Education, Children and Parents

Reading CNN’s money page I ran across a column by the father of a four year old who “wigged out” when his child didn’t pass the exam to be part of New York City’s gifted child program.   He, like many parents, are very concerned about the education their child will receive, and what that might mean down the line.  He ultimately makes a good point that the background of the parents are a good predictor of how a child will do, and raises legitimate concerns about whether there is equal opportunity for a quality education.  But what are parents thinking!?

I was not a good student through 10th or 11th grade.  Even as I finished high school I was inconsistent.  In classes I liked I could pull A’s, but in classes I hated I was usually in the C or B range.   I think in my class of  589 students I was number 187 (I’ve always been good with remembering numbers — one claim to fame I have is I could tell time at age 4).    I also rarely studied.  I could cram during study hall and pass the test thanks to a good short term memory.  In junior high I had real problems.  I dropped out of one class without telling anyone.  I simply stopped showing up, telling the teacher I had switched to a study hall.  Instead I went to the library or roamed the school.   I failed photography because I didn’t do the work (that was not an easy class to fail).  I didn’t really care, and I hated the structure.

In short, if my parents were the kind of helicopter parent that are prevalent today, they’d have been panicking over me, sending me to some kind of learning assistance program, or blaming the teachers for not engaging me.   It wasn’t until high school debate, which I found fun and engaging, that I actually decided to take my work seriously.  Still, in college my first two exams were returned on the same day — an “F” on a philosophy test, and a “D” on a biology test.   At that point I decided to start taking it seriously.  I ultimately graduated summa cum laude, fifth in my class, and went to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies for my MA.  I now have a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and teach.

I’m not stating that to brag, only to point out that getting an education is not something you miss out on if you don’t get the best teachers and schooling at an early age.   For most of us (not including those who have real learning disabilities and need special care), it’s OK (to be sure, not optimal) to spin our wheels through some of our school years.    I recall in grad school running across fellow students who were really stressed out because they were used to being at the top and didn’t like being “average,” even if it was in a top notch graduate program.    Since I was used to not being at the top, I avoided that stress.

All of this reflecting leads me to a few points about education that I think parents should consider:

1.  For most kids, it’s not about finding a method to get them to learn or improve their performance, it’s about motivating them to want to learn.   Parents can do that regardless of what’s happening in school; summer and weekends can be fun education.   Make it fun, the learning will follow!

2.  We parents need to augment what goes on in the schools, and not be jerks who complain to the teacher if we think our precious child is getting unfair treatment.   That’s life, and every child will spin a story to make it appear they are the victim.   Just watch siblings have very different descriptions of the  same fight over a toy!   That doesn’t mean not to ever ask questions or express concerns — quite the contrary, we should be engaged and communicate.   But be respectful of the teacher and recognize that in almost all cases the teacher is trying their hardest.  (Yes, grammar nazis, I’m using third person plural instead of he/she, or his/hers, and I’m proud of it!)

3.  Childhood is for play.   Learning need not be competitive.   Kids don’t need to shine as the best in their class, especially not on every subject.  This part of life is for fun, and if kids learn to have fun as children, they will be more likely to have fun adult lives.  If they take on tasks with stress and pressure as children, that’s how they’ll experience adulthood.   What would you rather have your child be, a stressed out business leader earning $150,000 whose life is full of anxiety and pressure, or someone earning $40,000, but who loves life and has a good circle of friends?   My parents let me experience childhood as magical, and I still look at life that way.

4.  Children who are very difficult when young — headstrong and stubborn — probably will end up having the strength to avoid peer pressure and chart their own course when they are older.   Yes, children have to learn to behave, but better to have a little rebel than a Stepford child.  (At least, I hope I’m right here, given Ryan and Dana’s personalities.   Oh any students reading who don’t get the “Stepford” reference, click here.)

5.  Don’t give up!  Even when I was a poor to average student, my mom and dad talked about it as a certainty that I’d go to college, and that I could do anything.  They’d try to get me to work harder, but they didn’t do anything to make me fear I’d become a failure or that I was risking my life if I didn’t do better in eighth grade.  Keep a positive attitude and positive visions of the future — that will stick with them, and help kids have the attitude needed to succeed.  Negativity breeds failure, after all.

6.   Don’t overprogram!   Yeah, there’s soccer camp, theater camp, baseball, dancing and the like.   I wrote last February how great a local ski program, Alpine Snow Kids, was for Ryan (then age 5).  But keep enough free time to have fun together, and have times during the day to relax and reflect.   We don’t want kids to grow up addicted to having their lives scheduled — it’s OK to just go out in the woods, relax by a lake, or sit down with a book.   Time stress shouldn’t start early!

7.   It’s OK if kids watch TV, even things that aren’t PBS, or that have violence.   Kids have imaginations, but they also aren’t fragile little vessels ready to become serial killers if they happen to wake up and catch you watching some kind of action movie.   I mean, we should have common sense, but the more control we try to exercise over kids, the less they’ll learn to control their own decisions.

And ultimately, don’t we want our children to grow up to be able to autonomously make good choices on their own, rather than relying on rules and authority figures to set boundaries for them?

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  1. #1 by slgreatsuccess on June 29, 2009 - 22:24

    Great blog and your points are well taken. Kids need downtime to explore the great outdoors. Overscheduling can be a big mistake. They need to find their own ways to use that downtime. It leads to creative minds. I always felt I would rather have a happy child than one who has been directed every waking moment. So what if they don’t follow the path you want for them – I never expected to be the mom of a soccer player who has gone to the NCAA championships twice and a filmmaker- that is a different combination of talents! That is the path he has chosen and is happy and extremely motivated because he found his own passions in life. He is not out of college, yet he is already a special effects artist with a great film production company! Go figure!

  2. #2 by Josh on June 30, 2009 - 01:44

    Great thoughts.

    I believe work ethic is the most important thing for a young person to develop as quickly as possible. I’ve known of students achieving straight A’s in high school but later dropping out of college because they couldn’t handle the work load. They had not been challenged enough as a high school student and did not understand what “real work” was.

    Students shouldn’t feel like they NEED to get straight A’s, but they should be taught to do their best and give an honest effort. They should be taught that, after trying their best, then it’s no big deal if they get a “B” or “C” here and there.

    As long as you’re willing to work, then you’ll make it in life.

  3. #3 by Lee on June 30, 2009 - 12:47

    Great post! The only reason I homeschool is because our public school is so overburdened that in the cases of both children their teachers said homeschooling was a great idea! Now it is just part of our life and I won’t go back to the well of public ed for child 3 and 4.

    I believe in learning being interesting and child led when possible. My 5 y/o is extremely receptive to this and has been known to pick out math workbooks with his allowance when we go to Barnes and Noble. (and this was not directed by me!!)

    I also think time to imagine and have down time and creative play is hugely important. . . I’ll agree to disagree on the TV (grin)

  4. #4 by languagelover on July 1, 2009 - 20:40

    Another thing to consider is that many parents and students don’t actually know what the goal of school is. Often, it’s all about the piece of paper. They don’t really care what happens along the way (Heaven forbid they worry about actual learning) but as long as they can get the letter grade, honor roll, diploma, etc…, they are happy.

    Along the lines of finding out how students learn is also finding out what students are interested in. Too many students of mine are uninterested in almost everything, but are obsessed about one thing. It’s hard to gain their attention when their entire world revolves around a card game, video game, book series, etc..

  5. #5 by henitsirk on July 13, 2009 - 19:41

    Love of learning is so crucial, and I think it’s the natural state of a child that often gets suppressed by too much intellectual pressure at a young age.

    I’m conflicted about being identified as “gifted.” I started out in a private Lutheran school, which did not identify children as such. I recall loving school, helping others to learn what I already had absorbed, and having lots of nonacademic, well-rounded activities (arts, field trips, even simply recess). Then in 3rd grade we relocated and I started at a public school. I was tested and put in the “gifted and talented” program. I don’t recall getting much out of that, other than having occasional separate class work, and being put 2 years ahead in reading (a social disaster, I might add).

    I got straight A’s until 6th or 7th grade, when I became a professional underachiever. I was very much like you, doing well in classes that I liked, doing very little real studying, getting by on my ability to write essays easily and being a good test taker. I did marginally well in college.

    I look at my children and see where they are “gifted”. My son is very good with mechanical things, taking them apart, making odd sculptures out of wires and random bits of stuff. My daughter is a very good singer for her age and can remember songs from one or two hearings. She is also a good storyteller out of her own imagination. They both know how to read and seem to love it.

    It’s funny that you made that comment about willful children. Rudolf Steiner said something to the effect that willfulness and mischievousness is hard for adults to deal with, but it is a very good thing. He said to watch out for overly obedient children — they probably have an underlying issue with something!

    As for TV, I’m sure you’ve heard my position before. I don’t think very small children (as are yours and mine) are ready to control their own decisions when confronted with most media content. I think we still have to protect them. I’ve allowed my kids to watch a few videos and see a few movies this summer, for really the first time. I can see who deeply it affects them, even kid-friendly fare like Up. But I’m not trying to raise social pariahs, either.

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