Our guests arrived: coiffed, stubble shaved, nails polished. No one was wearing sweatpants. Without children in backpacks and diaper bags as appendages, our friends were unrecognizable to us. Our toddlers usually required supervision that prevented us from engaging in adult conversation, but now we had to make small talk at a grown up party.
To break the ice, someone asked, "How many of you were valedictorians of your high school class?" As hosts, my husband and I were regretting that we had not planned the distraction of party games, but our guests responded to the question graciously. Four hands were raised. "Salutatorians? Top 10 in your class?" About half the hands went up. "Top ten percent?" and all the hands were up. My husband's high school did not specify a valedictorian, but since he placed first in his country's comprehensive final high school exam, he qualified (although we like to remind him he comes from a very small country the size of Connecticut).
Nervous laughter rippled through the party. We were all academic stars, our toddlers were already exhibiting obvious signs of genius, and someday they would all certainly be deserving of that valedictorian title, but how could they all be number one?
My husband and I are grateful that we were forced to confront the fact early in parenting that it is not a given that our kids will receive the academic accolades we did. The competition is significantly stiffer, and being number one cannot and should not be what it is all about for them. Constantly comparing themselves to others will lead to certain misery in this environment of high achievers in all areas, including academics, athletics, and the arts. But, our kids can be grateful for how interesting and stimulating it is to grow up around intelligent and accomplished people, and they can work hard, and honor their own gifts.
Most importantly, as author Alfie Kohn states in his book, "Unconditional Parenting", we can love our children "as they are, and for who they are". He explains, "When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short". We celebrate their successes, but not let the successes define them, nor ourselves as parents. For my husband, this unconditional parenting seems to come easily. I suspect having lived through a civil war gives him a useful perspective.
A few weeks before his high school graduation, our son thought he was going to receive a poor grade and his college acceptance would be rescinded. It took more self- control than I thought I had to not point out his idiocy in allowing this to happen, and instead, acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and offer our support in helping him figure out what to do. Supporting my son through this was one of my proudest parenting moments. One of my worst parenting moments was berating the same son a few years later by phone on a spring morning at 7 am. He was involved in his university's Occupy Movement. "How are you going to get the grades to be accepted to law school if you are skipping classes, staying up all night protesting and getting arrested? How can you just throw away the opportunities you've been given?" I said. Grant me a little slack, I was frantic. The last we had heard of him was his 3am Facebook posting of police in riot gear on campus.
As is the norm in parenting, some days we do this better than others, but unconditional love fulfills a basic human need, and it is the gift our children give us from the moment they enter our lives. We do not have to earn it, and neither should they. We hope that our kids know they will always be number one to us, regardless of their class rank.