Each spring I look forward to an annual gathering of Heads of School from around the state for a two-day retreat, and this year was no exception. Having had an especially challenging year in terms of unexpected events – beginning with a fire at our neighbor school to the north, moving on to Hurricane Sandy, the tragic shooting in Newtown, and of course the marathon bombings last week – needless to say, the prospect of fellowship with colleagues I value greatly but see little, was eagerly anticipated. I expected conversations to revolve around disruptions to our communities caused by these events, and while we did ultimately get to these issues, I found myself returning to the first story I heard: a high school junior who lost the student government election ended up in treatment for depression. “He was so accustomed to achievement,” this head of school explained, that he had no resources for dealing with this level of disappointment.” As a staff and parent body we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of resilience this year, so it was no surprise that this opening conversation preoccupied a lot of my reflection time at the retreat.
Upon returning home Friday, I called my older son, who is nearing the end of his first year of college. As a mom, I knew right away from the tone of his voice that he was not in a great place, and that he sounded a little down or melancholic. Of course the story of the high school boy and his depression popped right into my mind! Making every effort to be subtle in my questioning, I probed about his mood, but Stone suggested it might be allergies or the beginning of a seasonal cold coming on. We chatted for a while about nothing in particular before saying that we’d see each other before we knew it, as the end of the term was just three weeks away. After hanging up, try as I might to avoid it, the worry kept creeping back into my consciousness.
The more I thought about Stone’s melancholy, I reflected back to my own 19th year on this planet, and the more comfortable I became with his state of mind. The year has not been a slam dunk for him. While he has done very well academically, he has struggled with being away from home and living in very close quarters with two other young men in their late teens. The road to college is paved with all kinds of stresses, as we all know or can imagine. In this modern world, a strange irony has set in – the journey of getting to college demands much more focus and attention than the experience of being in college. In talking it over with my husband, I realized that it is entirely normal for Stone to feel this way – he must be exhausted! Looking back at the year, it’s obvious that he has put in a steady effort worthy of true admiration. He has accomplished something I couldn’t have imagined was possible just a year ago as he posed for pictures at his senior prom. He has done a fine job and I am grateful that he is having the opportunity to conquer something that is personally difficult over a sustained period of time. I know that it is this experience more than any class he takes or internship he secures that will prepare him for true success in life.
So as much as I’d like to drive up to his dorm to cheer him up and let him know that his childhood home awaits him, I also know in my heart that this coming out on the other side of this personal challenge is the best strategy toward helping him find his true strength, stamina and grit.
As spring begins to finally shine upon us, my husband is preparing to run his 44th marathon. For weeks leading up to the race, he takes a series of long runs that always leave him feeling wasted and incapable of achieving the time he has set for his goal. But time and again it is clear that these training runs that might feel like “failure” are an absolute necessity for his ultimate success in the real race. How many people set out to train for a marathon only to give up when their training runs do not yield the feeling of achievement they had hoped? What is it about the human condition that we seek comfort and a smooth path at all times, and what’s worse – why is it that we as parents seek always to remove every obstacle from our child’s life in an effort to make their lives as stress-free as possible? Time and again we dupe ourslves into thinking that stress and discomfort can be avoided and that our children for some reason can be spared such realities and achieve anyway. No goal is reached without struggle, and struggle is the very ingredient that will help our children develop the skills of resilience needed for true accomplishment in life.
This experience reminded me that I need to keep my expectations as a parent in check. I do not want to deprive my children of their training runs so that one day they can experience the true accomplishment of crossing the finish line – not just once but many times over. I want them to be able to bounce back after losing a student council race, and be energized and equipped to go into the next election season, if this is where their heart is truly leading them. So if you find yourself feeling stressed over your child’s discomfort or difficulty with something – be it with homework, a peer, or his/her performance on the soccer field - rest assured that these are the ingredients for a successful and fulfilling future. Difficulty is different than unhappiness, and navigating our way through challenges makes the celebration of our achievements all the sweeter.