When I was little, I wanted to play the piano like Stevie Wonder and speak French and travel to far away places like California and Hawaii and Harlem. Alas, these things happened only in my mind. My parents, after all, were factory workers — bound to blue collar paychecks, limited vacation days, and a work schedule that stretched from sun up to can’t see. Lack of time, money, and sleep meant I could be a world-traveling, French speaking, piano playing wonder child only in my dreams.
Of course, I hold no ill will toward my parents for this. But I promised myself that things would be different for my girls — that they’d grow up having known the excitement of exploring a new land, learning about new cultures, and, above all else, having their wishes indulged.
COAXING GROWTH, NOT SPOILING
It’s not that I spoil them, mind you. There’s a big difference between caving to every little whim and coaxing and encouraging their love of something new. Like, when Lila got it in her mind that she should take ballet lessons because her best bud Maggie was dancing and got to wear fancy tutus, well, no, there were no ballet lessons. Ditto when Mari begged for a cell phone because all of her friends had them.
However, when Mari became borderline obsessed with the marching band that performed during the halftimes in her big brother’s football game, and I noticed how she seemed to really dig the warm notes in Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, her father and I rushed out and rented a trumpet and signed her up for lessons. And when she and her little sister started showing a genuine interest in helping me whip up fancy meals and started searching Google for science projects they could hook up in the back yard on their own, I obliged them with summer classes at a kids’ cooking camp and a hand’s-on, get-dirty science program. Both encouraged my daughters to trust their instincts, be independent, and really fall in love with learning.
And my girls are still talking about their summer vacation to Paris, a trip we saved up for two years after Mari, Lila, and their big brother, Mazi, made clear that they had the Eiffel Tower in their sights.
POSSIBLY LIFELONG PASSIONS
My daughters are older now — 16 and 13 — but this philosophy of mine hasn’t changed one bit. In fact, it’s only solidified now that my girls are old enough to truly know what interests them beyond a passing fancy — skills, subjects, and explorations that might very well turn into lifelong passions.
For instance, Mari, my 16-year-old, has more than a passing fancy for practicing medicine. She’s been talking about being involved in the sciences since she was 6, and years later, told her seventh-grade science teacher that she wanted to be a doctor. Her proclamations remained so intense that her father and I switched her out of a private school into our local public high school that has a curriculum that prepares students for specific disciplines, including bio-medical careers.
In keeping with her desire to be a physician, Mari applied for and got a coveted spot in a summer medical internship program for high school students that she learned about from one of her teachers. She’s spending her summer working as an intern at a local hospital that has a hands-on training program for young doctor hopefuls. Two weeks into her internship, my daughter already has learned how to do ultrasounds, watched doctors conduct CT scans, helped intubate a patient and witnessed the intake interviews of trauma and psychiatric patients. Needless to say, this intensive immersion program is giving her an up close look at what it takes to do the job and really consider early on whether being a doctor truly is what she wants to do for a living.
My younger daughter, Lila, who has her sights on being an agent, will be getting her own immersion program of sorts when she spends a week working with my literary agent in her office in upstate New York. She’ll be checking out manuscripts and book proposals, watching the decision-making processes that go into choosing which prospective authors will get agency representation, helping to prepare book auction letters for publishing houses and, the part that excites her the most, doing the math on the cut the agency will get for the book advances they score for clients. What can I say? The girl’s been obsessed since seeing the movie Jerry Maguire last year and has been taking weekly phone lessons on “agenting” from my agent. So what more perfect way to let her experience the inner workings of promotions than to arrange for her to see all of it in action firsthand?
AVOIDING SUMMER SLIDE
When they’re not getting hands-on experience in their respective fields, my girls will be working their way through a list of summer reading to keep their minds nimble. Mari is also taking an online advanced algebra class to qualify for a few AP courses in her junior year. Lila will be completing math work her dad solicited from the seventh grade math teacher, just so that she can keep what she learned fresh as she prepares for a more intense math workload in the eighth grade. No summer slide for them if we can help it — unless it’s at a waterpark.
Of course, none of this stuff — the trumpet lessons, the cooking classes, the science camps, the trips to faraway places — were cheap, believe me. And Mari’s internship was highly competitive (there were only 15 spots and hundreds of applicants), and not everyone has a literary agent, much less one willing to indulge a child’s passion to wheel and deal on behalf of artists.
But any parent can tap into their own resources and ingenuity to get their children the valuable up close look at the careers they think they’re passionate about. If your child likes art, take them to the local museum and, in addition to checking out the master works, see if you can schedule some time with one of the museum’s curators. That person would be a fount of information on the many different careers a kid interested in art could pursue. Consider tapping your own friends for their valuable insight; call on your doctor friend to take your kid to work for a day or out to lunch to talk about careers in medicine. Or stop by your local fire station to arrange for a friendly firefighter to talk about his job. And doesn’t everyone have that savvy uncle or distant cousin who has a slew of contacts? Call him up. My Lila, the brave one, simply picked up the phone and asked my agent if she could hang out with her to learn the business. Truly, it was as simple as asking. Sometimes people will say “no,” but many more times they’ll say “yes” because they like sparking the interests of kids. Really, it’s as simple as that.
I know that each experience opens my kids’ eyes to possibilities — makes clear to them that the world is so much bigger than our tiny sliver of Georgia, and that there is tremendous value in being indulgent if it means you’ll find refuge in knowledge, pursue your passions, and experience the beauty of trying something new.
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This post is running in conjunction with GreatSchools.org. All opinions are my own. GreatSchools is committed to getting the word out to parents about “summer slide” and encouraging the support of summer learning programs. Also in the series:
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.