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Letting a Child Follow His Dreams

By Benison O'Reilly - 14th April 2011

My eldest son was born seventeen years ago. In the time-honoured principle of new mothers, I thought him the most attractive, charming and gifted baby in the entire world. When it came to the last of these I may have had more claim than most. On his first birthday I took M to the early childhood centre for a developmental check. The nurse handed him a shape sorter with four different shaped blocks, which he promptly slotted into their respective slots without faltering: one, two, three, four.

The nurse’s jaw dropped: "I have never seen baby so young do that." I smiled smugly.  The child of two intelligent parents, I thought, of course he’s smart.
When M learnt to read (not recite, actually read) the entire alphabet before his second birthday, my husband said, "I hope he’s not going to be one of those weirdo genius kids with no friends." Hah, if only we’d known.

With his birthday falling in April, I was planning to hold M back from school until he was five years old, the way we’re told to with boys. "Oh no, he is too bright,’" said the preschool director, "He will die of boredom if he stays here another year." So off M went to school at age four.

Over the years two more boys followed M into our family but neither showed quite the same signs of academic giftedness.  During this time our eldest emerged as interesting personality—highly social and a gifted talker but the type who’d argue black was white if his parents were on the opposing side, equal parts charming and infuriating.  When he was not quite ten years old we moved him to a large Catholic boys’ school to start Year 5.

Even the move and the family upheaval that followed his youngest brother’s diagnosis with autism* did not upset M’s scholarly stride. Based on his results in Years 7 to 10, he was cruising towards an ATAR† in 95-98 range this year, the cream of the academic crop. That is until his half-yearly Year 11 report card arrived in May last year. M failed three subjects, including Maths and English.

It was now time for my jaw to drop.

A year later, and only six months away from M’s final school exams, things are not a whole lot different.  M has no desire to study and we’ve had pretty much the full gamut of teenage rebellion: parties, girls, drinking, smoking. His idea of a good time is an all night party, not sitting at his desk writing an essay he could kill with modicum of effort.

Trouble is he doesn’t care. My boy, you see, only has one desire—to be an actor.
We live in an area of Sydney which is a hub for people working in the creative arts: writers, directors, journos and out-of-work actors. I did the responsible thing and advised M that acting was a perilous profession; that it was more important to get a good education. He said, "Thanks for crushing my dreams, Mum."

Not long after this, I came across the excellent parenting book, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.*** In a chapter entitled 'Encouraging Autonomy', the authors tell us we can help our children develop independence by:
•    allowing them to do things for themselves
•    permitting them to wrestle with their own problems, and
•    letting them learn from their own mistakes.

Specifically, within this chapter, a section called ‘Don’t Take Away Hope’ includes these words:

By trying to protect children from disappointment, we protect them from hoping, striving, dreaming and sometimes achieving their dreams.


The professionals I’ve consulted tell me that I can’t make M study if he has no desire to, and I’m now attempting to let go of my dreams and expectations for him. For the first time this year M has a major role in his school drama production. The play is Much Ado About Nothing, which I joked to my husband pretty much sums up M’s attitude to study as well. The rehearsal program is rigorous, so rigorous that I have had to cancel M’s chemistry tutorials, a subject he is failing miserably at the moment by the way. I’ve enrolled him in some private drama classes in the holidays, too.

Yes, acting is a perilous profession and maybe in ten years time M will give up on it and pursue a more conventional path. But then again, maybe he won’t.  It just possible he’ll be one of the chosen few who make it. Whatever the case, it’s his life and as a parent I have to stand back, relinquish control, and let him live it.

I may have been a mother for seventeen years, but it seems I’m still learning the ropes. Perhaps we never master this challenging but oh-so-rewarding gig.

*I write about that son in the Australian Autism Handbook and associated blog.
**ATAR is the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, awarded to students applying to attend university upon completion of Year 12 in all Australian states except Queensland. The maximum rank attainable is 99.95.

***Editor's Note: How to Talk so Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk is in our bookshop.

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