Only one of my four wonderful children has expressed explicit and ongoing interest in going to medical school—my daughter Elysa. She's a rising high school junior and a fantastic student with all the standard phenotypic traits of collegicus premedicus.
She constantly worries over homework, projects, tests, and grades. She checks her GPA frequently via the school online portal. She is already planning her college tours and wondering what sorts of activities and volunteerism she needs to have on her academic resume to get into the right school with a good scholarship. She has what it takes. But here's the thing—I have no idea whether she'll go into medicine.
I don't say this for lack of confidence in my brilliant, charming daughter. I say it because she's 16, for crying out loud! And because she hasn't even scratched the surface when it comes to seeing what's out there in the world. But the best part is I'm totally fine with that because, fortunately for her, she isn't me.
Being a physician is great. By that I mean it is great for me. I don't know if Elysa would like it; only time will answer that question as she sees and learns more or finds other paths to follow.
Obviously, I would love to see my child follow in my footsteps. I'm very proud of my work and my accomplishments; I'd love to see her discover the wonders and triumphs, love and mystery of a medical career. But everyone knows that our pride and satisfaction come at a high price. On the itemized receipt that lists the various costs (along with chronic fatigue, student loan debt, loss of your 20s, and delayed gratification) is a nasty thing we develop and carry around called the “unreasonable expectations of others.”
Medical Baggage and Garbage
Most of us are pretty hard-working, self-motivated, self-denying individuals. Medicine selects that sort of human being, and then takes their skills and hones them razor-sharp. When the process is complete, physicians have a hard time relating to “regular” people and their all too human tendencies.
Physicians can't comprehend people who are satisfied with mediocre grades. We don't understand when people don't have plans. We tell people that if they want to stop smoking, they should “just quit” because we delude ourselves into thinking that we would. We tell abused women that they should “just leave” because we think we would (and, of course, we imagine we would have the money and support to do so).
But worst of all, we apply all of that medical baggage and garbage to our own children. We expect them to work hard in school because learning is awesome, right? We are confident that they should play a sport, belong to this or that club, work, volunteer, experience, travel, and simply do it all! We know these things because we believe they worked for us.
Once our kids finish high school, we feel certain that they should go to good colleges and get four-year degrees. As physicians, we all had four-year degrees, and that's what you do. Smart people, accomplished people, people who are intelligent and influential simply must have college degrees! Otherwise they'd be so, well, common. And not just any college will do! We are all too easily convinced that intelligence is only marked by degrees and diplomas because we spent decades pursuing them. And yet.
I have a son who is taking a break from college. He works in a jewelry store, and likes it quite a lot. When I tell people this, those with college degrees look at me with a head turned sympathetically to the side. “Well, maybe he'll go back to school later.” The tone is one of “I'm so sorry; I hope this horrible tragedy passes.”
Or maybe, I think, he won't. Maybe he'll stay a jeweler, learn another trade, or own a business. Maybe he'll go back to school. Who knows? God does, but I sure don't. If he can support himself and he's happy, that's good enough for me. More importantly, if he's a good man, the rest will work itself out. He doesn't need to do things exactly the way his mother and I did.
Let the Kids Decide
We have to show mercy and grace to our children. They aren't the same as we are. They are all magnificent new combinations of DNA. They have unique skills, interests, and passions. They have their own roles to play in the world.
It's entirely unfair of us to try to shape their passions, interests, and personalities in our own images. They may be physicians. They may go to college or open a pizza shop. They may marry early and have children, or may have none and be impoverished volunteers for the downtrodden. Some may have mundane jobs, but are deliriously happy relaxing at home each night, spouses and children at their sides, with nobody dying, bleeding, or screaming around them.
Let me remind everyone that when our kids decide they specifically don't want to go into medicine, it's often an “evidence-based” decision. They see what it does to our lives, our bodies, our attitudes, our anxieties. They write that down in their hearts and minds, and mark medicine with a “Danger!” sign and move on.
Let's remember that the kids have their own paths to follow. It's up to us to love and help them, and it's up to them to decide which way to go. We get to enjoy the excitement of watching their lives unfold.
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