Imagine that there is a tree growing in a front yard somewhere. Imagine that it is a tree born of one of the most magnificent oak tree strains in the world, the Kentucky black oak. But then imagine that the man who owns this particular house does not care for the beautiful oak. He always wanted an Australian acacia growing in his front yard.
So he does not appreciate the amazing tree. He hardly notices how it shoots into the sky, filling the air with the musky scent of amber and coal. He does not see its branches seeking the freedom of the clouds. He does not know and does not care that its massive roots feed younger and smaller trees nearby.
When the oak fails to yield the occasional purple blooms that the acacia would have given, he is dismissive of the shade it provides. When the wind blowing through the leaves of the oak does not whistle the susurrus of the acacia that he remembers from his youth, he stands deaf to the birds who twitter as they make their home in the oak’s wide branches. When the oak scrapes the front of his house trying to survive a vicious windstorm he is unforgiving and cuts off the branch.
The oak cannot do enough to please the man, and soon the man does not even see the magnificent tree when he comes home. There is a gift waiting for him in his front yard every single day but he does not notice it.
What has this to do with raising kids?
Parents often visualize a whole scenario of kids activities that will take place when their children finally arrive. Two very dear friends of mine were no different in this regard.
Edgar and Sonya had tried for many years to have children. Every attempt brought more expectations, and every failure somehow doubled those expectations. Finally they were rewarded with a son. Patrick was several weeks early, but survived to become a healthy young man.
My friends pictured Patrick as an athletic boy, given to prowess in any sport to which he set his mind, with great hand-eye coordination. He was sure to be the high school jock his dad had almost become. From the earliest days his room was filled with balls and bats, while posters of his father’s sports heroes fought for wall space next to Barney, Rugrats, and Teletubbies.
The weight of the parents’ dreams must have been overwhelming for Patrick. Although he did try soccer and baseball for one season each, it turned out that he was not very athletic. Patrick could not throw or kick a ball and could not have cared less.
By the time he was eleven, Patrick was going out of his way to avoid any discussion about sports. If it involved a ball or bat or glove or puck, he wanted no part of it.
Pretty soon the only sound you could hear around the house, at least when the talk turned to athletics, was the father looking at his son and letting out a long and noticeable sigh. Patrick was forced to wear this mantle of failure, especially around his father. As a result, father and son never had a chance to become friends. To this day they maintain a polite but very distant relationship.
Patrick’s dad had his heart set on raising an Olympian, and so missed out on raising the painter and storyteller his son turned out to be.
If there is a lesson here for parents, it is that we must recognize the innate gifts and individual talents that each child possesses. We must separate our own expectations from those of our children and give them a great life based on who and what they are, not who or what we had always hoped they would be.
Oak, acacia, redwood, or pine. Athlete, dancer, artist, or scholar.
Grow the tree you got.
Excerpted from Parking Lot Rules & 75 Other Ideas for Raising Amazing Children by Tom Sturges Copyright © 2008 by Tom Sturges. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.