People Are the Priority

by Suzita on October 14, 2016

It was clear early on that my friend Christina’s daughter Ava was a bright girl.  She was one of those toddlers who spoke in eloquent sentences when my same-age son was struggling to put two words together.  Her parents were understandably impressed with her abilities.  Unlike other children who develop in fits and starts during their elementary years, Ava was a child to whom all things academic came naturally.

On the other hand, Ava never seemed particularly interested in other children.  As soon as she could read, she was usually more focused on our bookshelves than on running around with our kids.  Still, the adults in the room took notice of Ava’s ability to read at barely age four.  However, I also remember observing that unlike the other kids we saw regularly, Ava never learned my name.  She knew me only as Stephen and Daniel’s mother.  For such a smart child, this was a bit odd.  Ava seemed to see me as a vehicle for getting what she needed.  “Hey, can you get me that book?” or “I need some juice.” 

I wondered if having a kid like Ava, who was so impressive in her intellectual pursuits, allowed her parents to focus only on what was going well and forget to remind their daughter that other people in her life were a vital source of knowledge and connection for her. 

A Problem Arises

Ava’s family moved to Seattle when she was in fifth grade, and since then we have only been in touch sporadically.  Christina called me recently, though, to ask my advice on a few things that concerned her.  She mentioned that Ava had recently been rude when her grandparents visited.  Ava later told Christina that all her grandparents did was ask annoying questions about her life.  When I asked how school was, Christina said Ava continues to be a very academic kid, but she no longer enjoys school like she once did.  Ava’s a sophomore now and attends one of the best public high schools in her area, but tells her parents that school is boring.  She still gets good enough grades, but says most of her teachers are “stupid” and her classes seem pointless.

Wisdom Found

I found some advice for Ava’s parents in an unexpected place.  When Christina phoned, I happened to be reading 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, by Karl Pillemer.  Pillemer and his team interviewed 1000 elders with the average age of 78, though some were over 100.  He asked them to share what they had learned over their long lives regarding marriage, work, parenting, aging, and day-to-day living.  He then synthesized their interviews into 30 life lessons. 

Ava popped into my head when reading the section on work life—even though to my knowledge 15 year-old Ava has never worked for money.  Pillemer referred to the elders he interviewed as “experts” and noted that regarding work life the experts repeatedly emphasized: 

“No matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant—you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.  Many young people today are so focused on gaining technical expertise that they lose sight of this key to job success: traits like empathy, consideration, listening skills, and the ability to resolve conflict are fundamentals in the workplace.”

This piece of wisdom seemed to be one component of Ava’s problem.  She had always been overly focused on her own interests.  Her parents had set up a world where for the most part Ava didn’t need to interact with other people much to get what she wanted.  Again, with a child like Ava who hadn’t required much parental guidance, I wondered if her parents neglected to notice the areas Ava wasn’t so good at, such as working with others.  Over time Ava had built up such confidence in her intellectual abilities that it didn’t occur to her that other kids and adults had much to offer.  If her parents had spent more time helping Ava see what skills and lessons other people could teach her, they might have instilled an attitude of respect for the adults in her life such as her teachers.  Every child will have a few not-so-great teachers, but it’s hard to believe that Ava’s teachers are all bad and the majority of her classes useless.  

Another life lesson from the experts in Pillemer’s book was:  Make the most of a bad job.  This wisdom might be useful to Ava.  An 81 year-old man named Sam Winston summarized this lesson saying,

“I’ve had many different experiences throughout my life where I really didn’t like what I had to do and I would feel what I was doing was inconsequential.  But the lessons I learned doing those things played an important part in my life.  For example, I had to work my way through college, in many what you may consider meaningless jobs.  Later on they were very valuable for me as an employer, to help me understand my people.”

Sam Winston later explained lessons he learned from various people: 

“People are very important.  I have a saying that ‘There is some good in everyone.’  But there is an important corollary to that.  If nothing else, you can always say, ‘There’s a [person I will use as] a bad example.’…You can learn from everyone, no matter who it is.  No matter what their status, you can learn from them.”

Challenge This Worldview

Maybe the message Ava’s mom really needed to give her daughter was “you have unique gifts, but so does everyone else.”  Perhaps Ava’s parents should remind her that there are many types of intelligence—musical, visual-spatial, verbal, logical, kinesthetic-physical, interpersonal, intrapersonal—to help her understand and respect the variety of strengths those around her may possess.  Unfortunately societies which don’t value the wisdom of elders may be more likely to raise children with attitudes like Ava’s.  On the other hand, parents can always challenge this attitude in their kids when they see it.  I think “the experts” would agree.

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IMG_2187As a family we fall on the late-adopter end of the spectrum.  This is challenging for our kids when it comes to owning the newest technology which I’m pretty sure we have none of in our home.  It’s been similar with pets.  After becoming a parent, I remember the sense of awe I had watching other parents simultaneously following their toddler, pushing a baby stroller, and walking a dog.  I knew I’d never pull that off.

When our sons were in elementary school and began asking for a dog or cat, my first response was to say we already had a pet and point to their toddler sister, Annie.  “When Annie becomes less of a pet, we can think about getting an actual pet.”  Eventually, it was Annie herself begging for a pet.  Thus, four years ago we got a kitten, a good first pet for us.  But as it so happened, we adopted a kitty who never turned into the lap cat about which our kids had dreamed.  Over time, our children more and more desperately wanted a dog with whom they could run around and wrestle. 

Last summer, after having our kids do extensive research into the pros and cons of different dog breeds, we brought home a 7 week-old puppy from a dog rescue organization.  Our reading led us to adopt a puppy rather than an older dog in order to have as much influence as possible over her adult personality. 

Looking back, I am glad we got a puppy because in the end raising a puppy taught my kids a lot about parenthood. 

Early Puppyhood Is Not Unlike Life with a Newborn Baby

In the first few days with our new puppy, while I was suffering flashbacks of bringing my newborn babies home, my then 17, 15, and 12 year-old kids were realizing that this puppy adventure was going to be more involved than they had envisioned.  “You mean someone has to get up at night and take her out?” 

It was a cruel awakening.  One week in, we were all fairly sleep-deprived and cranky.  But our children were definitely learning what taking care of a puppy 24/7 felt like.  They named her Scout, after the character in To Kill a Mocking Bird which our sons had read in middle school.  Like all parents, they loved watching her sleep, and couldn’t believe how much energy she woke up with after those relatively short naps. 

During those days Todd and I talked a lot with our teens about how similar this was to when they were little.  We reminded them that we would sometimes go to 3 parks or playgrounds a day when they were young and their energy was overflowing our small home. 

I recall one day in Scout’s early life when each of us had something we needed to do away from home.  We were looking at schedules to make sure someone would always be available to take Scout out.  Daniel said afterward, “So this was what it was like when we were little?  And it was like this every day?”  Of course I wanted to say, “It was at least 3 times worse since there were 3 of you, and this phase lasted even longer,” but I didn’t because just seeing that flash of understanding in our teenage son’s eyes was incredibly gratifying. 

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You Don’t Have Full Control Over What Kind of Puppy or Child You Will Bring Home

It’s one of the most difficult aspects of parenthood—you must learn to love the child you are given.  Sometimes the hardest part is letting go of your previous hopes and expectations. 

All the puppy books said that the earlier you adopt a puppy (within reason), the more time you have to “shape” their personalities.  Now that we’ve had Scout for over a year, I shudder to think how she would have looked if we didn’t begin with her at 7 weeks.  Scout is like that extremely shy child at the playground.  She sort of wants to say hello to other kids, but when someone new comes up, she runs back behind her Mama’s legs. This has also been a valuable lesson for our children.  They have had to accept Scout’s basic personality.  Her complete adoration of our immediate family has at least helped with this. 

After our initial dog research, we had decided the breed we liked most was an Australian Shepherd.  A full-blooded Australian Shepherd wasn’t in the cards for us financially, but we were hoping for a half Aussie.  In the end we got what we refer to as a part Australian Shepherd, part Husky, part random white dog. 

Early on, we took Scout to a number of puppy play groups which the dog books said would help socialize her.  During these groups our kids often wondered aloud, “Why is our puppy the only one not playing?  The other dogs are having fun together, but our dog spends her time searching for food at the edges of the room.  You would think we weren’t feeding her!”  Or, “Is there something defective about Scout, why is she so shy?”  This led to conversations about the varied rates of development of different dogs (and children). 

I acknowledged to our kids how hard it had been for me at toddler play groups to see other kids who had mastered things my late-bloomers were still stumbling over.  Although it felt somewhat ironic that Scout seemed to have some of the same issues that all 3 of my kids had experienced as toddlers, I figured this was once again a great lesson for them.  They were learning that unlike a new bike which you can ride around the store ahead of time, and decide exactly what color you like, puppies and children develop and change in unexpected ways.  You need to work with and love them as they are.

Training a Puppy, Like Parenting, Is Not as Easy as the Experts Make it Sound

Remember those parenting book titles that gave us false hopes—Siblings Without Rivalry, for example? Soon after we adopted Scout we bought, The Perfect Puppy in Seven Days.  What puppy owner wouldn’t buy this book?  And honestly, aside from the title, it included some very helpful training tips.  Since we had older children when we got Scout, we strongly encouraged them to read this and a few other puppy training books which came highly recommended. 

Then we watched our kids learn the lesson that reading about how to teach a puppy a skill is one thing.  Doing it is another entirely.  The real life experience of training your dog to come, for instance, seems akin to potty training a child.  It takes time for the dog to learn the skill, and mistakes are of course made along the way.  Then after they’ve learned the skill you still must keep practicing it with them month after month.  And then inevitably some change will occur:  your child starts preschool, or your dog is no longer allowed off-leash at your usual play area.  Suddenly that wonderful skill you thought your puppy or child had mastered disappears.  This life lesson is simply not one you can “tell” a child about (at least our 3 kids), but experiencing it firsthand with their canine charge made an impression. 

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Dog Days

Now that Scout is close to a year and 1/2, we are further away from the crazy puppy days, and have hopefully climbed the majority of our steep puppy-learning-curve.  Seeing how much Scout adores our kids no matter where they are on the roller coaster of the adolescent experience is worth those first challenging months.  I still get a little jealous when I see other young dogs who run up to anyone wagging their tails excitedly.  But I so appreciate the unexpected lessons that our sweet, hyper, unknown-mixed breed, on-the-anxious-barky-side Scout has taught our teens and reminded their parents of as well.   

How did getting a pet work at your house?  Leave a comment below!

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