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A Mother's Gift of Choice

By Susan Froetschel

I only knew my mother for eight years, but she was the kind of mom who introduced her children to new activities and then stepped back, waiting to see if we flourished or stumbled. Brownie meetings, library visits and crafts in the park went well, while ballet and piano lessons were awkward disappointments. All my mother asked of her three children was that we try out new skills.

Jeanne-Marie Froetschel was 33 when she died after a heart attack in 1964, but I still remember long conversations with her while baking, gardening or waiting out long summer evenings on our front porch. She had strong ideas about education, religion, literature and politics, and she was adamant about her children lending a hand to others who were less fortunate.

But I don't recall her ever mentioning a potential career for me or my brother or sister. For her, we were blank books and she trusted us to fill the pages.

Looking back, I can't help but think that a child of the 1950s might have had more freedom and options than the children growing up fifty years later. Today, parents seem impatient for children to discover a sense of purpose. Literary classics repeatedly reveal that the journey in life is more enriching than the arrival, and yet modern parents can't help but be tempted to select a goal early and then relentlessly pursue it on behalf of their children.

In a society accustomed to many comforts, mothers are torn between two urges. Some days, we feel the urge to give our children every possible comfort, to minimize obstacles and provide a head start. At other times, we minimize intervention, an attempt to raise free thinkers, young people capable of independent observation and analysis, who by their choices, consistently take risks and act for the common good.

Like it or not, regardless of schools, activities or neighborhoods we select, surprises are part of the parenting package – and children can learn more than we even realize by exploring different paths, taking detours and even backtracking and starting over in new directions. Those on a single path tend to overrate ordinary failures and struggle to make friends based on their own attributes.

Those who work with children, including parents, must walk a fine line between holding high expectations for children while resisting easy labels that can limit childhood dreams. We must also balance belief in a child's dreams with capabilities and reality.

Children can be trusted to draft their own story. Every mother likes to think of her children as exceptional, and yet an early or excessive sense of exceptionalism inevitably leads to unhappiness.

My mother did not have big career plans for us, but she did shape our values and daily habits. She wanted to hear us talk about our day, as if it were a story. She was pleased if we went about our day without hurting another person's feelings and met others who did the same. Perhaps more than anything else, she taught us how even small, mundane choices are essential, because these establish our daily routines and often determine the direction of our lives. At the same time, we understood that a sense of purpose could give any of our most spontaneous acts more structure and meaning.

She made us strong, encouraging us to explore new ideas and preparing us for the time when her love would no longer surround us.

Susan Froetschel is the mother of a college student and the author of three
mystery books, including Royal Escape. If you are interested in guest blogging for On Parenting, please e-mail

By Stacey Garfinkle |  May 18, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Guest Blogs
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My oldest daughter graduates from HS in a few weeks and has already decided what she wants to be when she grows up.

A nurse, just like her mother!

And she got her acceptance letter from George Mason University where she will be attending this fall. (WooHoo! I've been doing a happy dance around the house for the past month.) I would like to think that my efforts as her father had something to do with this achievement, but for now, I'm giving her all the credit, which she deserves in full.

I asked her why she wants to be a nurse.

"Where else can you go to work and wear pajamas? Besides, other's people's guts don't bother me and I can handle barf.", - her words.

I m a very, very happy father!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | May 18, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

Whacky, Congratulations to the graduate and her acceptance to GMU - and to the proud parents!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 18, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Really nice essay - good reminder about the difference between gently guiding and pushing our children.

Congrats Whacky - nursing is truly important. When done well it makes all the difference and when done poorly, it makes all the difference. Well done.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | May 18, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Loved the essay. Just kinda bummed that it didn't come out yesterday -- so I could have xeroxed it and handed it out to selected parents at a certain swim meet we were attending . . .
Just kidding. Sorta . .

Posted by: Justsaying4 | May 18, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

"Looking back, I can't help but think that a child of the 1950s might have had more freedom and options than the children growing up fifty years later."

Ummm, yeah, not so much. Nice essay overall, but I gotta take issue with this. My mom was a child of the 1950s. Her "career" options started with "why would a nice girl like you want a 'career' anyway? You can catch a nice man," and went all the way to nurse, secretary, or teacher. And no one talked a lot about a "career" for the men in her town, either -- because it was just assumed that they'd go to work in the factory. Where else could you get a nice, stable job, at decent wages, with a high school diploma?

Don't get me wrong; my mom followed a similar open-minded approach, encouraging me to think critically, look at all my options, and get a great liberal arts education instead of focus too early on career plans, etc. And I wouldn't trade any of that. But really, it's all pretty much a luxury, isn't it? There are a heck of a lot of people who need to work to support their families, who can't afford $200K for that nice liberal arts degree.

If there has been a change over time, I think the increase in college costs have a lot to do with it. I was able to get that great liberal arts degree for about the same price as the starting salary in my ultimate field. Now my own alma mater costs 2-3 times that amount -- it's really a luxury. So, yes, I think we do our kids a disservice if we push them too hard in one direction. But I also think we do them a disservice if we encourage them to follow their dreams without thinking about the financial consequences. I have a friend who went to Harvard Law -- because, hey, you get in to Harvard Law, you go, right? He graduated with $150K in debt. And then discovered (a) he really wanted to buy a house, but couldn't because he already owed so much money, (b) he hated big firm life, and (c) he really wanted to be an FBI agent, but couldn't because he had so much debt to pay back. So he ended up working at big firms for several more years, just to get the debt paid down to a level that allowed him to follow his dream.

Seems to me that, if you want to encourage your kids to explore their options, part of that advice may need to be NOT to chase that "dream" school. Or at least counterbalance the "follow your dreams" info with some insight into the tradeoffs that that involves.

Posted by: laura33 | May 18, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Nicely written. I can only hope to do as well with my own DD.

Posted by: ishgebibble | May 18, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

I definitely agree with Laura33 about the "follow your dreams" ethic. Where I've found success, it's been a combination of being prepared and being lucky. The kids graduating today are not so lucky and I can understand if they feel betrayed when they worked hard and followed a dream that isn't going to materialize anytime soon in this economy. I also know kids who went into the arts as part of following their dream -- except they can't actually support themselves and no one really encouraged them to think about that!

Posted by: annenh | May 18, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

"Looking back, I can't help but think that a child of the 1950s might have had more freedom and options than the children growing up fifty years later."

Huh? Female children? Children of color? Children with special needs?.....

Posted by: jezebel3 | May 18, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

What Laura said. My parents came of age in the 1950s. My father's choices in small town Louisiana were (a) go to work in the paper mill (b) join the Army. My mother's choices were (a) try to snag a husband who made good money (b) get a full scholarship to college and try to snag a husband who made good money (c) get a full scholarship to college and get a job as a teacher.

Luckily for me, Dad chose (b) and Mom chose (c) then they met a few years later.

Living my teenaged years in the New Orleans suburbs in the 70s, my choices were (a) learn a trade; (b) join the Army; (c) get a scholarship to a local college (CSS, of course :-) and work to pay the rest of my expenses, and then get the heck out of there to make a better life. I chose (c).

Sorry, I'm just not much for rose-colored glasses where opportunities are concerned. Yeah, I had a great life (in non-material ways) growing up and I wouldn't trade the "growing up as an Army brat" life for anything, but let's get real about the opportunities that exist for kids today vs. those that existed for a lot of us.

Now, frankly, that was one of my personal goals - I WANTED to make sure that my kids had more opportunities than me.

Whacky - Much congratulations! Happy times in the weasel household.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 18, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

" "Looking back, I can't help but think that a child of the 1950s might have had more freedom and options than the children growing up fifty years later."

Huh? Female children? Children of color? Children with special needs?....."

White, male, children of working-class parents?

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 18, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Laura, as usual a good post.

My mom was intent on us getting a college degree. Three girls, none of us was taught to cook/clean/take care of a house, etc. But we lived somewhere where just about everyone went to college, and her dream for us was to give us an education, so we would have the choices she did not have.

And, to piggyback on Laura's post...I say to my kids and my husband, if the kids don't want to go to college, well, they don't have to go...but we will show them that education is important to us, and that we think they should go, yada yada...I saw too many kids fail out of school, that I do not want that to be my kid. I want my kid to want to go, otherwise, what's the point? Getting a job that pays min wage out of high school is an education. I wouldn't let the kid stay home and watch tv all day - they'd have to pay rent or move out, and they'd figure out how it isn't the best fun, again, an education, but not necessarily college.

We have done our kids (in this country) a big disservice by pushing ALL of them to college. Now one needs a college degree to answer the absurd. Seriously - NOT everyone should go to college. We seem to be so short sighted in this country. There is not one path for all. That is why tuitions have increased astronomically, and have you been on a college campus lately? Seriously - I know where they're spending their money, and it's not in education (beautiful gyms, gorgeous dorms, etc).

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 18, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

and, OT to Laura: I'm reading how to raise your spirited child, and I see my child in there...and yours. Only a little bit into it (seriously, with a spirited child, who has time to read almost 500 pages!). But it's a relief to read it. And I see where he gets it all from, too...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 18, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Back in 1967 when I was in 1st grade, we had a little booklet to prepare for "Back to School" night. The booklet was entitled, "All About Me" and it had places to show your favorite book, color, game, etc. The very back of the book said "What I want to be when I grow up" and it had two columns where you could place a check mark - one for girls and one for boys. The boys column had choices like fireman, policeman, doctor, astronaut. The girls column had 3 choices - teacher, nurse or mommy. I checked nurse. When my Mom saw that, she took me aside and told me that I would NOT be a nurse - if I wanted to work in a hospital I should be a doctor!

I think my little feminist Mom actually helped expand my choices - not limit them - by talking to me about potential careers.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | May 18, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

On the college track, look at your county and see how many Vocational HS's there are? We have 1 in our county, it is sad. The emphasis in NoVa HS's is the percentage of graduates that go to College. You have to brace your child to not feel like they are inferior because they haven't gone into college right out of HS, when they may be inclined to work in an apprenticeship or enter the job market right out of HS.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love for my children to go to college and study something they are passionate about, but if they find their passion in a non-college route - I will be equally supportive. If the decision is to enter the job market, I'd encourage them to take a class or 2 at the Community College level to get their feet wet, so to speak. I know too many kids that did not thrive in HS but did very well in college, starting at the CC level or staying at home the first year but finishing their degree in a reasonable amount of time while also working part or full time.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 18, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Groovis, Even as late as 1985 when I graduated from HS we took a occupational assessment test and the results for the boy and girls was very different. If a girl was not a math/science wiz they were stuck in a no-man's land of "administrative assistant" or "office personel" and told to go to secretarial or correspondence school. I think I got "admin asst" and my mother threw the paper away. My counselor then recommended to me and about a dozen other girls I knew (I know there were more) not to waste our time going to college because we didn't have "stellar HS careers" - meaning we were the mindless rabble in the middle. My mother told me he was full of crap and to get my applications in, and I got into 3/5 schools I applied to. Most of the other girls didn't listen either and almost all went on to college. All I can say is - Thanks mom!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 18, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Well I think it is a little of both. You want your kids to dream big but also have on step in reality.

I do agree college should have some career planning but there is nothing wrong with exploring many options.

I also don't think the push she was talking about was so much in college. It seems as if he/she was talking about was in general. It seems as if parents push their kids in one direction for a lot of different activities. Like one specific sport, one specific instrument, etc...

I also agree that not everyone should go to college. But it is hard for parents not to try to gear them that way. Because a college degree still leads a greater probability of attaining a middle class future.

Congrats Wacky!

Laura, I went LA too. I, personally, highly recommend it. It wasn't like a sat around dreaming of becoming a statistician. It just sort of happened that way. In fact, I doubt anyone dreams of becoming a statistician.

Posted by: foamgnome | May 18, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

atlmom, yeah, great book -- glad you're getting useful stuff out of it (really changed my view of my "failure" as a mother!).

Groovus, you remind me of the book my mom got removed from the approved reading list when I was in school: "Boys Are, Girls Are" -- boys are doctors, girls are nurses; etc. My personal favorite: "boys fix things, girls need things fixed." Argh.

It's funny, I actually really enjoyed the post today, because it embodies what I want for my kids. We're saving ridiculous amounts of money in the hope that I can offer my kids the same deal my mom offered me: they get into the best school they can, and we will find a way to pay for it. I want nothing more than to be able to give my kids the freedom to go wherever they want, explore all sorts of options, find their dream, and chase it. Like AB says, I want them to have more opportunities than I did. But I'm also hyper-aware that having that kind of freedom is a tremendous privilege, and it bugs me a bit when people seem to take it for granted.

Posted by: laura33 | May 18, 2009 11:30 AM | Report abuse

ArmyBrat and laura have said it all today. Pack up your lunch boxes and head home, 'nuts.

Posted by: anonfornow | May 18, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

What amazes me about the post is that you only knew your mother for eight years, yet obtained all of that insight. Am I the only one finding that hard to believe?

Posted by: SilverSpringMom1 | May 18, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

ooooooooo k.

i love all of the fairy tale posts today!

not to come in here as mr. cynic, but seriously folks... is there someone here who is 'living their dream'?

i hope my daughter doesn't chase the dream that she has in her head when she's 17 years old!!! grow up, live a little then figure out what's important to you.

my version of 'the dream' is about having friends, family and a life full of fun. work really has nothing to do with it.

and as far as not going to college? no way. school ends after 16 years, not 12. i know a ton of people who didn't go to university and every single one regrets it on some level.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 18, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

interesting, never say never. You have NO idea what your daughter is going to want to do after HS, and good luck forcing a 17-18 year old to go to college.

I know people that have regretted not going to college too, but the traditional 4 year right after HS model does not work for everyone. As you get older (thinking you are about 10 years younger than me) you may have a different opinion.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 18, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

"In a society accustomed to many comforts, mothers are torn between two urges. Some days, we feel..."

Give me a flippin break. Only a writer would have the arrogance to reduce parenting to motherhood, and motherhood to some ridiculous dichotomous choice.

Write whatever you want about your experience, but don't expect me to buy into your "we are, we feel" nonsense.

Posted by: 06902 | May 18, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Interesting: Why don't they go to college now? Seriously - people who 'regret' something like that...well, they can go NOW. What's stopping them? And don't say 'life' because one can take out loans, etc, and it's not easy, but nothing is, really.
Going right after high school leads many many students to drop out, which, in my mind, is a waste of money. There are all sorts of ways to get an education.
And what about trade school? Is that not good enough, either? Or culinary school? or so many things that college isn't needed for...?

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 18, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I enjoyed reading Susan's comments. I lost my mother early as well, although not as early on as Susan did. I remember a time when girls in high school chose to become teachers, nurses or secretaries. Today, those same girls can choose from many professions: lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc. The opportunities are there.

Posted by: jacquelineseewald | May 18, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

When my brother was graduating from high school four years he had under a 3.0, hated school, partied, and absolutely did not want to go to college. I was very persistent that he had to go to college the first two years, take all the core classes, and see what interested him. Well, now four years later he is graduating having been on the Dean's List the last three years, absolutely loved college and even studied abroad. So to those of you who say "college isn't for everyone" maybe it isn't but why wouldn't you want the best options for your loved ones.

Posted by: sunflower571 | May 18, 2009 9:07 PM | Report abuse

I see so many good writings advising parents on raising their children. My book, "The IKE Disease," is different in that it is a one on one counseling session with the reader (teenager) encouraging them to make decisions leading to a happy, successful life. For additional information on IKE please visit my website at:
God Bless!!!

Posted by: Speedcat | May 19, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Beautiful piece, which says it all - "she did shape our values and daily habits."
- the one great gift we must all give the next generation to save the planet.

Posted by: irenevanh | May 19, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

A nice reminder that parents can also do more harm than good if they try to micromanage too much. Parents should provide the foundation and leave it to the children to build.

Posted by: empmat | May 20, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

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