Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Seeds and Harvests

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Jan 18, 2013 8:01 AM

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant." (Robert Louis Stevenson)

When I was a freshman in college, I had a choir director who demanded loyalty and dedication. He made it clear from the outset that missed rehearsals would not be tolerated and that all members were expected to be at rehearsal and ready to work at the appointed time. In short, we were to give the same respect and commitment to this optional extracurricular that we gave to the classes for which we were receiving credit.

In retrospect, these expectations were reasonable. This was, after all, a select group, accessed only by audition. But since it was also a group of college students unused to such high standards, the group became even more select after the first week or two, as people unwilling to comply with Chris' standards and guidelines dropped out. Most were already in the Chorale, a much larger group where each individual voice mattered slightly less, and they didn't need the hassles of all these rules and regulations, let alone Chris' slightly unorthodox warm-ups, which included trying to pick a note (A4, as I recall) out of the air. 

But most of us stuck it out. As a result, I learned more about musicianship and commitment to a group from Chris than I had learned from any other teacher to that point. The group sounded good, too, because those of us who made the decision to stay did so knowing how hard we'd be working, and it wasn't long before we saw that the payoff made the effort worthwhile.

Years later, I worked with a theatre director whose way of doing things was quite similar to Chris'. At first, he intimidated me - the rehearsal process is fraught with imperfections, and the more nervous I was, the more mistakes I made, making me constantly fearful that he'd be sorry he'd cast me. But, as with Chapel Choir in college, the work paid off and the end result was a production we could be proud of - one that often drew packed houses. Both of these men taught me not to be satisfied with mediocrity, and as a result, I learned as much from them about commitment and work ethic as I did about music and theatre. 

As parents, these are lessons we need to teach our kids. It was only after I became a parent, however, that I realized it's as difficult to teach these lessons as it is to learn them. Telling your kids they have to honor their commitments is the easy part. Making them do it when more interesting things beckon is another matter entirely.

There are legitimate reasons for missing a rehearsal or practice, illness and injury topping the list. One high school basketball coach I know tells her players that family comes first, school comes second and basketball, though important (especially in-season) comes third. This is a fantastic way to introduce busy high school students to the concept of setting priorities and sticking to them. "I have homework" isn't an excuse, but when necessary, "I'm drowning in homework" is, in part because allowing academics to slip will result in athletic ineligibility.

Tempting as it is, though, especially on a teenager's priority list, "I got a better offer" is not a legitimate excuse. Parents who want to be friends with their children often help them circumvent the system, claiming illness or a family commitment so their child - their friend - can do the thing they want to do. If you don't mind the dishonesty inherent in this plan, it's a great way to keep the peace with your child. 

But if you want to teach your children to set priorities for the long haul, part of making that lesson stick is reiterating the guidelines and expecting your child to follow them, rather than bailing them out to keep the peace.

This all makes perfect sense until you have a hostile teenager on your hands.

Egocentric by nature, teenagers can rationalize with the best of them when confronted with the temptation of an alluring social engagement. It's difficult to hold your ground when you know your decision is making your child unhappy, and reminding yourself that you're more concerned with the big picture than the immediate circumstance is little consolation when your child refuses to speak to you. It helps a lot when other adults - most notably, the parents of your child's peers - hold their children to these same standards, but in the heat of the moment, when you find yourself alone with an angry or morose teenager, it's easy to wonder if the big picture is really such a big deal after all.  

In the heat of the moment, what teenagers often fail to grasp is the concept that others are depending on them. While they understand this most of the time, that awareness dissipates when they're confronted with a temptation that entices them into believing that just this one time won't make a difference.

Usually, it won't. But sometimes it does. Only the combination of maturity and experience can teach us that for a team effort to become a team success, every member must participate. And teenagers just don't have the maturity or the experience to consistently look temptation in the face and choose to live up to a less exciting commitment instead. That's what they need us for.

Eventually, my daughter (she of the morose silence) started speaking to me again, but I'm not naive enough to believe this is over. There will be other better offers, and I will have to once again stand my ground, look temptation in the face and choose to live up to the commitment of being my daughter's parent and not her friend, because it's my job to teach her to honor her commitments. If no one had taught me those lessons before college, I wouldn't have stuck it out in choir or in those shows at the theatre, and I'd have missed out on not just on the music and the performances, but on friendships I have kept to this day.

Though I lost track of Chris, my choir director, years ago, I was able to reconnect with my former theatre director through the magic of Facebook. And you know what? I thanked him. I told him that although perhaps I hadn't been appreciative at the time (long beyond my teens, I might add), I now understood that all he'd wanted was to make every show the best it could be.

In the end, the combination of experience, hindsight and maturity had taught me that the result was worth the sweat, tears and exhaustion that were part of the process, and that these things were no match for the exhilaration of an exceptional opening night or a capella performance. This work ethic has carried over into my professional and avocational lives, and while I sometimes veer dangerously close to perfectionism, I prefer that to shoddy work and missed commitments.

And if I'm raising a daughter who understands that - and most days, I believe I am - then I will be able to be proud of my parenting.

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