Gifting Angst

Think way back to eighth grade. Remember the insecurities, the bullies, the first kisses, the crowded and loud hallways.  It’s still hard to hear the slam of a locker without getting sweaty palms. Right now, my daughter is going through eighth grade. She attends a charter school full of children whose parents take the time to drive several miles to and from school.  These children have healthy lunches packed for them every day and they all seem to have a battery of after school activities.  Every one of them arrives at school dressed for a day of learning.  In short, these are well-cared for children.  While they may not all be wealthy, they at least have the advantage of parents who are intent on providing brilliant futures for them.

Statistically, these should be happy kids filled with promise and intellectual curiosity. Instead, these eighth-graders are filled with angst.  They are cutting.  They talk each other down.  If you were to ask, most of them would say that their parents don’t love them and they’re o-kay with that. This is a hard attitude to understand; I know most of their parents and I know how much these kids are loved.

This is a complete K-12 school, so after graduating one child and seeing another to eighth grade, the families have become familiar to me.  Many are friends.  Our children grew up together, which means that we have grown to know each other through the intimate clarity of our children’s eyes.  There aren’t a lot of secrets.  In that context, this angst is most concerning. It defies studies, economics, theories, or conventional wisdom. Given the unrest throughout this nation, I don’t think that this is isolated to our small charter school.  Perhaps we can explain the unrest in some areas based on all the usual factors like economics and parental involvement, but when we accept these excuses, we risk missing the true cause and we forfeit a solution.

The one thing these charter school children have in common is the generosity of their parents. Is their self-loathing borne of the knowledge that they may not deserve the lavish lives they live?  We parents look at the education, the activities, and the leisure time as opportunity.  But perhaps the children see it as a burden.  It is difficult to receive a generous gift that feels undeserved.  The gift, however well-intentioned, is humbling and sheds light on all of the shortcomings of the recipient.

When I was in eighth grade, I played the flute.  Very well.  I had a locally-renowned talent.  As I prepared for high school, my parents gave me a professional-grade flute, an instrument that cost thousands of dollars they didn’t have.  The flute was beautiful and from the first time I played it I thought I sounded like James Galway.  But after an hour or so, I resented the instrument.  I wasn’t James Galway, not even on the same sheet of music with him, and having a comparable instrument just made me more aware of that. The next day when it was time to practice, I put the flute together and felt wholly inadequate to even leave my fingerprints on the sterling silver.  I didn’t want to play that day but I knew I had no choice because of this investment that had been made.  From that point on, my playing was no longer an expression of my heart.  Instead, it was a payment against an unwanted debt.  A wrong note wasn’t just an obstacle, it was a delinquency.  Music ceased to be a refuge for me and my practice was spotty at best for some time until I finally was able to forget about the price I didn’t pay.

As Americans, we have all received such a gift in our freedoms.  Few of us have paid for the privilege of enjoying unprecedented wealth and opportunity, but at least as adults we make a token sacrifice by working for all we have.  Because of our work and the economy we enjoy, we are able to provide lavish lifestyles to our children without them having to struggle. It’s a wonderful thing and I think every parent loves giving things and experiences to his children.  This shouldn’t be a bad thing, but is it possible that our children live under the shadow of inadequacy?

Perhaps we could teach children to seize these opportunities.  The generous gifts, whether flutes or freedoms, that we receive are more than largess, they are opportunities to rise to a challenge.  Eventually, when I became more comfortable with it, that flute was what I needed to be a successful musician.  I couldn’t have achieved what I did without it, but I had to understand that and rise to the generosity.  I had to put in the practice time that Galway would have put in.  The flute was a valuable tool, but the value went deeper than responsive keys.  It was valuable because I had to push myself to become worthy of what I had been given. If I hadn’t pushed forward, I would have eventually been to ashamed to play anymore and I would have been resentful.

Perhaps we parents could hold more reverence for opportunity.  Even as the benefactors, it is easy to take what we do for our kids for granted.  It seems as though the driving and paying and packing should fulfill our responsibility, but that is short of the most important part.  We must clearly show children how to USE what they have received so that they may be better equipped for growth. We are not merely giving TO them but investing IN them.  We invest in what we believe has potential.  It is up to them to grow.  That is the one thing that we cannot do for our children and they must not just do it, but do it in full.  It is only through the journey of growth that our children can earn the self-respect they need to survive eighth grade and the life that comes after.

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