Joan Didion didn’t get into Stanford. She was crushed. Her father looked at her and shrugged. You might think that his lack of empathy added to her pain and frustration. But with time, she came to understand that her father had gotten the moment exactly right.
“I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s ‘chances,’” Didion would write in a classic essay on college in 1968. “What makes me uneasy is the sense that they are merging their children’s chances with their own, demanding of a child that he make good not only for himself but for the greater glory of his father and mother.”
Her father shrugged because he had not placed any of his identity into what college his daughter got into. Perhaps he could have done a little better at understanding how much of her identity had been put into it. But then again, maybe that was the point. He wanted to show her how little it actually mattered–how her success or failure in life was going to be based on something far less superficial than college admissions.
And so it must go with us. We encourage our children. We want to set them up to succeed. But we can’t merge their glory into our own. We can’t let them think they have to impress us, make us proud, or worry that they have let us down or failed us. Certainly, we can’t let them think that where they go (or don’t go) to school has any bearing on who they are to us…or what they can do with their lives.