Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What I Wish Every Parent Understood About School

It only seems like yesterday, but it was seven years ago that I was sitting with a group of parents discussing our children's plans. The kids were on the verge of graduating from high school and were in the midst of considering their options, most of which involved university. Our own child had begun formulating her plans as a 14-year-old, had done her research without much consultation with her parents, and had arranged her academic life in order to qualify for "early admission," which meant that as I sat there her spot was already locked in. There was some thought on my part that maybe she should have done a little more "shopping around," but as I listened to the stories of anxiety, I was grateful that we didn't have go through what these families were going through.

One father spoke in an authoritative tone of strategy, of how they were hamstrung by his son's resistance to choosing any particular course of study, so they had spent a good deal of energy sorting and ranking their options. They were going to apply to at least three schools -- first and second choice, then a "safety" option, meaning a school that was guaranteed to accept them. I'm writing in the plural because that's how this father, all the parents for that matter, were speaking of the process.

After detailing their family's collective efforts, he sighed, "It didn't used to be like this. When I was 18, I just happened to be walking past the Seattle University admissions office and stopped in on a whim. They enrolled me on the spot. I don't even think I told my parents right away because it just wasn't that big of a deal." I'd only applied to one university as well. I recall the admissions form being a single piece of paper.

But it hadn't started there for most of these families. In some cases, they had been monitoring their children's grades and test scores from kindergarten on, thirteen years of college prep. I'm lucky, I think, that I'd already begun my journey as a play-based educator, because I never fretted our daughter's grades. Indeed, I was aware that she was keeping up with her classmates because I often chatted with her teachers, but I don't recall ever actually seeing any of her report cards with my own eyes. Sometimes she would come home and excitedly tell me about acing a test or give me some of her writing to read (which was always very good and I never offered corrections), but I didn't go out of my way to insert myself into her academic life. She seemed relatively satisfied with her school experience; I don't recall her ever feigning illness to avoid school the way I had sometimes done, and on those times when she was genuinely sick, she was eager to get back.

She was surrounded, however, by kids whose parents hounded them about grades. In middle school she told me about a boy who had just received his report card, which was all A's and one B. She was walking with him to where his father waited in the car. When she congratulated him on his success, he rolled his eyes and said, "Watch this," then handed his grades through the window to his father who replied on cue, "What happened with that B? I told you to study harder." She told me the story by way of saying thank you, "I'm sure glad you and Mama aren't like that."

"We usually give a quite unwarranted importance to our children's scholastic performance. And it is nothing but a respect for the little virtue of 'success,'" writes Natalia Ginzburg in her essay The Little Virtues, which I recommend to everyone who works with young children, but especially parents. 

"It is not true that they have a duty to do well at school for our sake and to give the best of their skills to studying. Once we have started them in their lessons, their duty is simply to go forward. If they wish to spend the best of their skills on things outside school -- collecting Coleoptera (beetles) or learning Turkish -- that is their business and we have no right to reproach them, or to show that our pride has been hurt or that we feel dissatisfied with them. If at the moment the best of their skills do not seem to be applied to anything, then we do not have the right to shout at them very much in that case either; who knows, perhaps what seems laziness to us is really a kind of daydreaming and thoughtfulness that will bear fruit tomorrow. If it seems they are wasting the best of their energies and skills lying on the sofa reading ridiculous novels or charging around a football pitch, then again we cannot know whether this is really a waste of energy and skill or whether tomorrow this too will bear fruit in some way that we have not yet suspected. Because there are an infinite number of possibilities open to the spirit."

I wish I could convince every parent of this truth about school, especially as I see them fretting over their preschoolers and kindergarteners. I want to shout, "Leave them alone!" and "Mind your own business!" as they push their poor children to read and cipher before their classmates, blaming teachers when they are thwarted in their efforts to win the race, to succeed, to be crowned the queen or king of the parents. This isn't a new disease -- I remember, as a boy who regularly turned in good grades, how unfair it seemed that some parents actually paid their children cash money for each A -- but it is one that has now infected so many more families, not to mention our schools. It's hard not to compare it to our current pandemic as it ravages this current generation.

I wish everyone understood that school simply isn't all that important in the scheme of things. It is not their "job," it is their life, their intellectual, social, and spiritual life. It is not ours, it is theirs. We might legitimately ask, "What did you learn today?" but we have no right to ask, "What are your grades?" because grades only matter for a fleeting moment; "permanent records" are a fairy tale told to frighten children into good behavior.

"We are there to reduce school to its narrow, humble limits; it is not something that can mortgage their future, it is simply a display of offered tools, from which it is perhaps possible to choose one which will be useful tomorrow . . . We should not demand anything; we should not ask or hope that he is a genius or an artist or a hero or a saint; and yet we must be ready for everything; our waiting and our patience must compass both the possibility of the highest and the most ordinary of fates."

That is what I wish every parent understood.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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