Balance, not Terror

photoWe’ve been, unapologetically, watching a lot of Star Trek lately.

This morning it was Balance of Terror, my seven year old son’s first introduction to the Romulans. He dug the explosions and his eyes widened (as every 1966 television audience member’s did) when it turned out that the evil Romulans looked like Spock.

A second grader, he’s enamored by flying through space and watching Kirk’s penchant for fisticuffs. The aliens intrigue him and the moral conflicts, more complicated than those he saw in Scooby Doo, give him something to think about.

Watching him experience Star Trek for the first time reminds me greatly of teaching high school English. I relished the fact that I got to introduce my students to Oedipus, Kurtz, and the marvelously mad Ophelia. Journeying with them from a time before they’d read Hamlet to a lifetime of having experienced the play felt magical.

As a high school principal, I get a catbird seat for those many milestones of growing up: the first day of high school, breaking up at the prom, the palpable anxiety and expectation that fills a stadium during graduation rehearsal. I also see, up close, those first experiences that help define character: bombing a test, a really important one; not making a team, or not playing much if you do make it; being faced with a decision between two terrible options, or even harder, between two great ones.

Any single experience does not define us. Parents and students who have found themselves in my office over the years have often heard me describe the stress of the moment (a suspension, a dust up with another student, an academic catastrophe) as “a speed bump, not a brick wall.” My twenty plus years as an educator have taught me the truth of choosing to see current stresses through that lens.

When we don’t, and it’s extraordinarily easy not to, we raise our own anxiety and do nothing to help ourselves or our kids.

More than once I’ve seen parents intervene, sometimes with a dramatic show of force, in situations that seem to mean more to them than to their kids. Almost always in these cases the parents’ passion comes from a place of love; as moms and dads we naturally want to protect our kids, but the results can sometimes produce a long term effect that is the opposite of what we hoped.

An example comes to mind of a person who coached for me a number of years ago. Fresh out of college, he was excited to have an opportunity to work with high schoolers, coaching a sport he loved. There was no question about the coach’s passion, but when obscenities began peppering his talks with the team, and when yelling became his standard tone at practices, something had to be done.

Working with our athletic director, we did our best to communicate school expectations and school appropriate behavior to our passionate (albeit a little immature) coach. We wanted to help him understand how he could keep his passion, but approach this job differently. It didn’t work.

At the end of the season, when the final review came due and we sat down for a difficult discussion, the coach chose not to met with us alone; he brought his dad.

As this caring, angry, protective father talked about “fairness” and our “obligation” to give his son another chance, I saw a parent/child dynamic that had been honed over years. How sad, I thought, even as it was happening, that this father was denying his son the status of adult.

There is a time to intervene, and a level of intrusion appropriate for each age. There is also a time when our kids begin to move past the love of phaser guns and space battles and are ready to engage in the more morally complex world.

Balance, not terror, should guide our actions as parents. We are, after all, the adults our children will learn to become.

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