baseball practise – just so I could watch him be a spare. And clap loudly when he missed the ball. Time and time again. I encourage these children to always try new sports, new activities…and then I profess my love for them even when they are absolutely dreadful artists, dancers, readers, mathematicians, or geographers. Its not easy to find that balance though. Because I still want them to be motivated and have goals and direction and not waste their potential and talents…I mean its all very well to LOVE them but heck, I want them to get educated and get good jobs –
and support their parents like any other self-respecting Samoan child…
Sometimes I slip up and regress to my Perfectionist Parent Persona. Like the time that Big Son DIDN’T get top marks for English. “What in hell were you doing all year?! What do you mean you dont know? Whatever gave you the idea that SECOND in English was an acceptable achievement for MY son?! Hello?! I’m an English teacher and a writer of books in English. I spend thousands on books for you kids to read. I read Keats and Wordsworth to you when you were in the uterus, dammnit! I would put earphones on my gigantic stomach so you could listen to Mozart and grow genius brain cells in there… If you’re not kicking butt at school then you’re obviously not trying hard enough and I will not have an English language loser for a son damnit!” Yes, Big Son’s father had to step in and remind me that we are NOT psycho perfectionist parents.
Which is why I am so befuddled by my Big Daughter. Who is absolutely bereft. Because ( drum roll please, dramatic pause) “I’M FAILING JUGGLING IN P.E”
Huh? Excuse me? Yes, you heard me right. The fourteen year old is having an emotional breakdown because she is not excelling at the juggling unit in her Physical Education class at school. I said, nicely – “It’s alright. As long as you’re trying, as long as you’re having fun, thats what matters!” (Said with the most cheerful of faces and the most smiley of faces.)
She snarled. “No, its not alright. I want to be the best at EVERYTHING I do. I don’t want to fail at anything.I’ve been practising and practising and Im still not mastering it.”
I said, still nicely. “We can’t excel at everything. What we can do is treasure every experience and learn from it.”
She disagreed. “No, what matters is to be the best. All the time. I want to have a perfect report card. My friend Elizabeth is going to get better grades then me.”
I gave up being nice and cheerful. I gave it to her straight. “Listen here, nobody gives a stuff about juggling. Are you planning on joining a circus when you grow up? Is that your life goal? Hell no. It better not be. We’re not working our butts off so you can study juggling. We didn’t move here to New Zealand so you could spend hours practising throwing balls in the air, you hear me? Is juggling going to get you a scholarship to university? Is it going to make you a better doctor or lawyer? Are you going to win a Nobel Prize with bloody useless JUGGLING?! Stop wasting your time on such stupid things.” And then I got carried away “Go study the subjects that matter. And study really hard so you can KILL that girl Elizabeth, you hear me?!”
My Great-Aunt would be proud.