Hi, my name is Christopher. And I am an overachiever. I pretty much always have been. In high school I used to read my term papers backward to make sure there weren’t any spelling errors. In college I took 18 credit hours, worked 20 hours a week and ran for a city council seat – all in a single quarter.
More than 25 years later, I’m not much better. In fact, I could be getting worse.
As I sat down to write this column I asked my son, Gus, what he’d like most to change about me. At first he giggled at the idea. Then he decided I’m too obnoxious about homework – wanting him to do more, read longer, practice over and over.
I’m not the only parent with these issues. My friend, Kerri, and I were recently talking about this. She and I have known each other since we were overachieving high school students. You know the type: AP classes, Model UN, speech and debate team. That was us.
Kerri also struggles to balance her need to overachieve and her children’s need to be, well, happy. (They are, by the way, highly intelligent, successful, well-adjusted kids of whom any parent would be proud, just as she is.)
I wish I could blame my parents for my need to overachieve. Although they always encouraged me to do my best, truthfully they always worried that in my desire to strive for perfection I would take on too much. They still worry about that with me.
No, for me I believe it stems from something else. Like many gay men, I seem to have a deep-rooted need to really achieve. I’m sure that a therapist would trace it to a subconscious desire to feel a level of self-worth or something.
That need for achievement extends to my kids. I guess I feel if my kids achieve, at least by my definition of the word, then I am successful. There are some people out there who would argue that it was the overachiever in me that made me want to become a father in the first place. Actually, when my brothers Dan and John congratulated me on becoming a dad, I did tell them that if they could raise five great children between them, I figured I ought to be able to raise a freakin’ Nobel Prize winner.
Of course, I meant it as a joke. But still.
Circumstances beyond my control have dictated how I deal with this trait in my personality. I’m working longer hours, which means Kelly is now in charge of homework.
Before this turn of events, homework had always been my responsibility. It wasn’t something Kelly and I had discussed, it just seemed natural – have the guy that received two bachelor’s degrees and a minor in four years with an A- grade point average be in charge of education.
And I think Gus and I had a pretty good system. We’d practice spelling words. Do a page of math. Practice spelling again. Then maybe tackle another worksheet. So what if we stretched his teacher’s recommended 20 minutes of nightly homework by 5 or 10 minutes?
Kelly’s method, shall we say, is less rigorous. And that worried me; especially when I started to get updates from him that Gus was only hitting about two-thirds of the words on the spelling list when they practiced.
What truly baffled me was Kelly felt that was OK. To him, missing three or four words out of 20 was pretty good. My immediate response was to figure out a way for me to take over doing homework with Gus again.
But Kelly calmly and rationally reminded me that wasn’t an option. More importantly, he put everything in perspective for me. Missing a few words on a spelling test in second grade wasn’t going to prevent Gus from going to college. It didn’t mean his life was ruined. Nor did it mean I’m an awful person or a bad parent. It was just a second grade spelling test. It’s about Gus, not me – it’s his life, not mine.
Because I cared about trying to have the highest score in most of my classes, doesn’t mean he has to. Being a “good” student is enough for him. Maybe he won’t do extra history assignments like I did, but hopefully he’ll have more laughs than I did.
That may actually be my most meaningful measure of parental success: happy kids, who feel encouraged, and not pressured, by their dad to achieve their own standards.
In the end, Gus had 19 out of 20 words right on the test. Kelly’s homework system works just as well as mine had. Of course, had I been helping him. …