Out Of The Chaos: Notes On Raising Nine Independent Children

Raising the High-Achiever
by Lex de Azevedo

Emily as a BabyAs a young father I valued achievement.  After all, aren’t high-achievers at less risk for self-destructive behavior?  Aren’t high-achievers part of the solution, and low-achievers part of the problem?  Aren’t high achievers the ones that change the world?

It all started the day she was born.  She was our third child. This was the third time we had taken the birthing classes.  We knew the drill well and were totally prepared…well, almost totally prepared.  I don’t recall the exact timing, or sequence of events; I just remember barely having enough time to put on my gown, booties and mask when suddenly, she shot out and the doctor caught her like a quarter back catching a hike from the center.  “Wow, that was fast!” I thought.  Linda, her mom, probably remembers it differently.

Eight months later we did a photo shoot with Emilie and she was selected to be a “Gerber Baby,” appearing in ads for Gerber baby products.  “It really helps to have good genes”, I thought as I congratulated myself on producing such a beautiful child.   By age three she was dancing, singing and charming her way into the graces of our friends.  “What a beautiful, talented child, they would exclaim!  How did you teach her to sing so well?”  Feigning modesty, I would respond something like, “Oh, it really has very little to do with me.  She just came that way.”

Parent-Teacher Nights were every parent’s dream.  “Hello.  I’m Lex and this is my wife Linda.  We are Emilie’s parents.”  Ms. Whatever-Her-Name-Was’s eyes would begin to fill up with tears.  “Your child (sniff sniff) is an absolute angel. (more sniff)  If all children were like Emilie, this would be a beautiful world!  Not only is she the best student in the class, but she has befriended the little girl from Salvador, who doesn’t speak English, whom all the other kids ignore.”  “Yep, that’s my kid!” I said to myself.

Around age 7 she announced her intention to be in commercials.  “Bad idea,” I said.  “A very bad idea!” “Neither your mom, nor I have the time to run you around to auditions.  If you want to do commercials, you’re going to need your own agent and driver.  Several days later, Bonnie Larson, a friend and neighbor with ties to the commercial industry informed us that Emilie had approached her and that she had agreed-with our approval-to be Emilie’s agent and manage her new career in commercials, including supplying her transportation. By age twelve her commercial career had blossomed into a full-fledged voice over career, dubbing Japanese cartoons into English.  The Robotek series was one of her accounts.

Sometime during her 9th year Emilie discovered the miracle of the free-enterprise system. I came home to find the hallway stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of little bars of hotel soaps. Emilie had contracted with a local hotel to stuff the boxes with little soaps for 4 cents per box and had hired her siblings to do all the work for her at 2 cents per box, thereby keeping a handy little profit of 2 cents per box off of the labor of her siblings.  I was pleased. The free-enterprise system had served me well. I considered charging her for the storage space she was using in the hallway, but abandoned the idea not wanting to dampen her entrepreneurial spirit.

emrunning2Emilie had never demonstrated much interest in physical education, but at the beginning of the 8th grade she announced that it was time for her to “get in shape.” That spring she decided to enter the Junior High School track meet.  I watched her line up next to some African-American co-eds twice her size, thinking, “This is going to be ugly! ”  We and the crowd went wild as this little kid, under 4’10”, barely weighing 100 lbs set a new school record for the 880 run and the mile!  “Yep, that’s my kid.  Unstoppable!”

It is not always easy for the good kid.  Emilie’s intense personality generated some sibling rivalry at times, and the other children tended to gang up on her.  “Emilie, you’re such a goody-goody, always kissing up to Mom and Dad.  You think you are always right.  Stop telling us what to do and how to live our lives!”  There were many nights she went to bed in tears.  “Why do they hate me, Daddy?”  “They don’t hate you, Honey,” I would say.  “It is just that . . . “Well, how do you explain to a 7 year-old.  I remember an occasion when she was in the 11th grade and Linda and I were struggling with two younger rebellious siblings.  Emilie completely lost control and burst into the room screaming: “I can’t stand this any longer.  Mom and Dad love you and would do anything for you.  You are mean, selfish, nasty, ungrateful brats! You should be ashamed of yourselves!”  She stormed out in tears leaving us all speechless.

Sometimes it is not easy for the parents of the high achiever.  Emilie not only had to get “A”s, but she had to have the highest “A” in the class.  If she got an “A-” on a test she would come home fuming and fussing and then go back and challenge the teacher.  It seemed like she had to participate in every school, church and social event, which in itself wasn’t so bad, except that she had a way of sucking us all into the vortex of her over-programmed life.  “Dad! Dad, can you go pick up my dress?  I’ve gotta run back to school because I forgot my homework and I’m already late for my Young Women’s meeting at church . . . and Mom, can you proof my report and make copies? It’s due in the morning and I won’t be home till late.  Oh and by the way, Dad, can we go jogging at 5:30, instead of 6:00 tomorrow morning so we can spend some time rehearsing my audition songs for the school musical?”  Good grief!

I began to suspect that there might be a compulsive-obsessive component to her need to achieve.  On one occasion when she was driving us all crazy, I completely lost it. I stood there screaming at her:  “Emilie, stop it!  Stop this insanity!  Stop the madness!  I can’t take it any longer.  For once in your life I dare you to get a “B”! I dare you to sleep in and play hooky! FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, I DARE YOU TO BE AVERAGE!!!”  (Did I really say that?)   She didn’t even hear me.  She stood there for a moment like a deer caught in the headlights . . . and then spun around: “Sorry, I got to go.  I’m late for my study group.”

Well, as you might suspect, she graduated in the top 5 of her senior high school class as a Sterling Scholar, received a full 4-year scholarship to BYU, graduated with honors, worked as a missionary in southern Spain, married Derek Brown and put him through law school. They now have two boys, who play piano, violin, and guitar, run track and are learning Chinese.  She still maintains her thriving voice over career, is the children’s music leader in her church and, as most of you know, is the co-creator of Signing Time.  I, her father, now work for her!  Go figure.

I started out by saying that as a young father I valued achievement.  I’ve been a father for 42 years and I see things differently now. Through the years I have witnessed cause and effect in the lives of human beings and have come to believe that high achievement in one’s youth is not necessarily a predictor of a successful, productive life.  There is the adage that A students often end up working for B students in companies owned by C students.  Like the race between the tortoise and the hare, many high achievers burn out, as it were, while low achievers, who are really just slow starters, rise up and win the race. I have also come to believe that some high achievers achieve for the wrong reasons and that why we achieve may be a more powerful predictor of future success than what we achieve in our youth.

As for Emilie, it may be that one of the best things that came from her achievements is that she made us, her parents, look good and she gave us hope during some of our darkest parenting hours.  More than her achievements, however, it is her loving heart of which I am proud.  Emilie is a collector.  Some kids collect dolls, or figurines, but Emilie collects friends.  They came to our home in droves.  They spent the night, went to church, the beach and the mountains with our family.  I don’t know anyone that is more loved and has more friends than Emilie.

Given a choice between a child that is a high achiever and a child with a pure, loving heart . . . there is really no choice.  At the end of the day love trumps all.

Wishing you Dad’s out there a Fathers Day filled with love.

Warmly,

Emilie’s Dad,

Lex