My childhood memories include some minor competitive elements'spelling bees, a science fair and, of course, sports. Getting good grades in school was important mostly because my parents told me so. But the extracurricular competitions were, at least for me, mostly about fun; school was just something to get through. I never had the sense from my parents, teachers or peers that how children performed in school determined the trajectory of our lives. I never thought about playing junior high football or high school tennis to become a professional athlete or winning the science fair with a Nobel Prize-worthy demonstration so that I could get into an Ivy League school.
Perhaps it was because I grew up in a very small town. Perhaps it was that my parents didn’t want to “push” me because my father was reacting to his East-Coast, prep-school upbringing. Perhaps it was because I was just too stupid and naÃ¯ve to recognize that everyone around me was competing for their future while I wandered around oblivious to life.
Now, with my boys, I think about the effects of the intense competition I see every day. Parents worry about which kindergarten they can get their 5-year-olds into based on the placement rates in good elementary schools.
I don’t want to push my kids, at least not beyond them doing their best at whatever they do. I don’t want to make them study for all the advanced classes they could possibly take. I don’t want them to think they must practice their sports hours every day, unless sport is really their passion.
I want them to enjoy being kids. They only get to do it once.
But every fall, I get an issue of The Atlantic magazine describing in terrible detail the intense competition to get into good colleges and the difference between income and quality of life based on college graduation. Every week, I read about the intensity of the competition in the global market with formerly ThirdWorld countries putting out world-beating college grads in numbers that remind me of the old saying that “demography is destiny.
And every day, I note the difference between what I do for a living, the life I lead and the limited choices available to the vast majority of many others.
I’ve been lucky in getting where I am. Even though I’ve never worked hard at anything to prepare for my life, I was born with good genetic material. Many other good opportunities have simply fallen to me almost from the sky or been given to me by friends.
But is that what I should be counting on for my boys’ futures? Am I condemning them to flipping burgers or being some minor functionary in a large corporation because I don’t make them stay up every night studying Mandarin Chinese or theoretical physics?
At least for now, the best course is to let children be children. If they aren’t the best players on the field or if they don’t get straight A’s, I can still sleep at night. Enough doors are still open to Cole and Brice that I won’t worry about how they will turn out when they get older.
But when will the doors close? And will I know it or have a clue about it before they slam shut?
Bruce Baird is an attorney and freelance writer in Salt Lake City.