“I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding
that the most important things in life are health, family and friends,
and the time to spend on them.”
~~ Kenneth Branagh
In October, while I was back East caring for my father during his last days, I had many moments of reflection.
Caring for Dad gave me time to go through old photos and letters with him and talk about his childhood and mine. I was able to share the many things I felt thankful for as his daughter. Interestingly enough, most of the things we discussed and laughed about had to do with values, qualities and experiences. Not once did we talk about school, grades, or academic achievements, except to look through old school photos he kept of us kids in his nightstand.
I realized that driving past my old high school gave me very little pause in comparison to the many places (the fields we rode horses in, the spring where we got fresh water, the best spots to pick wild berries) I went with my family and the memories that we made at home together.
Every evening at 6 pm, seven nights a week, all six of us (Mom, Dad, my two brothers, my sister and I) would share a family meal. There were no distractions – no television was blaring, cell phones and I pads had not yet been invented, and my father often took the telephone off the hook so that we would not even hear an unwelcome ring during this sacred time together. The topic of conversation always varied, but the fact that we were all together every night was a constant. After dinner, all of us kids went into clean-up crew mode; we had responsibilities that we took seriously, as they ensured that the household ran smoothly and no one person was overburdened.
Summer days found us out in the yard, swimming, playing badminton, volleyball or horseshoes (after all the grass had been mowed, of course). In the winter, we would put together jigsaw puzzles while the snow fell outside, then, once it was deep enough, rush out to sled or sling snowballs. On weekends, more often than not, after we finished our yard work and played outside until dusk, we would play board or card games until the wee hours of the night, enjoying milkshakes and laughter and the delights my mom loved to create (cakes, pies and fudge)!
Every summer of my adult life I have visited my parents and reconnected with the pleasures of my youth, with the added bonus of being joined throughout the years by my nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews. Spending time with four generations of Souder's is pretty awesome, as there is a great deal of love and laughter in our family.
My father’s death has given me pause to think, and time to talk with my mom, about my parents’ focus for their children – raising the kind of human beings with whom they wanted to share their lives. They expected us to do our jobs when in school, and were there if we needed supplies or support, but never did they prioritize our grades or scores over the importance of being kind and responsible human beings.
I have had the good fortune of getting to know so many wonderful students and families during my time at Drake (over 20 years now). I know that this community wants to raise responsible, caring adults. One of the things that I have witnessed in recent years, however, is a shift in the focus and priorities that students tell me are expressed to them by their parents and their community, either overtly or somehow through osmosis.
The message that students tell me they are hearing and internalizing is that they are, more often than not, defined by their test scores, their GPA and their list of extracurricular activities. Another message is that they are defined by the list of colleges on their application list. Although many parents want their children to be balanced and calm in their approach to academic challenge, somehow another message is coming through louder and clearer – and it is resulting in a community of students who feel the need to compete with one another, who feel that in order to win, someone else must lose, and who feel that they are being continually judged throughout their days. Many of the tasks of adolescence – exploring values, learning to communicate effectively with adults, learning to advocate for self, taking responsibility for actions, making decisions on values independently, handling interpersonal problems, coping with challenge, and taking risks – have taken a backseat to the college numbers game that looms large.
As with all of my musings, I have no magic bullet, no one set of answers to resolve any given dilemma. What I do have is the ability to reflect on the things that my parents focused on during my childhood: values, experiences, responsibilities, raising animals, participating in the life of the family, doing my part to make sure the house and yard were clean and neat, caring for my grandparents, learning to care for the next generation, and expressing empathy. I also have the knowledge, from watching over 2,000 Drake graduates grow into adulthood, that the important things are not the numbers, they are the human qualities and characteristics, and the experiences we share with one another that mold us into the next generation of adults.
I like to keep the big picture in mind, and I tell students that the long game is really the only game that matters. Often, they question that perspective, which leads to interesting opportunities for discussion.
What will our next generation of parents be like? What can we learn from exploring this question with our partners and with our students?
"As I remember it, those warm summer nights of not being focused on were liberating.
In the long sticky hours of boredom,
in the lonely, unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms;
it was in those margins that we became ourselves."
~~ Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives
Posted on 12/20/2018 by Sheila R Souder