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When Steve and I started our family, we were still in graduate school. Having kids while we were working on our dissertations was not in the original plan, but it took a whole lot longer to get to the writing stage of our dissertation than expected.
In Jonah’s first year, we alternated dissertating and baby minding (morning shift for me, afternoon for him). We kept paid work to a minimum in order to finish as quickly as possible; Steve taught one or two classes at the Bronx Community College, and I left my job at the policy center entirely. We survived on WIC checks and help from my folks.
Since we couldn’t afford to go out or have a social life, we spent a lot of our downtime gazing down at our new baby imagining his future, as most new parents do. With (soon to be) PhDs parents, we figured that our blond babe would be a school super star. After all, we had hacked school, so we imagined that we could pass down those tricks to him and the doors to Harvard would open wide. A couple of years later, Ian came along, and we eventually learned that one of the downsides to assorted mating is an increased chance of autism.
As the kids moved through elementary school, Steve and I used our education to help the kids, but not in the way that we expected – the unexpected is a huge theme in my life.
At some point, when Jonah was in middle school, we began to resent the massive presence that school had in our lives. Homework took up whole evenings. Entire weekends were spent on a soccer field or a track field or some other after-school activity. Our kid’s happiness was dependent on his grade on his history exam. Family conversations around the dinner table involved homework, tests, and grades. Forgotten homework would lead to angry conversations. Why were random and, often times, dumb assignments was having an impact on my relationship with my son?
Home schoolers often leave the public school system, because they don’t like the secular or liberal values that are passed onto the kids from the teachers. While the thought of spending years cooped up with my kids gives me hives, I do have a lot of sympathy for those who want to opt out of the system. Because the system is grinding kids up. It makes them jump over arbitrary hoops and assigns marks on their jumping skills. If they were learning worthwhile stuff, okay maybe, but lots of times, the things that were learning was worthless.
Sometimes Jonah would bring home an assignment in social studies on a topic that Steve or I know super well, like the Federalist Papers or the interwar years in Germany. We would have to reteach those topics to Jonah, because we didn’t feel like the teacher knew his/her stuff. Lately, Ian’s been working on some really crappy writing organizer that’s supposed to teach him how to write paragraphs. I write for a living; no professional writers uses that sentence-evidence-sentence-evidence formula.
In the end, we used our education to un-educate our kids. We were forced to offer a counter balance to the dystopian world of the modern teenager. We took both boys to do fun things that had absolutely nothing to do with achievement and winning. We went to museums, because we just like learning about stuff. We went for hikes, where we looked at snakes, and jumped over creeks. We wandered into restaurants on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, because eating new foods is fun.
My education did come in handy, when we realized that Ian had autism, and I had to learn a whole bunch of special education laws really quickly, in order to advocate for him in the best way possible. I’ve also “scienced the hell out of” his unique brain, but that’s a story for another day. Mostly we used our educations to show the kids that there is a lot to learn outside of school and that learning new things was awesome and didn’t need a reward.
The heavy shadow of the school building is felt strongest in upper middle class communities like ours. Stress and the heavy demands from school is a form of privilege in a way. But for the kids who are dealing with some toxic cocktails of stress and depression, it’s simply horrible. I know five and six year old kids who are having meltdowns in schools about stress right now. This is child abuse, plain and simple.
Schools are products of their communities, so administrators are ratcheting up expectations and pressure in response to parent demands (and in response to town officials who want high school rankings to maintain real estate value). And communities like ours are scared shitless about the future for their kids. They’re worried that their kids aren’t going to get a ticket on the middle class train without perfect grades and an acceptance letter to a top college. They’re so worried about it that they’ll put themselves in massive debt to pay those private school tuitions, and send their kids to high schools that ruin them emotionally.
So, we pushed back. Not entirely. Our oldest got decent grades and was in a varsity sport, but we resisted school demands enough to be subtly subversive. We decided that it was more important than our kids were sane and happy, rather then they win a perfect SAT score. We tried to not let schools drive our family life. Because schools should be a side dish, not the main course of a family.
Every family should have their own things that make them happy, that define them, that bind each other together. We like art museums and hikes, but for other families, it might mean Mets games or fishing trips or baking. I’m agnostic about those family definitions, as long as it’s not school. We can’t abdicate the joy and the creativity of raising a family to a government bureaucracy that won’t remember your kid’s name next year.
My philosophy? Kids and family first. Schools last, by a lot.
9 thoughts on “Parenting Philosophy”
Laura wrote, “Lately, Ian’s been working on some really crappy writing organizer that’s supposed to teach him how to write paragraphs. I write for a living; no professional writers uses that sentence-evidence-sentence-evidence formula.”
This reminds me of our school counselor. She works SO hard and I’m sure she’s a great person, but fairly regularly, we have to tell our 9th grader, “Just do what we tell you to.” Like, we’re not going to write a resume for our 14-year-old whose life (as far as the college admission people care) started 6 months ago. Sorry! No! Not happening!
Also, yes we really are just applying to Hometown U. early decision. If kid hadn’t gotten in, we would do something else, but kid did get in. It’s been quite stressful and time-consuming enough applying to just one college, let alone a dozen.
“Stress and the heavy demands from school is a form of privilege in a way. But for the kids who are dealing with some toxic cocktails of stress and depression, it’s simply horrible.”
After our oldest gets done with her senior year, we need to have a word with our school administration about unnecessary stress and how there are a couple of tightly-wound people on staff whose personalities resonate poorly with those of anxious teens.
It’s hard, though, because some kids probably genuinely do need a fire lit under them to get them moving. Meanwhile, give exactly the same treatment to kids who are vibrating with anxiety, and it’s BAD.
“We can’t abdicate the joy and the creativity of raising a family to a government bureaucracy that won’t remember your kid’s name next year.”
There is that.
The ability to put school last by a lot seems to be to be a luxury only the upper-middle class can afford. For those of us not from such families, doing well in school was the only way to escape a low-income existence and obtain those enrichment opportunities that our families couldn’t provide. And as a college professor, I wish that my students had been taught to deal better with stress and deadlines and expectations while in high school rather than just removing those pressures and then having them all rain down on their heads when they are in college.
I do agree that being able to put aside the hunger games of competitive high school is a relative. For example, economically poor parents with high achieving kids who might have a chance to free college are playing a different game than those who can comfortably afford our state universities. I always tried to remind myself of that when my kiddos are going through the process.
But, there is a special pressure put on the kids of another set of parents, too, the economically well-off, highly successful, high status, elite-educated parents. In this blog, we’ve heard Laura talk about the specific ways in which she opts out of that pressure. Is still remember, and repeat to myself, a thought about how she wasn’t willing to force J into the Hunger Games arena of high school competition, because it would essentially change who he is. That is also my intent and reading the stories here is part of what reminds me of how important it is, to stay true to your own values of what home and family should be.
But, the unhappiness with the school environment? I still hope that is something that can change. My kids and family loved our K-8 school. Truly loved, as in, our kids looked forward to going almost every day and I still remember the patterns and projects with joy. My daughter recently looked up pictures from a project they did in 5th grade (Risktakers — she did Lucy Stone; a classmate did the Dali Lama) as she completed her freshman college project.
I was more equivocal about our 9-12 experience, at a high pressure private school, where all the intense competition to reach the success and status of the parents was there. As the kids grew older in HS, they learned what their strengths were, but many parents were still stuck in the belief that if their kid just worked hard enough, they would be competitive with any kid in the school and discounted the role that other factors played. I think, even, when those factors were themselves (i.e. the money they had for their kids, or their own status or alumni status) they were even more driven to push their child to succeed. But even then, I thought the school itself played a limited role in the pressure. Not no role, but limited. The teachers were excellent and again, project and learning still replays itself.
And my next kiddo is having a fabulous experience in an overcrowded (but well reputed — it seems to be striking a balance with its well off ppulation and the competition, potentially what we might have seen a good school as having been before good schools became schools like Palo Alto and Gunn and Thomas Jefferson) 9-12 public school.
“I was more equivocal about our 9-12 experience, at a high pressure private school, where all the intense competition to reach the success and status of the parents was there.”
I’ve sat through annual parent education nights where the head of the upper school (a chill escapee from Laura’s part of the world) encourages us parents not to overload and overstress kids, either with coursework or extracurriculars. I nodded along with that for years, only to discover that (especially senior year) the call was coming from inside the building.
Up until 12th grade (possibly the end of 11th grade), I’ve been very happy with our upper school (7-12), but there are at least two people that work a lot with the seniors that are not a good match for the fact that at least several of the girls are really, really stressed out and/or have emerging mental health issues (as is not unusual with late adolescents). Kinda-OCD teacher meets teenage girl with anxiety is a really bad scene. As I also have a 9th grader on deck, I’m going to be talking to school about my concerns, because it’s such a darn shame that things go so well for so long, only to fumble it at the end. (There’s a teacher at school who gave a mid-Thanksgiving deadline for the major senior project, combined with a Monday-after-Thanksgiving deadline–and then gave no feedback on the mid-Thanksgiving stuff before the Monday deadline for the project. That was fun when we were on the road for Thanksgiving to see family and had sporadic internet, so my senior was checking from the road when she could, but was in the dark about whether she had revisions to make until the last day of Thanksgiving break. I feel like that particular fiasco was completely avoidable.) We also have the predictable awkwardness of very-small-high-school dating, but that’s probably baked in the cake.
Another issue–when it’s a very small high school and kids are stressed and some are dealing with mental health issues, and spending up to 4 periods a day with each other, any interpersonal friction has the potential of becoming a big deal.
“As the kids grew older in HS, they learned what their strengths were, but many parents were still stuck in the belief that if their kid just worked hard enough, they would be competitive with any kid in the school and discounted the role that other factors played.”
“And my next kiddo is having a fabulous experience in an overcrowded (but well reputed — it seems to be striking a balance with its well off ppulation and the competition, potentially what we might have seen a good school as having been before good schools became schools like Palo Alto and Gunn and Thomas Jefferson) 9-12 public school.”
I think there may be some problems unique to very, very small high schools that are academically serious.
Also, I’m getting the feeling that boys are different than girls.
My kid was virtually vibrating with anxiety over the Thanksgiving thing the whole time we were on the road, because she kept expecting that she was going to get feedback that would trigger the need to do revisions and submit them via google docs…at the same time as we were operating with very sporadic internet from the road and in the darkest wilds of Western WA and of course busy doing family stuff. A Thanksgiving deadline for a single project is bad enough, but two is utterly heinous. Meanwhile, we’re making what could easily be our last visit to one or two older relatives, as one is 94 and the other is on late stage cancer treatment.
When a high school kid is told “You have to do X” by a teacher, parents saying “No you don’t” is not going to carry a lot of weight. It’s really, really hard in that situation to get them to calm down. In fact, getting anybody to calm down when they’re worked up is hard/impossible. Which is why it’s important not to work them up to begin with!
I kind of want school to pull the plug on the Big Senior Project entirely. It seems to consume about 10X as much energy and nerves as is justified by the good (but modest) ultimate product.
I have a gag order from my senior until she’s all graduated…I have SO much to say, though.
My 9th grader also came back reporting that the school counselor had told his class that school activities are not enough for college admissions, and they need to have outside activities. This caused a meltdown from a boy in the grade whose mom is a teacher and who more or less lives at school. We have given our 9th grader orders to not listen to the counselor and just do what we say, but we shouldn’t have to do so much clean up work, especially not in 9th grade!
“My kid was virtually vibrating with anxiety over the Thanksgiving thing the whole time we were on the road, because she kept expecting that she was going to get feedback that would trigger the need to do revisions and submit them via google docs…at the same time as we were operating with very sporadic internet from the road and in the darkest wilds of Western WA and of course busy doing family stuff.”
The high-school teacher in my household is not fond of this “always on, all the time” deal either. She gets emails and assignment submissions from students through dinnertime, well into the evening, and throughout the weekend, a practice encouraged and made necessary by school policy. These are systems put into place, at least in our county and state, by administrators who get to go home every day at 5 p.m., and they’re as inhumane to the teachers who have to implement them as they are to the students. No teacher wants to read student work and provide feedback over Thanksgiving or Christmas.
(Selfishly, I would add that teachers’ partners, spouses, and children have to deal with the consequences too. Parents and students have come to expect round-the-clock email access to teachers, so bing! bing! There she is, responding to emails at 10 p.m. on a Monday night, on a Saturday morning, over breakfast on a summer road trip, at the airport on Christmas Eve. Solving the whole mess would require more cultural self-awareness than our society collectively possesses….but promoting the idea that we all need to chillax apparently makes one a sucker whose kid’s slot at Yale is going to get taken by a robo-child programmed for maximum credential acquisition.)
Jeff S. said, “The high-school teacher in my household is not fond of this “always on, all the time” deal either.”
In our particular case (based on the fact that none of the other teachers at the school do this), I think that it’s largely self-inflicted.
“Parents and students have come to expect round-the-clock email access to teachers, so bing! bing! There she is, responding to emails at 10 p.m. on a Monday night, on a Saturday morning, over breakfast on a summer road trip, at the airport on Christmas Eve. Solving the whole mess would require more cultural self-awareness than our society collectively possesses….”
Also, even if people accept that there should be times when the recipient is “off”, if you are the recipient and you leave it until you are “on” again, it just means that you have a bigger pile of work to dig out of.
Tulip wrote, “I don’t know any that left because of secular or liberal values. I think that was true at the start of the home school movement, but now it is more about giving your kids what they need. All the home schoolers I know, left because they found school made their kids miserable.”
There is that.
“Home schoolers often leave the public school system, because they don’t like the secular or liberal values that are passed onto the kids from the teachers.”
I know a large number of home schoolers. I don’t know any that left because of secular or liberal values. I think that was true at the start of the home school movement, but now it is more about giving your kids what they need. All the home schoolers I know, left because they found school made their kids miserable.
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