As I type, I am listening to Henry play upstairs. He is driving a train in a computer game and narrating a complex storyline, complete with different voices and accents. All of the trains have names from Thomas and Friends, but his story is also punctuated by fun additions like Captain Underpants’ trademark, “Tra-la-la!”
In short, he is totally in his element. He is both happy and at peace.
In all my daydreams or even passing thoughts about motherhood, I never imagined this. How could I? I knew nothing about trains or computer games.
I knew some boys played sports. I knew some boys played in the woods and came home dirty. I knew some liked to hunt and fish. I knew some did all of the above.
I didn’t know 7-year-olds begged for a computer so they could buy a game called Train Simulator. I didn’t know that 8-year-olds could know the difference between a “laggy” computer and a fast computer and would beg for a fast one.
That doesn’t mean Henry’s interests are wrong or abnormal. It just means I didn’t know.
His story is intertwined with mine, so I’m learning and laughing along with him. If I attempted to force him into my box of expectations, imagine what we all would miss. As I said recently to a group of parents, not only would I stifle the man God created him to be, but selfishly speaking, I’d miss out on so much too.
A Henry without trains would mean no joy on his face, no sparkle in his eye. I can’t even bear to think of what this would do to him. I’ve read what it has done to others, and I can’t let my mind go to those dark places. Not with my son.
It would also mean Keith and I would remain stuck in our own interests and experiences, never expanding our knowledge of the world. (Did you know the New York subway used to have rattan seats?) Sure, I like my hobbies, but learning about Henry’s – and encouraging his passion – has had untold positive benefits on my life.
I see other wonderful parents experiencing this same shift of expectation to reality. A sweet friend of mine, a sporty lady, is raising a daughter who loves to dance and just made the competitive dance team. My friend knows nothing about dance but is learning fast.
I also see the opposite: Parents forcing their kids to do activities they don’t enjoy or even hate. It’s not my place to judge, and perhaps they have sound reasons, but I don’t understand.
Recently, a middle-aged couple shared with me how their son played football until high school. The father was a football coach and rabid fan. When the son decided he didn’t want to play anymore, the father had a difficult time accepting it. “He was so good. It’s not like he wasn’t talented. But he said it wasn’t his thing – he wanted to do music.” He attempted to joke about it, as if this didn’t bother him anymore, but I saw the ghosts of grief on his face. His wife did too, as she said, “It was really hard for you. You know that it was.”
They went on to say that they still love watching and attending football games as a family, but they also love hearing their son’s band play. I think what these parents discovered is that their son enjoyed football, and maybe he was even good at football, but his passion was something else.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened to me if my parents had pushed me to something simply because I was good at it. I had the good fortune of not struggling in school. What if they had insisted I attend a different college or major in math simply because they thought it would land me a more profitable job?
It would have killed my soul. Give me any spiritual gift or personality inventory and you’ll see working with numbers is not how I’m wired.
What if they had forced me to play a sport, no matter how uncoordinated I was, because they enjoyed watching that more than piano recitals?
This, too, would have killed my soul.
Maybe it’s because my parents gave me the gift of choice or maybe it’s not, but I’ve never felt compelled to force activities on Henry. He can shoot hoops or practice putting with his neighbors and know that we don’t expect him to join a team. He is allowed to enjoy recreation with his friends without pressure.
On the other hand, I do expose him to as much of the world’s variety and beauty as I can. We discuss what sports his friends enjoy playing, as well as our local sports teams. (He loves to chant “UNC!” with his friends.) We talk about music lessons and chess teams and painting and running club and Boy Scouts. We appreciate nature and point out the birds we know. We travel across rural landscapes and into cities as much as our circumstances allow. At any moment Henry expresses interests in trying something new, I do all within my means and common sense to make it happen.
Henry is well aware that many opportunities exist, but he also knows what he loves. Observing his love develop, deepen, and mature is one of my greatest joys. The creativity of our God is on beautiful display when we appreciate our differences. We do so with conversation and travel and also by enjoying the product of our collective imaginations. The latter we accomplish through fine arts, literature, technology, and architecture, as well as so many other ways . . . even train simulators.