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It’s fall and a parent’s fancy turns to ...getting Junior into Yale...or Jane onto the soccer traveling team...or into the Advanced Algebra class...or you-name-it. Being a parent today is not just about providing a roof over Junior and Jane’s head, putting clothes on their backs and food in their tummies. It is about getting them in gear and on the challenging road to success.
As the school daze hits us, the relative relaxation of summer has given way to kiddomania, that new strain of parental anxiety that for the last two decades has gripped the nation. For years considered by foreign observers as “child-centered,” we Americans now seem to be child-obsessed. But our obsession is narrow. It is not a heightened concern for what educators and psychobabblists call the “whole child,” but for that very top part of the child, the part that could possibly [dare we dare!] get “my child into Harvard.”
The fact is that modern parents view their children as their property, as extensions of themselves. What their children are and, more importantly, what they become is a statement about the parents. In the same way their house is a public statement of who they are, so are their kids. Children can bring shame or laurels, the sweet envy or sympathy-soaked glances from friends and neighbors. If we do it right, they will bring us glory. They will enable us to slap on the family car a decal from one of those hot schools. Later on, perhaps, they will get that six-figure job at Goldman Sachs. Oh, the glory of it.
But first, we have to deal with these imperfect here-and-now kids. We have to get their minds off their friends, particularly their friends who clearly “aren’t going anywhere.” They have got to stop daydreaming, endlessly phoning, instant messaging, e-mailing, and watching all their TV shows. They have got to get serious about school. Jane completely blew off her summer reading list! Junior claims he can do all his homework in school! Starting now, they’ll do three hours of homework a night. They have got to get their grades up, up, up.
The real problem with Junior and Jane is that they haven’t yet bought into “the Dream.” However, if they are part of the 50-plus percent of American youth who go on to a four-year college, they will buy in. They may not like it, but they will. They may be dragged kicking and screaming into this dream, but they will finally submit and commit. The chilling fear of ending up as a leaf-raker or “you-want-fries-with-that” specialist will seep into their souls and they will surrender to the dream.
It isn’t just embracing the college dream, though. It is getting into a good college, a high value decal college, a college that will cause your friends and neighbors a quick intake of breath. However, if they are going to make it to an Ivy League school or a Catholic Ivy League-wannabee school, they will need “the Edge.” They not only need good grades, but something that distinguishes them from the herd. It is a well-known fact that it is impossible to become a real success without going to one of these handful of colleges.
Therefore, once our children lay down their arms (read: iPods) and start marching toward the dream, the parents’ next big job begins: helping our kid get the edge. Economists, policy makers and pundits have scared us with the chilling news that “they” are gaining on us and will soon overtake us. “They” will work for one-tenth of what our children will. “They” will work longer and harder and for breadcrumbs. As you are reading this, those jobs that should be your children’s are being outsourced to India, Bangladesh and Outer Mongolia. Only the crème de la crème are going to make it in the New Economy, and Junior and Jane aren’t even crème yet! They need that edge!
This part is the hard part because so many other parents have discovered the need for the edge. It is no longer enough for our children to be a candy striper or have organized a stickball league. Jane needs to design and launch her own Web site, focusing on some worthy cause, such as weaning Buddhist monks from their addiction to on-line poker or spending the summer working on a project to bring inexpensive air-conditioning to the natives of Papua New Guinea.
No doubt or joke about it. It is anxious work being a parent today. The world is getting tougher and clearly our job of launching children into this world is getting more difficult and more complex.
And yet...is this really what it means to be a good parent? Is the American dream the one we Catholics should be chasing? Is there a path that is simpler, if harder? Of course we want our children to be employable, useful citizens. But ultimately our children’s true success will be fulfilling the vocation God has called them to — married or single, as mothers or fathers, priests or religious. They, as we, have one overriding calling: to be saints. As parents, our first and foremost assignment is to bring Junior and Jane to Christ, to equip them to live as faithful Catholics in the modern world. The job of parents today is the same as it was during the time of the Apostles, during the Middle Ages, or at the start of the 20th century: to teach them to know, love and to serve God. Ultimately, this is the only standard of success that counts. This is the dream to which we must direct them. This is the true edge they need.