Letting It Be: Why I Stopped Trying to Change My Kids

by Claude Knobler

My father is afraid of blood.

And sick people. He really is afraid of sick people. Can’t stand being around them.

Oh, and science. Well, he’s not so much afraid of science as he is really bad at it.

I want to tell two stories that are really one story, so I’m going to come back to that. But for now, just keep in mind those three things. My dad is afraid of blood, sick people, and science.

Moving on.

When my son was in kindergarten, my wife and I scheduled a meeting with his teacher. It was the middle of the year and Clay couldn’t read. We love Clay, so, naturally, we were concerned. I just checked online, and here’s the definition of concerned:

Concerned: worried, troubled, or anxious.

Come to think of it, concerned sounds a lot less impressive that way. We were worried, troubled, and anxious. The kid couldn’t read and we wanted to know what his teacher was going to do about it.

When we’d finished listing our “concerns,” Clay’s teacher smiled and said he’d been busy figuring out where everything went in the classroom, learning that it was okay to participate during recess, and getting comfortable socially. Reading, she said, would come soon enough.

Claude’s son Clay (right) with his brother and sister

Okay, back to my dad. As hard as it is for me to imagine, my father used to be a child. His mother, very much a Jewish mother of her time, was also concerned. She worried about her son finding the best possible job. Fortunately, she knew just what that job was. Businesses could do well or badly, but there would always be sick people and those sick people would always need doctors; therefore, she felt my father should be a doctor. So my father went pre-med.

It did not go well, what with all the blood, science, and sick people. And so — this is the part of the story I love — my father, who did not grow up around animals and who is terrified of dogs, cats, and anything else that isn’t human, decided to become a veterinarian. He figured that was close to being a doctor. Besides, if he wasn’t great at it, at least he wouldn’t be accidentally killing people.

That also didn’t go well.

Back to my son. Clay learned to read. Which is good, because he’s now a 19-year-old sophomore at Duke, where they seem to require that he read a book most every day. In fact, he just had me read a book that he read in college.

When I said I wanted to tell two stories that are actually one, here’s what I meant: My father was a terrible pre-med student and an even worse pre-veterinarian student, but he eventually became a very good businessman because stocks and investments are fascinating to him. He didn’t have to change who he was; he, like all of us, just had to find where he fit. My son wasn’t a skilled reader when he was young and, thankfully, I somehow managed not to get in the way by trying to change him. After speaking to his teacher, here’s what I did instead: I let him be.

I read to him, because he really liked that. I read him complicated books and simple books and books about baseball and, of course, Harry Potter books, because, duh, why wouldn’t I.  Then one day he started to read, because it was time.

Grandpa and Clay
Claude’s father and Clay

I have three kids, one of whom I adopted from Ethiopia when he was five. I have, over the years, sometimes grown concerned (anxious, worried, troubled) about who those kids were and who they weren’t. I have worried that my son from Ethiopia was too loud and silly, that my daughter was too quiet, and that my son would never make it in the world if he couldn’t learn to read as fast as the other kids. Luckily for me, and my kids, every time I do worry, I think about how glad I am that my father who hates blood and sick people didn’t become a doctor, and how even more glad I am that I enjoyed reading to my son until he could read to himself. Because, I know now, people move at different speeds to different destinations. And the world needs all of them. Writers and doctors, silly and serious, and all of the rest. My kids are fine. So, for that matter, is my dad.

Oh, and by the way, I read that book my son read in college and I didn’t understand a word of it. Luckily, my son says he’s going to explain it to me the next time we see each other. Besides, he figures the world needs all kinds of people — and that I’m probably fine exactly as I am.