One of our running buddies has a developmentally delayed daughter. Amanda is 17 years old and while she can shower, brush her teeth, and dress herself, there is little likelihood that she will ever read beyond a second grade level. Her cognitive impairments are evident after even a brief conversation and aren’t going anywhere. Amanda is much beloved by her parents and everyone in our group. She loves to play dress up, she has an inquisitive smile, she attends our get-togethers. She is a joy—even if she can not reasonably be expected to obtain a Ph.D. in ancient languages from Princeton.
Another of my running buddies has a neuro-typical child the same age. Robert excels in school. He is the editor of the yearbook and involved in student government. Recently, he learned that he has been admitted to his first choice college. Robert has never missed a day of school; the child just does not get sick. A lovely young man, Robert stops by our running group parties and is polite to his mom’s sedate, boring friends before heading out to connect with high-achieving peers. Robert is an all around good guy; we all expect great things from him.
I am fond of both moms. Amanda’s mom, Roberta’s mom and I have put in thousands of sweaty miles together over the long, hot, early-morning years. Our conversation covers as much ground as our running, but I cringe when Robert’s mom expounds endlessly on Robert's accomplishments. And I wither when she pontificates about how her dazzling parenting led directly to Robert’s subsequent achievement. I started reading Harry Potter to Robert when he was only five years old and by the time he was seven, he was reading the books on his own. I love Robert, am proud of him, but it pains me to hear how great he's doing when Amanda's mom is right there.
As if Amanda‘s mom didn’t know that reading to children is great. As if Amanda‘s mom wasn’t still reading to Amanda—even though Amanda is now 17. As if Amanda’s mom weren’t agonizingly aware that Amanda will never be able to enjoy the magnificent bath of language that is Harry Potter. It makes me uncomfortable to run in Amanda’s mother’s shoes. How does she feel listening to how awesome our friend’s kid is knowing that her child will never have similar success?
I have a similar feeling about my ability to have a drink now and again. I will occasionally consume a glass of wine with dinner. That a 63-year-old man can safely drink a beer on a Sunday afternoon is hardly a “man bites dog” headline. But I don’t throw my enjoyment of the intermittent alcoholic beverage in the face of my friends in recovery. There are enough advertisements in our culture extolling the virtues of consumption without my adding to their missing out. Folks suffering from the disease of substance use disorder don’t need to hear me opine, “Goodness me, no matter what I eat, I just can’t seem to gain a pound.” No one who has been through labor and delivery wants to hear another woman remark how easy childbirth was for her. My friends who can’t drink don’t want to hear about the fact that I can.
I can’t claim credit for having been able to resist the siren song of alcohol. A second beer has never been attractive to me. That doesn’t make me morally superior; it makes me a middle-aged guy with a sensitive stomach. Nor is cocaine appealing. Not because I am admirable or pure of heart, but because I am manic enough without Schedule One substances coursing through my even more hyper circulatory system. I feel strongly that I would not enjoy cocaine. That’s not something to brag about.
I’m lucky. Robert’s mom is lucky. Yes, we did some things right. Robert’s mom never abused him or encouraged him to smoke pot when he was 15. I certainly managed to just say, “get away from me with that addictive stuff” when I was in college. Good for us. But we can’t claim all the credit. My life of privilege and my connection to my supportive parents allowed me to miss at least a few major potholes. I should not break my arm patting myself on the back because I don't struggle with alcohol. Similarly, Robert's mom has every right to be proud. But could she just tone it down a little when Amanda's mom is around?
Shouldn’t we as parents revel in and enjoy our children without talking relentlessly about how accomplished they are? Shouldn’t we be sensitive to the arithmetic that not everyone can be first in the class? And shouldn’t we communicate to our beloved children that we love them whether or not they read Harry Potter on their own at age seven?