Choose Your Crazy Carefully

Dear World’s Okayest Mom,
How do you raise a kid who can get into a good college without driving yourself crazy for 18 years?
New to This

Dear New to This,
I have bad news: as a parent, ‘crazy’ is now a core part of your life. You will — at various times — feel crazy with love, with frustration, with fear, with overwhelm, with the desire to not find cracker boxes returned empty to the cupboard. Parenthood is an exercise in containing all that crazy within a manageable-sized box so you can move through your day without devolving to a quivering mass of blubber on your kitchen floor. So first, you need to get comfortable with crazy.

That said, you can manage the crazy (to some extent) by intentionally choosing which of the infinite topics you let torment you. Personally, I find it’s more satisfying to obsess only about things I have some control over. Under that criteria, “getting into a good college” is a bad choice. You have no control over your child’s brain design: whether they will be neurotypical, how easily traditional school subjects will come to them, or how interested they will be in topics that schools deem important. Besides, there is little correlation between longterm life happiness and where someone went to college — Harvard alumni are frequently miserable while community college dropouts are equally likely to enjoy meaningful and fulfilling lives. And then there’s the fact that submitting an application is like buying a lottery ticket; there are so many fantastic applicants that colleges can’t take them all, particularly now that many schools are working to dismantle the race and class privilege that higher education perpetuated for years.

So while college admission provides a straightforward, society-approved metric for ‘good parenting’, chances are your sweet little nugget will have another sixty to eighty years of life beyond college. Instead of focusing on a dubious and profoundly interim finish line, ask yourself this: When your child is 30, what kind of person do you want them to be?

Some parents have a ready answer to that question, but most of us have some blurry, half-articulated thoughts like, “Happy, or at least relatively satisfied,” or “No more maladjusted than your average bear,” or “Ohpleasegod not living at home.” But getting a bit more specific gives you guardrails for the twenty times a day you will ask yourself, “Do I really need to deal with this?” and “Which of these profoundly suboptimal options is going to be less painful for me?”

For example, if a goal for your child is self-sufficiency (e.g. “not living at home”), you’ll let them pick out their own (painfully mismatched) clothes for preschool, encourage them to order their own food (even though it takes FOREVER), and guide them to make requests of teachers and coaches themselves (despite the awkwardness). If your goal is compassion, you’ll annoy them at every opportunity by asking, “What do you think that character/person is feeling? What do you think might help them?”

My husband and I started with the list below, a bottle of wine and takeout pad thai when my oldest was three. Then we posted our scribbled selections on the fridge to remind ourselves which direction we should err when making a judgment call (where it stayed until our kids were old enough to be embarrassed by it when guests came over).

Compassionate
Self-sufficient
Resilient
Able to entertain themselves
Generous
Considerate
Curious
Able to weigh pros and cons
Able to see other points of view
Trustworthy

Self-directed
Genuine
Open-minded
Persevering
Adventurous
Flexible
Grateful
Pleasant
Positive
Ambitious
Enterprising
Critical-thinking
Forgiving

Imaginative
Industrious

Independent
Resistant to peer pressure
Self-aware
Logical
Modest
Organized
Patient
Perceptive
Responsible

The cool thing is that each of these attributes have infinite ways of being expressed. A doctor could be compassionate, and so could an humanitarian aid worker, a preschool teacher, or a helpdesk technician at a cable company. Your job is to cultivate the attribute; theirs is to choose how to express it. Like me, you might be tempted to put a little check mark next to every word: “Yep. Yes. That too. Uh-huh. Check.” Don’t. Three to five core attributes is probably manageable. And put some of the attributes your little one already shines at on your list too, to make your job (and theirs) easier.

Know also that whatever you choose, it will come back to bite you. Like when our daughter — raised with the fridge-posted adjectives independent and adventurous — announced a plan to tour colleges on the opposite coast, and informed us she didn’t need us to accompany her. (So… success?)

Your job, New to This, is to re-frame what you’re willing to “drive yourself crazy” for. And then to enjoy watching your bear cub’s personality start to emerge, knowing you’ve chosen a manageable goal to guide you through the messy, noisy, repetitive daily tasks of being a parent. And then someday — painfully far in the future on some days — enjoy that you’ve raised a functional adult.

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