Navigating the Uncharted Path by Bill Bussey, Provost
About six months after my wife Nan and I moved into our first home, we were held hostage by a massive blizzard. At that time we hadn’t really gotten to know the couple across the street, but I could see that he had just bought a truck with a plow to earn a little extra cash. I couldn’t believe my good luck when my neighbor told me that if I got my cars out of the driveway, he’d plow it. I pulled the cars out and, in five minutes, he took care of it. He wouldn’t take any money; said it was no big deal. Excited and energized by my good fortune, I waved thanks, backed out of my driveway and nailed the rear of his parked truck. As we stood staring at the damage done, I stammered out an apology and said I’d take care of it. I then waited for him to explode. Without missing a beat, he shrugged, “Ah, forget it. It’s just a truck.” And with a pat on my shoulder, he said nothing more and disappeared back into his house.
I have often felt the true measure of any individual is how they respond when bad fortune comes to visit. In that regard, this guy set the bar.
People have different reasons for sending their children to an independent school like Nobles, but how we as parents, choose to navigate our children when things go awry has, in my mind, a far more lasting and profound impact on this community than all the college acceptances stacked together. At critical junctures we are capable of being our own worst enemy. The “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” question for most parents is: how much involvement is too much? With this in mind, I hope you will find what follows of some use.
You must outlast your child. As you get older and lose a little of your fastball, they grow stronger, as if almost feeding off your demise. They are energized by the sheer fact that you are in the other room snoring as they are typing away on Facebook well past two in the morning. They own the night. They will wear you down about how late to stay out and with whom, berate you when you want to call the parents of the child hosting the party, push the buttons that make you say something instantly regrettable and a month later throw it back at you, and remind you time and again that you “don’t own them.” They will, at any given moment and for no apparent reason, find fault with the following: you, Nobles and everybody. Stay the course. Be the parent not the friend. Know that despite what they say and do, they love and need you more than anything else in the world. Above all, be ready for those important conversations that they seem to quietly initiate just as the house catches fire or the cat is giving birth. On those occasions, you must drop everything and just listen or you will blow your chance. They often are not seeking advice. They need you to just listen.
It is important that your child owns his/her setbacks. I cannot stress just how important this one is in the grand scheme of things. Kids need to face their setbacks without demonizing others or making face-saving excuses. Nobles is as solid a place as any that I have ever known for a kid to experience setbacks or make mistakes. The sooner they learn to face the facts, accept responsibility, and most importantly, get to the heart of why things played out the way they did, the better. By learning to advocate for themselves (not to be confused with self-promotion or currying favor), students learn not only valuable social skills but also how to build genuine, demystifying relationships with the intimidating adult world. The students who can find the self-confidence to engage adults in conversations, employing the same honest attitude and tone that they use with their friends, are often viewed among their peers as the most respected and trusted students in the community. If your child finds it difficult to advocate for him/herself for whatever reasons, reach out to the advisor for a little help.
Don’t let them put all their eggs in one basket. The one regret that most graduates acknowledge is that they did not participate in a play or musical. They also wish that they could have gotten to know certain teachers and some of their classmates better. Yet, one could argue that the one understandable misstep that many kids make, even more pronounced these days in the era of specialization, is that they often allow what they believe to be their area of expertise and/or a certain group of kids to define them far past the expiration date. Once it becomes clear that they may not make the J.V. squad or bring home high marks, many students understandably struggle with their own identity and where they fit in. Friendships can turn on a dime, too, and arguably there is nothing more wrenching than sensing that your child has had a falling out or does not seem to be connecting with peers. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone at the school if this becomes a growing concern, but know that there are limitations and real pitfalls with social engineering. Know, too, that the shame and anxiety that kids feel at falling short in any area that also causes you to be anxious often results with two things taking place, neither one ideal. They will shut you out in large measure to spare themselves the agony of seeing your disappointment or they will dish the inside scoop, often omitting or adding key elements, about everything and everybody in order to assuage you that things could be worse. That’s not bonding; that’s binding. You need to be patient and allow your children the time and room to find their way. The wider your children’s experience at this School and the more opportunities that they seize to “play well with others”, from clubs to Community Service to Ultimate Frisbee, the greater likelihood they will evolve into the confident and empathetic adults that they were meant to be.
Plan for the unexpected. Your child is going to make mistakes and some of them may test you in ways that will rattle the family dynamic. Do you have a plan if your child repeatedly lies to you, swipes a bottle from the liquor cabinet, or plagiarizes a school assignment? Before you initiate the conversation in which all the cards are laid on the table, make sure that you know exactly what you are going to say, what actions will follow, and what is the endgame. If the School is involved, let’s agree at the outset to be partners: we both want what is best for your child.
For me, as a kid, the most indelible, life-changing moments came out of nowhere, when my own actions had painted me into a corner, leaving me staring at someone who had a firm grip on all the facts and who had every right to tighten that grip and leave me deservedly breathless. But the ones who made a difference, the folks I thought about years later, were the ones who at that moment chose to loosen their grip, and with a few well-chosen words figuratively throw an arm around my shoulder. And then they let go.
By managing our own expectations and taking a long view of things, we are better able to give our kids the breathing room that will allow them to maintain their dignity as they navigate the thousand paper cuts that come with being a teenager. When they are at their worst—that is when we must love them the most.