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As Long as We Remember...

March 16, 2010

Life’s Successes

Nick Diaz

To educate children and adolescents, good schools know that they must also spend time educating parents. When parents are not on the same page with educators, children move through the conflicts of misaligned home and school life, receiving opposite messages rather than similarly focused ones from both sides. Accordingly, here are some observations that parents and educators can contemplate together.


In choosing a school, school district, or attendance area, parents should place high value on their child's peers.


When considering the quality of "better schools," too many parents miss one of the most essential drivers of student and school achievement: the peer group and student culture at a school.


While elementary school-age children continue to identify with the values of their family and the example of their parents, by middle school the psychological separation from parents begins. In other words, by middle school, parents' influence on their children begins to wane in proportion to the influence of peers. Thus, the quality of one's peer group is critical to healthy and successful development.


Fortunately, there's a "test" one can apply to peer groups: the cafeteria test. At the schools you are considering for your child, observe not only classes but also the cafeteria, using your "blink reaction" to the various groups and cliques you find there.


Do you see a group of students with which your child would feel comfortable?


Do you see groups that you'd like your child to avoid?


How do students speak to and treat one another?


How do they interact with adults?


Ultimately, you want to choose a school where the groupings are few but healthy, where it's cool to be "smart," where the athletes also participate in the arts and the MATHCOUNTS team, where the artists go out for sports and the science fair, where everyone strives to perform academically.


Too little parenting is selfish and irresponsible; too much parenting is unhealthy.


Novelist James Baldwin once observed that, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." School leaders and veteran teachers constantly remind new teachers and staff members that the educator's job is to model the values they wish their students to display.


This works well when the values of teachers and parents match up, but it's a problem when the parents' and school's values conflict. Too often we see one of two extremes with parents: either a lack of responsible parenting ("under-parenting"), or zealous parenting that is hovering and controlling ("over-parenting").


Under-parenting occurs when parents are afraid to establish boundaries for their children, or when love and approval are conditional, even conspiratorial. A parent once told me about "The Deal" his children said prevailed at their high school: Parent says in so many words and gestures, "As long as you perform well academically and athletically, I won't scrutinize too carefully what you do on weekends."


It is, however, exactly their children's behavior on weekends, and weeknights, that parents should scrutinize, since this is when most trouble happens. A wiser "deal" to strike: "I'll trust you to do your homework, to show up for your activities, and to stick to rules. On the other hand, if you break the rules and violate the trust, then we go back to not trusting you for a time and supervising you more closely.


On my wall at school:  “It’s not that I don’t trust you – I just don’t trust you…”


By the way, the more a child is involved in healthy activities such as sports, musicals, student government, academic competition, the less direct parenting one needs to do. Contrary to admonitions by some cultural observers, parents should not worry too much about teenagers’ over-packed schedule; instead, they should be thankful for it.


Those activities tend to self-organize a child's time and interest. In all these activities, the school's coaches and advisors are parenting allies who offer children healthy adult role models.


Over-parenting occurs when parents adopt the "helicopter" mode: hovering over their child incessantly and swooping down to the rescue when the first hardship occurs.


It can be a blessing for a girl to fall off her bike — if parents encourage her to pick herself up, dust herself off, get back on the bike, and learn to ride.


If constantly rescued, the child learns dependency. If encouraged to endure life's bumps and bruises and "try again" when something is hard but worthwhile, the child learns independence, courage, and determination.


In school, there's a blessing in letting children wrestle with learning without parental interference. It’s good to hold on to a "growth mindset" — one that views failure as an opportunity to work harder, or to consider the task at hand more deeply. This is one of the greatest qualities a child can develop.


The most dangerous "helicopter" parents are those who want to intercede whenever their child has a setback — argue a poor grade, make excuses for an absence, or, in its worst manifestation, bring an attorney to school to fight a disciplinary action. The lessons students learn from such over-parenting is lifelong dependency: "I'm not capable of fighting my own battles or accepting the consequences for my bad behavior, so thank God my parents will rescue me."


This may be why colleges are reporting problematic parents trying to register classes for their children, why workplace employers are reporting parents trying to negotiate their children's first job contracts, and why an increasing number of parents are seeing their college-graduate adult children moving back home "to save money."


Focus on helping your child to be "good." Happiness will follow.


I read some time ago that in Japan, when parents are asked about their aspirations for their child, mothers say, "I want my child to be... successful."


While this is a universal parental aspiration, the preoccupation with success in Japanese culture has had serious harmful consequences for the well-being of some adolescents, namely an unrelentingly stressful experience in school and a high suicide rate among adolescents.


In North America, when asked the same question, mothers respond, "I want my child to be... happy."


In American culture, the preoccupation with happiness has had serious consequences of its own, and it may explain the growing need among youth for constant approval and gratification, the growing incapacity to transcend pleasures for ego-necessary tasks, and the alarming devolution into hedonistic excess.


When parents keep saying and signaling, "I just want you to be happy," they send dangerous signals and set unrealistic expectations that life is supposed to be one continuous rush toward Nirvana, located somewhere between Bliss Boulevard and Ecstasy Avenue.


Children are better served if their parents completed the sentence by saying, "I want my child to be... good."


Another word for “good” is "virtuous," since the pursuit of success or happiness leads to neither; however, young people who seek to be good usually end up both successful and happy.


In general, the way to a better society is through the laborious and completely non-glamorous project of making each person more virtuous – more courageous, more honest, more decent, more likely to commit to another person in marriage, more likely to devote more time and effort to raising children.


In the long run, there are only two things a good school can and should promise families: That their children will be known, and that they will be expected to grow as virtuous human beings.


In the end, that's all a parent should wish for, since, when schools deliver on that promise and parents support and partner with the school, everything else tends to fall into place for the students.


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