Is It Just Me – Digging Deep

I’ve never enjoyed much success with fall planting. After puzzling out which side of the bulb is up, I add the fertilizer and water. But, the following spring, the glorious waves of daffodils I envisioned are a mere ripple of one or two lonely blooms. And, forget about tulips. If they show up at all, it is in the middle of the lawn, having been dropped there by a dense squirrel thief.

Maybe, the problem with my planting is that I do not dig deeply enough. Ironically, this is the same criticism I’ve had with my own growing concern: my teenage son, Charlie.

I have always dug deep like a backhoe. Throughout my high school career, trying harder came naturally to me – except in gym, during which I simply attempted to remain uninjured. My parents never pressed me to excel academically. I was my own yardstick, wanting to improve upon my last test mark or my past average. I voluntarily wrote extra exams in Grade Thirteen to make sure I became an Ontario Scholar and collected my $100 honorarium. I didn’t equate the extra study time with missed social opportunities or drudgery; it was simply a means to an end that I desperately wanted for myself.

My son, Charlie is more of a bulldozer. As this vehicle levels the land and pushes dirt into a pile, he ploughs through information and shoves it into his brain where it is often discarded after a test or assignment. This works for him. The word “bulldozer” actually comes from the combination of the bull, which used to pull the plough for the farmer, and the dozing, which is what the bull did when it wasn’t being employed. This is my progeny.

It is frustrating when children are content to minimally study for tests and still score 90% marks. Why would such a child not study for a few hours longer in pursuit of a perfect mark? I asked Charlie about this before his French exam last year. He told me that his French mark was good enough and that his time could be better spent studying for the subjects that did not come as easily.

Smart kid. A future as a con artist if all else fails.

It’s not that Charlie is lazy, exactly. It’s just that he has so many other flashy pursuits vying for his attention, and trying harder to improve academic performance isn’t as fun as, say, killing all the bad guys in “Call of Duty” on Play Station 3. He doesn’t even have a Play station 3, but he uses the ones at his friends’ houses as often as he can and constantly thinks about owning one. Generally, the first question out of his mouth every single morning is not “what can I do to improve my French verb conjugations today?” but “Mom, can I have a Play Station?”

It is difficult to justify anger towards a child who receives good marks even when he doesn’t try. An “A” is still perceived as a rarefied grade no matter how easily obtained. I tell Charlie that I am far more interested in his effort scores than in his academic grades. I want this to be true, and mostly it is. The amount of effort kids learn to apply is the true precursor to their future success. And yet, many parents and children are so focussed on marks that they miss this measure.

I sometimes feel dread coil through my stomach when I think of Charlie not learning to work hard, comparing his performance only to the group average instead of to his personal best. I worry about what will happen when he gets a job in the real three-dimensional world and slacks off after a few hours because he has met his sales quota for the day, levelling the field, not digging a foundation.

No matter the job, employers want workers with spirit, integrity and drive. To prepare our children to answer this call, adolescents need to be encouraged to dig deep even when the hole already seems bottomless. All the “A”s in the world will not propel my son to the top of his profession if he doesn’t work hard, and he will drown in the frustration of the “why” because he knows he’s intelligent – he has the marks to prove it.

Planting an idea is like planting a bulb. Sometimes, it dies from neglect, but occasionally with perseverance, it takes hold, growing and eventually blossoming, surprising us with its versatility and strength.

After the second day of ninth grade, Charlie came home and announced that he had joined the football team. I believed that signing up for an extracurricular activity would be a great way for him to integrate into his new school, but I had my doubts as to whether Charlie would be able to commit to daily two-hour practices while keeping up his marks and homework assignments. But, Charlie dug in his cleats. He is thrilled to be part of a team and has overcome his fears of being pummelled with a deep desire to improve at each practice session. Whether or not he gets to play is not as important to him as developing his skills. He is disciplined, dedicated and very, very hungry.

I am now a football mom. My son is becoming a backhoe.

This fall, I am going to dig an extra three inches before I plant my bulbs. The effort will be worth it when I see their happy blooms burst open next April – probably in my neighbour’s garden.

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