One of the best things I have learned as a parent and as a person, is not to give too much importance to any commitment, whether a school or an activity, in case the situation sours and you have to walk away. I think about this dynamic often as a parent in a competitive cut-throat world, in which parents push their kids relentlessly to succeed. While my husband and I work hard not to push our kids, many of the parents around us do. It’s hard when your child has made the team or the orchestra to walk away, even when the coach or director is badly behaved, but it’s essential to be able to.
When my daughter made it into a highly regarded youth orchestra, which hundreds of kids audition for, we were so excited for her. But when I sat through the first rehearsal and heard the conductor actually threaten bodily harm to one of the sweet little violinists because she couldn’t play the passage right, I was horrified. I looked around at the other parents watching and they were all smiling. When I asked a veteran parent about this, his answer was, “They get amazing results from the kids and it looks great on the college resume.” He didn’t seem to care that the conductor was abusive, given that she screamed: “If you don’t get this passage right, you will wind up in the hospital and I will wind up in prison.” The next week, I watched again, and the conductor was just as terrifying, so I told my daughter that we were going to walk away. Nothing was worth this kind of abuse. I called the school and they gave a full refund, although they reminded me that most parents don’t complain about the behavior because their kids improve.
Last spring my son auditioned for a competitive choir in Boston that sings with orchestras and opera companies. The director really liked him and wanted to groom him for great things. The problem was that month after month, the rehearsals were long and intense and there were many performances and demands outside of rehearsals. My son’s voice was starting to hurt from overuse, since he is one of the leads in Mary Poppins at his school right now. He was starting to get insomnia and other stress-related ailments from being over-scheduled. He was being groomed to sing a solo with a professional orchestra, but he doesn’t really like classical music. And the director seemed particularly interested in the few boys in the chorus, inviting them privately for ice cream with him, which we refused to let our son do because we thought it felt creepy. So, we walked away.
I think of all this because of the recent trial for the gymnastics doctor who was found to have molested hundreds of girls over 20 years, often while the parents were in the examining room. A lot of people have commented that they don’t understand how the parents didn’t know. But I totally understand that. They didn’t want to know because the stakes were too high. When your daughter is poised for huge success, you don’t want to be the person who blows the whistle. The gymnasts didn’t tell because they wanted to be one of the five who made the US team. But I get it because I see it everyday in my town, with parents who are so invested in their kids’ success, that they aren’t willing or able to speak up before it’s too late.
In our town, parents allow their kids to play on multiple soccer or hockey teams from a young age, and the kids’ muscles are strained from repeating the same sport over the over. We wouldn’t let our kids try out for travel soccer until they were older since we had a babysitter who had had two major surgeries from soccer before she was 16. A boy in our neighborhood had his leg shattered last fall from a collision on the field, I believe from years of overplaying. But when I ask parents why they allow coaches to insist on more and more practices and then games that are sometimes four states away, the parents shake their heads and say, “It’s an arms race, but if we drop out or speak up, we lose.” So as a result, everyone loses.
The fact is, we don’t always choose right. The preschool we chose for my daughter was like Lord of the Flies, with bigger kids bullying little kids, terrifying my girl. We walked away from a lot of money to go with the more orderly school that had rules that everyone had to follow and she ended up thriving. We walked away from the pediatrician who was rude and condescending to us, when my son had a medical problem that this doctor didn’t know how to fix. We walked away and found a great team to help him and never looked back.
To find your world stage, remember that if something is wrong, you do need to speak up. And if the situation doesn’t change, sometimes the best thing is to walk. Nothing is worth getting hurt or abused– no gold medal or Ivy League school or accolade is worth that. Keep your eyes open and notice when something isn’t right and speak up. In the end, you can either try to please others and get along, or you can please yourself and stand up for what is right. In my mind, that’s an easy choice.