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The A to Z's of Teenagers: P Is for Potential

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“Your kid really has potential!”

Are there sweeter words you can hear about your daughter or son from a teacher, a coach or the parent sitting next to you at the school play?

Potential. Promise. Aptitude. A talent in the making. The chance for greatness. It is thrilling to see the possibilities in your child, and sometimes even more thrilling to see that others see it.

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When Lizzie’s 6th grade band teacher told me she was a “natural “ on the alto sax, I dreamed of her soloing at the next concert, and auditioning for the statewide band, and taking a year off after high school to tour Europe with equally talented musicians. When her middle school track coach raved about her discus-throwing abilities, I imagined the Olympics. When her 10th grade culinary teacher said she had real promise in the kitchen, I envisioned the extraordinary restaurant she would open (becoming the youngest chef to win the James Beard Award, of course) or the cliché-busting bakery she would start. It would be called The Smart Cookie, and people would line up to buy bakers’ dozen boxes of hazelnut coconut bars and malted milk cappuccino crumbles, and the brand would go national and then international and she’d be a regular on Rachael Ray until she got her own show on OWN.

OK, so you get the idea. I can—I do—get carried away imagining various amazing futures for my full-of-potential daughter. This is good. And bad.

It’s good because it shows how much I admire her talents, which are so very different from my own. And it’s good because it keeps me excited and hopeful during times when things are not going that well. By “things” I mean our roller-coaster relationship. Or Lizzie’s super casual attitude toward homework resulting in one of those letter grades on a report card that would be admirable as a bra size but not so admirable as an evaluation of mastery of geometry. And my enthusiasm and dreamy investment in the possibilities of her future also means I am alert to and excited about opportunities that might fuel that future: lessons offered by a jazz musician, training with a former NCAA record-holder, an internship at an artisanal bakery, etc.

And then there’s the flip side.

It’s a burden to have potential.

It's the overeager mother side. The "jump into your life and take over" side. The "I’m more invested in your future than you are" side because ... oh right: You’re a teenager, and you’re thinking about your boyfriend and how cool it is to be driving and that ridiculous cat-chasing-laser-pointer YouTube video everyone’s talking about. You’re not thinking about creating the Smart Cookie brand or winning gold in Rio in 2016. That’s me. Those are my dreams.

It’s not like I don’t have dreams of my own. In fact, I am actively pursuing dreams of my own. I am not trying to live through my daughter. Really, I am not. But I can’t help getting excited when I see her potential. I can’t help swelling with pride when someone else takes note of her potential. I have to learn to enjoy those moments without inserting myself into them, without taking up too much space in my daughter’s full-of-promise life. I have to leave her room, vast and endless acres of room, to dream her own dreams.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

I don’t usually read my mom’s posts before I write my own, but this time I did. And I’m kind of glad. I’m glad because she’s admitting that she can get overexcited about stuff in my life. I mean more excited than me, which feels weird. But it’s cool to know that she cares as much as she does. I just wish she’d keep it to herself sometimes, if you know what I mean.

Also, when I read her post and the good and the bad of potential, I realized that I feel exactly the same way but for different reasons. The “good” goes like this. I love it when people say I’m great! Ha ha. Seriously, who wouldn’t get a big boost of self-esteem if a teacher or a coach praises you and thinks you’ll go far? Who wouldn’t feel proud? Parents are always telling you how great you are (except when you screw up), so you expect that. When other people say something, you really listen.

So that’s the good. Here’s the “bad.” It’s a burden to have potential. It piles on expectations. So, like what my mom wrote about with my track coach in middle school, he thought I was amazing. (And I was district champ all three years in middle school.) He piled on these hopes that I would be the one to break this 30-year school record for disc. And I mean piled on. In our last meet in 8th grade, he was so intense that it pretty much freaked me out. I didn’t break the record.

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Or my culinary teacher. I think more because of his praise than because of my own true interest, I took culinary arts classes at the local community college. I got a job on the line in the kitchen of a local restaurant. And you know what? I didn’t like the classes and I didn’t like working in the kitchen. I’m glad I found that out. But I’m just saying that it was this idea that someone thought I had “potential” that pushed me in that direction.

Now I’m interning at a charity that helps feed the homeless in my town. My two bosses say I have great “potential” in social work or psychology. Maybe I do. I don’t know. But right now I want this experience to be interesting and useful and fun—and not a burden.

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