Sunday, January 2, 2011

Great Expectations

"I always wanted to build model planes," he said, wistfully examining the partially finished one on the table. "My father would not allow it. He collected stamps, so we collected stamps." - King George VI in The King's Speech.

Of all the dialogue in this outstanding movie we saw on New Year's Eve, this gave me sudden pause.

It is not, after all, too surprising that much might be expected of a king's child. Great privilege is accompanied by great expectations. How difficult it must be to live such a life, especially in the age of ubiquitous media. I feel a certain pity for Kate Middleton, whose life can certainly never be normal again. I actually wept in the theater for King George VI and his terrible predicament.

What a compelling depiction this was of the effect a tyrannical parent can have on a child. Ultimately, George V admitted the respect he had for his second son - too little, too late.

Throughout history, a certain personality type has been attracted to a throne. Genghis Khan, Elizabeth I, Julius Caesar... none of these was a gentle or shy type. I believe many surgeons share this same super-Type A personality. I recognize it in myself. Without some such traits, it is difficult to get through training and be successful in this field.

Rulers must not show weakness; they must appear confident at all times. They must relish control and enjoy making decisions that affect the lives of real people. So it is with surgeons (and some other specialists) as well. The OR is very like a small kingdom in many ways.

It can be difficult sometimes to moderate those personality traits at home with family. Clearly being so Type A has its advantages, but there can be a dark destructiveness to it. King George VI evidently knew that well.

I can understand his father, George V. As a successful monarch, he must have wanted his children to be just like him. Anything less would imply failure on his part to produce equally successful offspring. He must have felt the need to control his children's development as he controlled everything else. When he could not correct their flaws, he felt disappointed, frustrated, even betrayed. He could not countenance failure.

I admit that I have felt shades of this. I suspect I'm not the only one. Like many surgeons, I have always been successful at most things; I have never really had to face a major failure. I have generally been able to make things happen the way I want them to. Raising a child, however, is different.

My son is the most precious thing in my life. My greatest wish is for him to ultimately be happy and successful. I know he is not me; I don't really want him to be. He is a different person, and that's a wonderful thing. I would never push him into a field he didn't love - yes, including medicine. Nothing could change my love for him.

Nonetheless, I have found my Type A side struggling at times. Two things have bothered me the most.

He is not a straight A student. He has the ability, but he just is not motivated to accomplish this. I tell myself that he is just 12 and that B's and C's are OK. He may buckle down as he matures. We make sure he gets his work done, and we try to help him study for tests, but he's just not interested. He would much rather play hockey or watch ESPN. This is so frustrating to me... and I can't understand it. At a visceral level, I can't imagine not having the drive to be top of the class.

Worse, he hates to read. Loathes it! Even before he was born, I dreamed of reading together with him. I imagined sharing the books I have loved all my life, laughing and crying with him over the pages. I know now this will never happen. It may sound silly, but this is possibly the biggest disappointment I have ever known. But I can't change him, make him love something he doesn't.

None of this sits well with the controlling part of me. At times, I'm tempted to yell my frustration at him, force a book into his hands, take away his sports. Obviously, I tell myself, that wouldn't be fair, and it would only make him resent me. Type A or not, I don't want to be King George V, dictating what my son will and will not enjoy, will and will not do.

I've been mulling over the reasons that scene moved me so. I think it had something to do with recognition, and with fear.

Kings or physicians, our children are the most important part of us. We want so much to see the best of ourselves in them. We work so hard in part to give them the best opportunities to build a satisfying life for themselves. We know only one route to success and happiness, the one we have walked ourselves. We fear that their differences from us may spell difficulty for them, or even failure. Where they fail, we feel that we have failed.

Further, we crave a lasting bond with our children, one that will connect us through the years and the inevitable separations. Subconsciously or consciously, we try to cultivate similar tastes and interests, ways to understand each other better. The love comes naturally; the mutual understanding is harder. We fear loss and loneliness.

My biggest challenge may be letting my son grow into a different person without trying too hard to interfere. I can't change my surgeon's Type A-ness, and I can't change him. Nor can I change my hopes for his future. Perhaps my New Year's resolution should be to interest myself more in the things he naturally enjoys instead of yearning to make him over in my own image. I should focus less on my own disappointments and more on the joy of who he is. Truly, there is so much to be joyful about.

Since the time of Dickens and before, parents have had Great Expectations for their children. Let us have the wisdom to recognize our own fears and shortcomings, and to temper those expectations with purely unselfish love.


  1. Ironically, my husband always gets upset when he notices his own personality traits in our daughter. I think he feels he's too sensitive and introverted.

    I would love my daughter to be like me in some respects. I don't even know what my personality type is... as a child, like you, I was very driven to succeed and be the best, but I think that was partially or entirely because my mother inflicted her own desire to be the best and pushed me hard. Now that I'm left to my own devices, I'm not that way at all. And I think all the years my mother pushed me left me kind of miserable. I truly wonder where I would have ended up if I hadn't been put under so much pressure.

    That said, I try to read to my daughter a lot because I really hopes she loves books as much as I do!

  2. It's hard to not want our children to be a least a little like us. I know that I push my interests, not matter how unintentionally, onto my children.

    Great post.

  3. It was hard for me to relate to this post as my son is very much like me. And I think he will be successful because he has someone to push him. I didn't and I have struggled and faced failure. I think either way parents will find a way to feel like they are drowning, even if they are doing just fine.

  4. Your son likes sports. He is going to be popular. While we had our nose in our books all through high school, he's going to have fun! Have girlfriends! Be cool!

    (Does that help at all??)

    Also, I hated to read as well, and I still have a nice life.... so it really isn't the end of the world.

  5. I think the biggest (and most difficult) gift we can give our children is the opportunity to design their own life. My parents had high expectations, but also paid little attention to our daily lives-- which for me was a blessing. I went a different way than they expected (medical school was a major blow to their hopes and dreams for a true academic), but they allowed me to find my way to the perfect life for me. My brother took a long time to hit his stride, barely graduating from high school and not going to college until he was 24, but then he graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa and went on to a happy and fulfilling life.

    Since your son hates reading, I wonder if you have talked with a librarian to find books he might love? My daughter loves reading, but rarely my likes my childhood favorites. Alos, have you had him evaluated for dyslexia or another learning disability? My brother is dysgraphic, and the advent of computers was a major contributor to his success in college. Sometimes avoidance comes from frustration.

  6. What a wonderful post! I saw Black Swan on NY Eve - a truly deranged mother/daughter relationship.

    I constantly have to quell those Type A urges I tend to unconsciously project onto my kids. My daughter loves books (thank goodness), animals, fashion, and art. I hope she finds her own path, even if far away from medicine. I try to celebrate her successes and not dwell on the failures that her scatterbrained nature create - I want her self-esteem to be spot on when she reaches her difficult middle school years. She does pretty well in school. My son is not as into books - he is only 5 but I get frustrated sometimes when his attention span doesn't match hers when she was his age. I try to take delight in his oh so different mechanical thirst for knowledge and foster it in different ways.

    My youngest brother was a B/C student in high school and college - he pursued music with small successes and lots of angst until he finally decided to go to law school and is hitting his stride on law review, at the top of his class, doing research, and mentoring young kids. Other brother just finished Ph.D at Cornell at 30 and is lecturing all over the country in his field - in hot demand. Just took a military fellowship in Boston for two years. Sometimes boys take longer - at least in my family. I'll bet your son will find his passion if you keep supporting him!

  7. I really think that passion is the key. My brother was my opposite; where I loved books and hated a "B" sports were his passion. This was very frustrating for my academic parents. That said, my brother has so many more deep friendships because of the relationships he built and he has done fine for himself. So I am trying to give my girls the opportunity to find their passion but it is hard to overcome my Type A competitive nature.

  8. gcs15, I'm struck by how you have thought this through so well.
    I would be very challenged and disappointed if my kids weren't motivated to do well in school. Good grades have been so important as I was growing up that I've definitely internalized it as well. Hopefully your son will find his passion and excel at it before too long!

  9. Your son sounds exactly like me at that age (and beyond). It wasn't until I was in my mid-20s that I found a field (physics) that could hold my attention enough to go to college and succeed in (finished near the top of my class). Several years later, I decided to pursue a life in medicine and have been working hard to achieve this goal ever since (applying June 2012).

    I'm a closeted fan of musicals and one of my favorites is The Fantasticks. One of the songs from it is "Plant a Radish", where the songwriter laments the fact that, unlike vegetables, you'll never know just how a child is going to turn out until the seed is fully grown.

    All you can do is try to encourage them to do the best that they can at whatever it is they're interested in. If they adopt that attitude, they will succeed at whatever they choose to focus on throughout their life - and there is no way you'll be able to predict what that will be. Sounds like you're doing a great job so far.

  10. Fizzy: I'm afraid if I pushed my son too hard, he would be miserable, too; I certainly don't want that.

    OMDG: LOL! You're right. He's an outstanding athlete, and the girls are already taking notice (Lord help us). He observed the other day that you can't be a nerd if you're on the football team (and if you're a good player especially)! I'm adjusting to being the mom of a jock... :-)

    hh: Yes, we've tried everything. There are some books he likes, but even those he wouldn't choose to read over doing something else (anything else). He is ADD and is well controlled on medication. This probably has something to do with it. But even books on CD don't help much. He just truly doesn't have a passion for reading.

    Gizabeth: That makes me feel a little better! (And I will have to put Black Swan on my movie list...)

    Anonymous: You're right, he has developed some close friendships through sports. That's a good thing.

    medschoolodyssey: I think you're right, and I'm very curious to see where he'll end up. At his age, I wanted to be a flight attendant. Right now, he wants to play in the NHL. You just never know.

  11. GCS15, I just want to say how amazing and insightful this post is. My daughter is only 2 yrs old (and, thank goodness, is - so far - a lot like me)... but this is something I think about a lot. Yet I've never come close to the insights that you articulate here. Thank you.

  12. I think either way parents will find a way to feel like they are drowning, even if they are doing just fine.Hopefully your son will find his passion and excel at it before too long!

  13. Fascinating piece. Life is just like this sometimes- it never really turns out the way you expect it to. But he needs to find his way in life. And yes, he may change.

    One other thing. I can't feel sympathy for Kate Middleton. I can't see why anyone would. She snagged herself a king.. a KING for crying out loud (well, soon to be anyways)! And all this for the relatively minor inconvenience of having your picture taken (she's a public figure now - she knew what she was doing). Things could have worked out differently-she could be a poor destitute person living in a 3rd world country. She'll still have her private moments, but she did choose this life.


  14. GCS 15,
    Perhaps your looking for his drive & determination in all the wrong places at this stage of his life.

    Does he display veracity in his preparation for hockey games? Does he have role models in the sport to show him what hard work/dedication really is? Does he play hard on the ice?

    Perhaps you could use this stage of his life to foster his work ethic and attention to detail by watching old ESPN classic shows with him about the hardest working hockey players.

    Maybe find a story about a hockey player turned entrepreneur who always had a back-up plan if hockey didn't work out?

    Maybe pick out a hockey book from this list and read it together?

    Hopefully my humble suggestions are useful to you.



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