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teaching my son
and learning from him
by katherine l (aka clevertitania) (@CleverTitania)

The other day I made a joke on Twitter, about my frustration with people who have drive, ambition, and a will to get things done. Most of my followers understand that joke - they’ve heard similar things from me before - and many of them are like me in their frustration. One individual took issue with it, being that he is one of those driven people. I tried to laugh off his comment, because I didn’t want to start another of those arguments (ironically another argument ended any conversation with him a couple days later).

The thing is; it’s not that I actually dislike those people. I do admire them and their ability to do instead of dream. What I dislike is how those people look at the rest of us. Many people born with that drive look down their raised noses at those of us born without such motivations, and it makes me more than a little agitated. Now I have encountered others who understand how fortunate they were to be bred for creation and completion; unique individuals that grasp that not everyone’s brain works like theirs does, and how lucky they were to be born as they are. But the others don’t get it. It’s kind of like the difference between those who can see images in their mind and those that can’t; the ones who can just assume that the rest of us are somehow imagining that we lack the ability.

This has been even more on my mind as I try to help my son make choices about his own future. He’s expressed a desire, in the past, to be a scientist specializing in things like jet propulsion. Yes, as a 14 year old he wants to invent the coolest things he can imagine.

And I want to encourage this behavior in him, I really do. But I also have to look at what he can accomplish in comparison to what he wants to accomplish. I have to look at the fact that he has a really difficult time making himself sit down and do his homework. I have to look at how hard it is for him to just pay attention in class, much less excel in a higher education field. It’s not just that he’s ADHD-Pi, though that feeds a large part of it. But the motivational issues go even further than that, and I have to balance encouraging him to follow his dreams with leading him to dreams he is capable of accomplishing.

He and I had a conversation where I expressed this just a couple of days ago, as he beat himself up for deciding against going to the public swimming pool because it was ridiculously packed when we got there. He wants to go out more, do more things outside of the house, but he also feels better just doing his own thing at home. This is something else I understand very well. Crowds drain me, just like they do him. Too many people - too much sensory input - is like an energy sucking parasite on our brains.

So while I tried to comfort him in his self-loathing, I ended up explaining why I have pushed him more to explore his music than his science aptitude; because I believe his music is what he’s more capable of following through on. I was surprised to find that he agreed with me, and had already put aside his dreams of being a renowned scientist in favor of pursing his trumpet and other musical talents. I was more relieved than I can express.

It’s hard; trying to be a good parent that encourages your child, and trying to be a realistic parent that understands you child’s limitations. It’s also hard watching your child get angry at himself for those limitations, and knowing that you feel that same sense of self-frustration. It’s made me realize that the only way I can help him is by trying to go easier on myself, as difficult as that is.

So I ordered a book for he and I to read called “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!” It’s about living as an adult with ADHD. I’m actually going to pick it up today, but I suddenly felt like putting my thoughts on the subject down before I read it, hoping that examining the before and after will give me some idea if the book can really help us both.

In some ways, it’s a curse living in the US with the shortcomings, because of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that helped found our society. That mentality suggests that anyone can accomplish anything if they just put their mind to it. Of course, it also assumes that “putting your mind to it” is the simple part of that sentence.

The reality is very different. If you have a mind that prefers to go off on its own, even when you struggle hard to keep it focused, deciding to do something and accomplishing it are two very different things.
So I’ve realized that it’s time to end the self-loathing cycle in our family. I’ve had several conversations with my son lately, trying to help him understand that being who he is isn’t something he should berate himself for. Then I look at my own self-loathing, at my own self-berating, and I realize that I have to try my best to lead by example.

But it's hard to break habits that are bred into you from early childhood. In school teachers say, "He's just not living up to his potential" because he is so intelligent and creative. I cringe when I read those words, because they were littered across my own report cards for years. But I realized recently that those teachers, well meaning as they are, just don't get it. I'm guessing it's mostly the driven, ambitious types that go into the teaching field.

Potential isn’t just what you are intellectually capable of. It’s also what you are psychologically capable of. When I went to college, with a one year old at home, I knew I had to go into it with realistic expectations. I knew that, if I tried to work full time and go to school full time I would fail. There was just no way I wouldn’t feel overloaded and eventually let my schoolwork fall by the side because it wasn’t paying the bills and buying the diapers. I had to give myself some slack and work within my limitations.

So I figured out a way to focus mostly on school and work part time. And I did ok, until working part time started pulling us into a financial downward spiral. I ended up having to give up school and stick to working full time, which I’ve had to keep doing in the dozen or so years since.

And I have to encourage my son to look at his own limitations or risk missing out on finding any kind of career that makes him happy and fulfilled. I have to teach him to learn from my mistakes, and not set goals that he’s incapable of accomplishing. Sure, he’s smart enough to be a ‘rocket scientist’, but that doesn’t mean he’s capable of reaching that goal.

But he is a wonderful musician, and his music is something he enjoys enough to really focus his time and attention on. So I get to be the weird mom who’d rather her child said he was joining a band than applying to MIT.

Fortunately for me, he’s at an age where he’s also starting to put these things together for himself. Now it’s about helping him accept that reality without being so hard on himself for it. And it’s also about not being so hard on me, for my own limitations and helping him to recognize his. I also hope this will help him be a better - and less self flagellating - parent, when the time comes.


When I grow up, I want to be; whoever Joss Whedon wants to be, when he grows up. I am a writer because it's the first thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning; aside from eating and using the lavatory of course. My work includes screenplays, short stories, film/TV/music reviews and socio-political commentary. The last one is a fancy way of saying I like to shoot my mouth off on many topics. I excel at using $1.50 words. They gone up, thanks to inflation. Isn't our economy awesome?

more about katherine l (aka clevertitania)


talking to myself
a fictitious conversation with my fictitious future boyfriend
by katherine l (aka clevertitania)
topic: general
published: 6.19.11

if it's only skin deep
why should i want to be beautiful?
by katherine l (aka clevertitania)
topic: general
published: 6.27.11


william carr
7.30.10 @ 10:51p

Thank you for this reflection.
Re: the "'bootstraps' mentality" and the founding of our society: Society as it has become? You're probably right. Social foundations of the US? That's a myth. America's settlers had "drive," but not at the expense of their neighbors--their religious backgrounds restrained them. The country's founders were people of ideas more than science--though science wasn't absent from Jefferson and Franklin.

katherine (aka clevertitania)
7.31.10 @ 12:45a

Point taken. In fact, I wonder if the whole bootstraps thing didn't start more with moving into the west and all that gold rush/railroad/settler stuff. But it's definitely become a mantra in the US now.

I think we just need to skip the next election and clone Jefferson. Of course there'd be a term limit argument from someone. :)

william carr
8.1.10 @ 1:54p

Is it a present "mantra"? We may have competing mantras, then: one is uttered by those who adhere to the "bootstraps" idea--you've got to make your own way--the other by those who reckon that it's the government's responsibility to guarantee happiness (and not just its pursuit). And it's hard to say who's shouting loudest.
Clone Jefferson? Which one, that is, Jefferson according to whose reading? Which would appall him more: government without self-restraint, or people without self-restraint?

katherine (aka clevertitania)
8.1.10 @ 2:28p

Funny you say that. I think that's the 'bootstrap' people pushing both mantras. For instance, the Tea Party thinks that all those on unemployment want to get paid not to work? Yet they seem to forget these people have worked, for years most of them. In fact, you can't get unemployment unless you've had a job, and you get maybe half of what you were making before you lost your job. But these are deadbeats looking for a free ride right? I don't see anyone expecting the US to guarantee anything.

william carr
8.1.10 @ 10:57p

I've never been very good at parties.
It's my fault: We've gotten away from the most important matter in your essay, the parenting of your son. Probably more serious than the notion that "you can be anything you want to be" is the inclination of American culture to insist that there are certain "things" that everyone should want to be, and none of them tends to have anything to do with being, as Wendell Berry has put it, "a good citizen," a good member of a community.

katherine (aka clevertitania)
8.1.10 @ 11:19p

I agree, that's also an issue people don't think about. But I think that's something you teach children more by example than lecture. I try to know what's happening, both in my immediate world and beyond my doorstep, and to speak out when I think things are being done wrong. I try to treat everyone with respect, as long as they extend me the same. And I believe that's translated to the way my son views his place in the world.

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