College Bound!

by Joanie Butman

We are driving my daughter to college this week and have been knee-deep in preparations for weeks. Our “dining hall” has been transformed into a staging area, but whatever we’ve done seems minor compared to the extraordinary lengths some parents go to in this process. As far as I’m concerned, it borders on insanity. My generation of parents has lost its mind when it comes to their offspring. Their children have become extensions of themselves rather than budding individuals. I read about one parent who hid behind a bush to watch student orientation through binoculars and others who stalk the roommates on Facebook. Why do they now have orientation for parents? What is all the hoopla about? Kids have been going off to college for years, and somehow they all survived – as did their parents. My generation flourished because they didn’t have someone micromanaging every detail of their life. And our parents flourished because they were free to pursue their own lives. They didn’t have to seek counseling when we left. They were too busy doing all those things they didn’t have time for when we were home. Does this mean they loved us any less? Did they not think we were special? Not at all. They just had a healthier, more balanced approach to parenting. Did we stumble and make mistakes? Of course, which is how we matured to become competent, contributing members of society – at least most of us. It wasn’t any easier for them to watch us struggle, and they were always ready to step in if necessary; but that only happened in extreme instances. Otherwise, they left us to our own devices. Benign neglect proved to be an effective parenting technique. 

As parents our jobs are never done, but they change dramatically. It is the natural order of things. I use to tell my kids when they were young, “No more growing up. I love you just the way you are.” Which, of course, is just as true today as it was then – though I don’t remember using that line much during the teenage years. I’ve been teaching my kids whatever little I know for the past 18 years – probably 16 since in reality, they stopped listening a couple of years ago when they decided I didn’t actually know anything! I did my best to train skills and impart values that hopefully will help them become capable adults, but letting go is the only way for them to put whatever they’ve absorbed into practice and make it their own. Will every choice they make be a wise one? No more or less than ours were, but that’s part of growing up. How they handle the bad choices will probably teach the most valuable lessons. I like to think I am sending my daughter off ready, but you can’t teach life. It just has to be lived.

During all these preparations, I thought about David McCullough’s controversial commencement speech, You Are Not Special.  Kudos to him for being the voice of reason in a world where everyone seems to believe their child is a prodigy. Ironically, ‘prodigy’ is the title my son’s driving instructor recently bestowed upon him, which Doug was quick to adopt. I don’t know what that man was thinking because I’m the one driving with Doug, and he is definitely no prodigy; AND more confidence is the last thing a 16-yr-old boy needs behind the wheel.

I agree with many but not all of McCullough’s comments. Ugly Baby Syndrome* is certainly rampant amongst my generation of parents. Our children are definitely not special – yet. College is a journey of discovery. It is the process of learning exactly what makes you special. We all have a unique S.H.A.P.E.  (spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experiences), a piece of the humanity puzzle that only you can fill. And it’s a lifetime curriculum and commitment as your S.H.A.P.E. is constantly evolving.

Most kids spend their middle and high school years desperately trying NOT to be different. Then they start applying to colleges where they are challenged to prove what it is that MAKES them different. Now that they are finally freed from childhood stereotypes, the future is pregnant with promise and possibility. No wonder so many of them are giddy with nerves, excitement, and trepidation. They are about to come face-to-face with the scary question, “Who am I?” and will then spend the rest of their lives figuring out the answer – inventing and reinventing themselves many times over. They are like race horses in the paddock jittery with excitement to start the race for which they’ve spent the past 18 years training – life.

As McCullough duly asserts, most parents think their children are special. And they are – to them. This summer I had the pleasure of spending some time with my parents. I fixed my Dad a drink one night, then asked if he liked it. He responded, “There isn’t anything you can do that I wouldn’t like.” And he meant it. My father has the wonderful facility of remembering only good things. He lost ten years of rebellion I wish I could forget. When I am with my parents, I do feel special. I think it is their greatest gift to me because when you have that foundation, you can go into the world confident that no matter what happens, there is someone who loves you unconditionally, who will always be in your corner, who will celebrate your successes and mourn your losses. Someone whose love is based simply on your birth, not on your abilities and accomplishments or lack thereof. There is a certain level of security in that knowledge that gives you the assurance to try new things without fear of failure. With that said, I would never expect the rest of the world to share my parents’ sentiments and neither would they. That’s the difference between my generation and the one McCullough was addressing.

You can’t pick your parents, and I realize everyone is not blessed with parents who make them feel special. Nevertheless, there is one parent we can choose: God. Unlike human parents, He will never disappoint. When your entire being is grounded on the foundation of His unconditional love, you can go into the world confident He created you to be special with a unique S.H.A.P.E. Once you understand that, you won’t need anyone telling you how special you are, you won’t need approval, accolades or trophies. Your self-worth will be based on the unfailing nature of God’s love. You will feel it in the depth of your soul. That doesn’t guarantee that others will value what makes you special, but never let that detract from your purpose or your dreams. As I wrote in my daughter’s yearbook, “Just be yourself. No one else knows how to do it!”

 David McCullough concludes his speech with this thought: “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.” He was promoting selflessness, an admirable trait; but I think he is missing the key to altruism. To me the sweetest joys of life come from understanding just how special you are in God’s eyes, discovering and developing the gifts He’s given you that make you unique, then choosing to use them for the benefit of others. God has the ability to make everyone feel like His favorite, and when you are anchored and motivated by His love, selflessness becomes second nature and service to others becomes a way of life not an obligation to be fulfilled.

We are all special in His eyes simply because we are His children. Personally, I choose to embrace that truth, celebrate it and live it because at the commencement of my life, it will be my S.H.A.P.E people talk about, not my resume – not necessarily how special I was but how special I made others feel.

My daughter might prefer a new car, but this is the song I am sending her off with on Wednesday.

*Ugly Baby Syndrome: "While all babies are considered to be beautiful to their parents who are biologically predisposed to such a belief, the general populace may not find each and every baby to be quite so gorgeous as the besotted parents seem to believe."