generally try to keep things light and fluffy on this blog – nothing too heavy, nothing too serious, nothing too controvercial. Just the happy, funny stuff thank you very much. But of course parenting is serious business, and heavy stuff comes up all the time. I’m going to apologize in advance, because this post deviates from the light and fluffy and ventures into the heavy and serious. I wrote it a few weeks ago, knowing full well that it didn’t really fit with the general tone around DorkDaddy.com. So I shopped it around to other websites to see if anyone wanted to publish it as a guest-article. No luck (special thanks though to Ron Mattocks for actually reading it and helping me find a home for it). Then I tripped across this article titled “Not All College Majors Are Created Equal” on The Washington Post’s website, coincidentally published just about the same time I wrote my piece, and I knew I couldn’t leave it un-published. So here it is, a heavier, more serious DorkDad-ism. I promise it’ll be all light and fluffy stuff for a good while after.
Kids dream big. That’s what they’re supposed to do. This is an account of the lessons I’ve learned about dreaming big, and the advice I will give my kids as their dreams take shape.
The night before my wedding, between all the hoopla, my best man and I managed to slip away and share a quiet, introspective moment. Jeff and I were best friends since pre-school. His mother was my kindergarten teacher, and then later my 2nd grade teacher. From the age of 4 to 18 his life and mine moved in lock step with one another. Everyone should be so lucky to have a Jeff in their lives. After 10 years of adulthood though, we were in different places. Nobody is really where they want to be in their late 20’s. It’s that awkward place between college and your *real* adult life. But at that moment, we were both there for each other, for my wedding. Jeff and I sat there quietly together, ruminating no doubt on just that sort of thing, framed in the context of the gravity of the event. Out of the silence Jeff suddenly stared at me through squinted eyes, and with a deep, confounded breath said to me, “How did you do it?”
“Do what?” I returned, confused.
“You own your own house. You’re in dental school. You’re marrying the perfect woman tomorrow, and you’re not even 30. How did you do it?”
We’d had too much wine to come up with a coherent answer that night, but the question stuck with me. Later I was able to answer it, at least for myself. My entire life I have always known what I wanted to be as an adult. That is to say, I wanted to be a husband and a father in the manner my own father was. I knew that I wanted to be able to support my family alone (if possible) so that my wife could stay home (if she wanted), and I knew that I wanted to pour as much love into the lives of my kids as possible. That presented some pretty cold, hard realities I’d have to deal with, including income level, time off work, total education and so forth. That meant eliminating some decisions that did NOT ultimately point in the direction I wanted to go.
From hindsight, I can say that I “did it” because I always knew where I ultimately wanted to be, and when life presented choices to me, step by step, decision by decision, I inched closer and closer to the ultimate goal. I didn’t go off and follow my heart by majoring in screenwriting (OK, I may have done that. But only for a semester) or trekking off to Europe for two years to find myself. If I’d gone “with my heart” I would be a Muppetteer right now (I know, random right?), or struggling in Los Angeles trying to be a filmscore composer. The chances of reaching the level of success in those careers necessary to support a family on my own were pretty slim. Even today I would drop my current gig in a heartbeat if I could support my family by going back to teach Jr. High science. Instead I settled on a career that I like, maybe even love, definitely don’t hate, even if it wasn’t my first choice. It’s not my dream job, but it enables a different dream that is even more important to me. The fact that I have realized that dream, I count as a success.
Looking at things from the perspective of an adult, what seemed totally normal to me as a teenager turns out really wasn’t all that normal. Most people don’t have the benefit of knowing where they want to go from an early age. I was very lucky in that regard. I credit my luck to the fact that I’ve always been a very introspective person. I’ve always liked to spend my quiet time thinking deep thoughts. In this way I got to know myself pretty well very early on, so instead of spending my 20’s figuring my sh*t out, I spent that time working towards the ultimate goal. And here I sit. I did it.
Now that we are parents, my wife and I are tasked with guiding our children as best we can in accordance with our personal values and the wisdom that comes with the lessons life has taught us along the way. She and I both came up in a world that told you to go to college, major in what your passion is which will ultimately yield a job in that field, and you’ll have a wonderful life. “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” and all that. Flash out of that fantasy dream world into the Great Recession. Daily we hear about college educated people who simply can’t find work, because the jobs just aren’t out there. The ones who do find jobs don’t make enough money to pay off the student loans they accumulated in order to get those jobs. People who once thought they were secure working for big, well-established firms suddenly find themselves without a job and competing for scraps with the young, hungry college graduates who will accept a lot less. People are definitely not in control of their own destiny these days. They say generations are defined by the major events of their times. For my parents it was the free-love 60’s. For my grandparents it was the Great Depression. For today’s parents it’s the Great Recession. My wife and I have to prepare our kids for this world. Bathed in that light, suddenly the advice we give them takes on a whole new flavor.
As crazy as it sounds, we will not be telling our children to follow their dreams.
Take a moment to let that sink in. Believe me, I know how crazy that sounds. There goes our “Parents of the Year” award. My ears want to spit the words out every time I say them.
We will be telling our children to know themselves, to know what sort of life they want as adults, to figure out what sacrifices are necessary to make to achieve that life, and step by step, crossroad by crossroad, make the decisions that will slowly take them to that end goal. We will point to my sister, who we love and respect so much. She followed her heart and got a teaching credential, and then got a masters degree from a top-tier (private, and therefore expensive) east coast graduate program in deaf education, with an emphasis in special-ed. She went into it all starry-eyed, thinking about what a difference she was going to make in the world. If you know anything about the California economy you know what a sorry state the teaching profession is in here. The best my sister could do was a job teaching kindergarten at a private school (which means 2/3 the pay… the school, incidentally just filed chapter 11, for the 3rd time). Since she has special-ed credentials she is saddled with all the behavior problems (who’s only special needs are their actual parents). She’s awash in so much debt from her graduate work that she can hardly make ends meet. Something as trivial as a flat tire totally throws off the precarious balance of her monthly finances – and forget saving for retirement (no fancy pensions at a private school either). If you asked her, she’d tell you she has days (more these days than in the past) when she genuinely wonders if going into that profession, and getting all that education just wasn’t worth it.
My wife and I both graduated from the Liberal Arts departments of our respective universities. We both have a thirst for the intellectual and the creative. We are both drawn to the liberal and fine arts, but we have found security in science and business. Neither of us use our liberal arts degrees now (unless you count blogging). Every indication is that both our children will have similar interests and aptitudes. When our kids go to college (and they WILL go to college), the advice they will get from us is not to major in what they love. Sad as it is, we will encourage them to adjust their college experience to the life they want to lead after college, not the other way around. The lessons of the Great Recession are job security, proper debt leveraging and to the extent possible, controlling your own destiny. If our children are anything like us, their hearts may want to major in theater set-design, screen writing, music theory, history, English-lit or 19th century European female impressionist painting. Those are the disciplines that enrich the soul and grow the mind. They are crucial for furthering the human condition, but in today’s world, with very rare exceptions, they are the antithesis to a secure, sustainable lifestyle. If our children are anything like us they will be drawn to those departments, to those dreams.