Bill Feig/Associated PressA report for the N.F.L. detailed harassment of Jonathan Martin, third from left, by Richie Incognito, second from left.
N.F.L. lineman Jonathan Martin encountered a Miami Dolphins team culture that was sick at its core. But was his private-school upbringing partly responsible for his inability to cope with the locker-room bullying he encountered there?
“I figured out a major source of my anxiety,” he wrote to his mother during his ordeal, according to the 140-page report on his ordeal that an outside law firm released on Feb. 14. “I’m a push over, a people pleaser. I avoid confrontation whenever I can, I always want everyone to like me. I let people talk about me, say anything to my face, and I just take it, laugh it off, even when I know they are intentionally trying to disrespect me. I mostly blame the soft schools I went to …”
Then, in a message to his father a week later: “I suppose it’s white private school conditioning, turning the other cheek.”
These comments press all sorts of buttons for private school parents, who worry that by trying to buy their way up to what seems like a better education, they’re robbing their child of the hard knocks every kid ought to experience. By invoking race, Mr. Martin, who is African-American, seems to suggest that private-school culture stands for training or retraining students of color to be meek young adults who don’t speak up or fight back.
But what sort of softness was he talking about? And how exactly does “white private school conditioning” manifest itself?
Mr. Martin, who is 24 years old, and his parents declined to expand further on his words in the report. He attended the private John Thomas Dye School in Los Angeles for fifth and sixth grade. Ray Michaud, the headmaster there, also declined to respond to Mr. Martin’s comments, citing a school policy on talking about alumni and things they do or say after they leave.
Harvard-Westlake, which has produced many Hollywood stars and a handful of other professional athletes, was Mr. Martin’s next stop. “Harvard-Westlake simply offers our strong support for Jonathan Martin and his family during this difficult time,” its president and chief executive, Rick Commons, wrote by email. When I asked him whether his response was the very sort of other-cheek-turning that Mr. Martin described, he said that it was an “interesting follow-up” but did not comment further.
Both schools were willing to disclose some numbers in an effort to address the demographic charge specifically. At Harvard-Westlake, 19 percent of the student body receives need-based financial aid and 43 percent of students are not white. That compares favorably with national numbers that the National Association of Independent Schools tracks: Students of color make up 28 percent of the population at all private schools nationwide; 23 percent of students at member schools received need-based aid. John Thomas Dye is less diverse than average, with students of color making up 23 percent of its student body. Just 8 percent of them receive financial aid.
“Our schools are not the sort of impervious bastions of WASP culture and privilege that they were at the inception of independent schools,” said Caroline Blackwell, the vice president for equity and justice for the National Association of Independent Schools. “And so for a lot of people, they continue to have this idea that doesn’t really match the reality.”
These institutions like to be called independent schools nowadays, in part because “private” raises the question of just who they’re excluding. Independence speaks to their strengths, as they stand apart from the educational culture of test-taking and rigidity and, at their best, build close-knit communities centered around character as much as academic achievement.
Perhaps Mr. Martin was using “soft” as an antonym for “real,” as in the real world that private-school students might not encounter enough. But what would it mean for private schools to feel more real? Ms. Blackwell wondered about this, too. She is African-American and a product of private schools herself. She’s also made her career in them, working in the past as a counselor, admissions officer and multicultural affairs director, including 17 years at theUniversity School in Nashville. She ran the local human relations commission there before going to work for the independent schools association.
Ms. Blackwell wondered, as many private school parents might have when they read Mr. Martin’s words in newspaper accounts of the league’s report, whether he was calling out the sort of deliberately constructed communities that many private schools specialize in creating — built on intense attention to children’s feelings and the imprinting of values that support a commitment to civility.
Schools like that are not much like the world that many parents live and work in, where people are disposable, loyalty no longer matters much and every person is scratching away for themselves. But those mothers and fathers don’t necessarily want their 9-year-olds going to school in it. “My experience of independent schools is one where a premium is placed on problem solving in civil ways — dealing with conflict in ways that prefer conversation and discussion as opposed to fighting and aggression,” Ms. Blackwell said. “We would teach students to be assertive without necessarily being aggressive.” If she’s right, that’s hardly turning the other cheek.
It’s not clear whether that sort of teaching went on at Harvard-Westlake or John Thomas Dye, since nobody there wanted to talk about it. But Ms. Blackwell doesn’t think it’s fair to ask the product of any school to serve as proof of its educators’ success or failure if the test is to withstand what Mr. Martin did. “Preparing kids for the vitriol and hostility of a locker room, that’s not our intention,” she said. “Nor is it the intention of public schools or other types of schools, regardless of where they are, to simulate the worst sort of cultural experience to see if the kids can endure.”
If you’re a product of a private school or a parent at one, what do Mr. Martin’s words mean to you?
Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times. He’s currently on leave to write “The Opposite of Spoiled,” a book about parenting, money, values and raising the kinds of children all parents want to push out into the world, no matter how much money they have. He hosts regular conversations about these topics on his Facebook page and welcomes comments here or privately, via his Web site.
Ian was sitting at his usual place during what his parents had decreed was his nightly homework time. But he had his chair turned away from his open books and calculator, and he was removing the fourth raw hot dog from the package. He gingerly placed it sideways on the family dog Walter’s muzzle and commanded him to “walk.” Ian got the idea after a liberal sampling of YouTube’s stupid pet trick videos.
Ian’s mother, Debbie, peeked in on her son and then turned around to stare at her husband. It was a look that said: “Your turn. Get him back to his homework. I’ve reached my limit today.”
“Ian, its almost 8, let’s get going!” Michael yelled.
Four minutes passed.
“Ian, if you don’t get started now, I will not help you with your math.”
Ian commenced homework but soon drifted to watching more dumb pet tricks on YouTube.
Michael and Debbie had realized early that Ian was extremely bright but that he couldn’t often work up to his capabilities. He was disorganized, easily distracted (the stupid pet tricks!), and discouraged by the slightest failure. So they did what many dedicated parents do these days: turn themselves into a rodeo tag team to keep him on track at his competitive Washington, D.C., private school. Every evening, they reviewed his homework assignments, made a list of priorities, kept track of upcoming tests, reviewed long-term projects, and made plans to get a tutor if the work was confusing. Then the next night, they did it again.
Lately, we have been schooled on the hell that is adolescence, and more specifically, the collateral damage this phase of life inflicts on parents. The recent New York magazine cover story includes several examples of families locked in the kinds of pointless battles I just described. The stories might leave parents who read them with a strong sense of recognition, and also hopelessness. But as a clinical psychologist specializing in family systems, my job is to help parents and kids get past the deadlock. The key, it turns out, is figuring out how to get kids like Ian to tune into their own motivation to get their work done, and to get the parents to tune out of their motivation to shield their kids from failure and disappointment.
“Ian” and his family are recent patients of mine at my private Washington, D.C., practice, and the teenager has the typical profile of many I see. They are often boys, smart but underachieving, possibly with some diagnosis—ADHD, a learning disability, or something on the autistic spectrum. Their parents work diligently to help them succeed: cajoling and pleading and threatening and occasionally employing more intrusive techniques copied from mob debt collectors. The worthy goal of these enormous efforts is to insure that these kids feel good about themselves, and failure to achieve that goal is often equated with failure as a parent. I consider it my job to teach every member of the family to succeed a little less and fail a lot more in the service of a greater goal, developing character. Teaching them to make space for failure is a monumental task and often requires begging on my part.
In my nearly 30 years as a psychologist and family therapist, I’ve learned that parents can only play one of two possible roles at any given time: cheerleader or Texas high-school football coach. The cheerleader’s main goal is to keep the spirits up. As soon as the child is born, he is offered fun activities that are sometimes mildly challenging, so long as they leave the glow of “something positive just happened” —stimulating crib toys, managed play dates, rec sports. The cheerleader has learned to “praise the effort, not the outcome” so mom and dad ignore the score and pass out prizes to all. The coach’s main job, on the other hand, is to build character. Built into that lesson is an assumption of challenge and possible, eventual failure. The aim is to develop a “character repertoire” that includes willpower and the ability to delay gratification and to accept hardship as part of life.
It won’t surprise anyone to hear that we live in an era of cheerleaders. Manysociologists and parenting experts have diagnosed (and complained) about this prevalent style. In my experience the approach works well in the younger years; there is something charming about encouraging effort over just winning, about boosting self-esteem. But then in the middle-school years it often all comes crashing down. The kids are wholly unprepared for what they’ll face and the parents, stuck in cheerleading mode, wind up like Michael and Debbie, like the parents Jennifer Senior profiles in the New York magazine cover story: desperate to “bring back that loving feeling”—the positive glow and sense of parental gratification.
Over the past decade Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck have conducted six studies of 412 fifth graders, ages 10 through 12, comparing the goals and achievements of children praised for their intelligence with those of youngsters commended for making an effort. “Praising children’s intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks,” said Dweck, lead author of the study. Po Bronson warned about the risks of this parenting error in his 2007 story “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.” Keep praising middle-school kids who are struggling and their grades might never recover, he writes, because they never learn strategies to deal with failure.
So what can parents do? Unfortunately, it’s really hard to motivate parents to shift from cheerleading to coaching mode this late in the game. It’s no fun, and it is not rewarding for parent nor child. It is also counterintuitive, particularly for parents who have spent more than a decade helping their child be as happy as possible and avoid pain. It requires parents to be witnesses to minor and possibly major train wrecks: getting F’s for missed homework, being sucked into the black hole of online games, discovering marijuana—things that make pet tricks look like harmless fun by comparison. The phase requires parents to tolerate anxiety, self-doubt, and failure, not just in their child but—even harder in some ways—in themselves as parents.
But it’s absolutely critical because parents and their kids construct a reality together that at this stage only the parents can undo. As parents, we can get caught in the day-to-day unfolding “story”—the simplest sequence of events in our lives. We find places for our child to have fun and succeed. He is happy. We are good parents. We are happy. End of story.
What I try to do is get parents to appreciate some grander “narrative” —a system of stories, related to each other, that extends the single “story,” say, a failure to prepare for a test, into a larger evolving narrative. Along with David Black, a clinician and research neuropsychologist at the National Institutes of Health, I am developing a program called “Transitions X: Working With Families to Build Autonomy” that includes many such experiments in teaching middle- and high-school parents and their at-risk kids independence. What’s hard is getting the parent commandos to commit to an exit strategy of gradual, real troop withdrawal because it feels to them like neglect or even abuse. We want them to evolve from what has been referred to as “Helicopter Parents” to “U-2 Parents”: observers instead of combatants—present, attentive, but largely undetected from such a distance.
So let’s say Ian spends the night before an exam doing pet tricks instead of studying, but this time, his parents, Michael and Debbie, refrain from the usual exhortations. (This is a true story, names changed) Ian fails the test, and he is demoralized. The next week he does the same thing again and still they don’t intervene. This time he’s also angry. “This really sucks, and it is your fault!” he yells at his parents. He is called into the dean’s office and asked to account for his drop in grades. The dean tells him he has to improve his performance or he’ll get placed in a lower math level.
Ian is still angry at his parents for “not caring” about him, but he really doesn’t wantto get a math demotion. This is the first time it’s occurred to him that he might not get into a great college, which is what his parents have been signaling to him is his inevitable fate. It takes a lot of work to get his parents to stick with the program at this point. Michael and Debbie were really worried he would become overwhelmed or even break down. I convinced them that if they intervened now, they would only be delaying a train wreck until the first year of college. Sooner or later, he had to learn what to do when he failed.
Used to being bailed out by his parents, Ian was confused. Eventually he came up with the idea of asking his teacher for help. The teacher was willing to help but only if Ian made the appointments himself and showed up consistently. In these private meetings, Ian learned that his revered double honors math teacher had failed calculus the first time. The teacher was blunt in telling Ian that if he did not take responsibility for his own learning, he should give up on the idea of being a math or science major in college. Ian had been counting on this teacher for a strong recommendation. Once again, his sense of inevitable success was shaken, so he was scared into being responsible. Ian is still showing up for the appointments.
The hardest part of the parents’ task is often the quid pro quo, insisting on getting some things from their kid up front, in return for the privilege—not the inevitability but the earned privilege—of going to college. Parents have to accept that the narratives are open-ended. One never knows which “failure” will be the tipping point for an adolescent toward more effort, self-reflection, assuming responsibility, in a word, discovering inner motivation.
The reason we need to make this shift is obvious if we think about our own lives. We can very often trace significant, unexpected growth in our adult lives as emerging out of disappointments and setbacks. Perhaps as a direct result of a failure, we encounter someone who becomes a pivotal mentor, who sees a spark in us we miss. We are denied admittance to what seems like the ticket to our early dream, only to discover our calling, more subtle but more configured to our values and strengths. If you need convincing, here is a blog that chronicles the unlikely ways that musicians, artists, and other creative types got their start. All of these experiences are painful in the short term, but ultimately, hopefully, lead to a shot at happiness.
I’m spending the morning waiting for my car in the repair shop. Four men in flannel (I missed the flannel memo) and I sit around smelling tires and inhaling exhaust fumes while an enchanting little fairy is in constant motion around her daddy. She climbs on him, giggles, turns around, and then she’s back to twirling on the tile.
She’s bouncing and spinning around in her pink frilly skirt. Her black cable knit tights are sagging around her tiny knees, and her puffy coat makes her arms stand out further than is natural. To top off the ensemble is a shiny crystal tiara. It’s been tacked down to her head with what appears to be about 60 haphazard bobby pins.
She’s probably 4 years old. So little, so vulnerable. She doesn’t seem concerned about it as she sings about teapots and ladybugs in her black Mary Janes. I feel myself tear up as I watch her. I tear up as I watch him watch her. She could not possibly know at 4 what impact this man, his character or his words will have on her for years to come. And, maybe he doesn’t know either.
So, to all the daddies with little girls who aren’t old enough yet to ask for what they need from you, here is what we wish you knew:
1. How you love me is how I will love myself.
2. Ask how I am feeling and listen to my answer, I need to know you value me before I can understand my true value.
3. I learn how I should be treated by how you treat my mom, whether you are married to her or not.
4. If you are angry with me, I feel it even if I don’t understand it, so talk to me.
5. Every time you show grace to me or someone else, I learn to trust God a little more.
6. I need to experience your nurturing physical strength, so I learn to trust the physicality of men.
7. Please don’t talk about sex like a teenage boy, or I think it’s something dirty.
8. When your tone is gentle, I understand what you are saying much better.
9. How you talk about female bodies when you’re “just joking” is what I believe about my own.
10. How you handle my heart, is how I will allow it to be handled by others.
11. If you encourage me to find what brings joy, I will always seek it.
12. If you teach me what safe feels like when I’m with you, I will know better how to guard myself from men who are not.
13. Teach me a love of art, science, and nature, and I will learn that intellect matters more than dress size.
14. Let me say exactly what I want even if it’s wrong or silly, because I need to know having a strong voice is acceptable to you.
15. When I get older, if you seem afraid of my changing body, I will believe something is wrong with it.
16. If you understand contentment for yourself, so will I.
17. When I ask you to let go, please remain available; I will always come back and need you if you do.
18. If you demonstrate tenderness, I learn to embrace my own vulnerability rather than fear it.
19. When you let me help fix the car and paint the house, I will believe I can do anything a boy can do.
20. When you protect my femininity, I learn everything about me is worthy of protecting.
21. How you treat our dog when you think I’m not watching tells me more about you than does just about anything else.
22. Don’t let money be everything, or I learn not to respect it or you.
23. Hug, hold, and kiss me in all the ways a daddy does that are right and good and pure. I need it so much to understand healthy touch.
24. Please don’t lie, because I believe what you say.
25. Don’t avoid hard conversations, because it makes me believe I’m not worth fighting for.
It’s pretty simple, really. Little girls just love their daddies. They each think their daddy hung the moon. Once in a while when you look at your little gal twirling in her frilly skirt, remember she’ll be grown one day. What do you want her to know about men, life, herself, love? What you do and say now matters for a lifetime. Daddies, never underestimate the impact of your words or deeds on your daughters, no matter their age.
Thirteen years ago, when I was a relatively new teacher, stumbling around my classroom on wobbly legs, I had to call a student’s mother to inform her that I would be initiating disciplinary proceedings against her daughter for plagiarism, and that furthermore, her daughter would receive a zero for the plagiarized paper.
“You can’t do that. She didn’t do anything wrong,” the mother informed me, enraged.
“But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted off of web sites,” I stammered.
“No, I mean she didn’t do it. I did. I wrote her paper.”
I don’t remember what I said in response, but I’m fairly confident I had to take a moment to digest what I had just heard. And what would I do, anyway? Suspend the mother? Keep her in for lunch detention and make her write “I will not write my daughter’s papers using articles plagiarized from the Internet” one hundred times on the board? In all fairness, the mother submitted a defense: her daughter had been stressed out, and she did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.
In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.
While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.
The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.
I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories were pretty good — until I read a study out of Queensland University of Technology, by Judith Locke, et. al., a self-described “examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting.”
Overparenting is characterized in the study as parents’ “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In an attempt to understand such behaviors, the authors surveyed psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers. The authors asked these professionals if they had witnessed examples of overparenting, and left space for descriptions of said examples. While the relatively small sample size and questionable method of subjective self-reporting cast a shadow on the study’s statistical significance, the examples cited in the report provide enough ammunition for a year of dinner parties.
Some of the examples are the usual fare: a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater. Yawn. These barely rank a “Tsk, tsk” among my colleagues. And while I pity those kids, I’m not that worried. They will go out on their own someday and recover from their overprotective childhoods.
What worry me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the the authors, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”
This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.” One study participant described the problem this way:
I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.
These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.
I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.
I’m done fantasizing about ways to make that mom from 13 years ago see the light. That ship has sailed, and I did the best I could for her daughter. Every year, I reassure some parent, “This setback will be the best thing that ever happened to your child,” and I’ve long since accepted that most parents won’t believe me. That’s fine. I’m patient. The lessons I teach in middle school don’t typically pay off for years, and I don’t expect thank-you cards.
I have learned to enjoy and find satisfaction in these day-to-day lessons, and in the time I get to spend with children in need of an education. But I fantasize about the day I will be trusted to teach my students how to roll with the punches, find their way through the gauntlet of adolescence, and stand firm in the face of the challenges — challenges that have the power to transform today’s children into resourceful, competent, and confident adults.
The helicopter parent has crashed and burned. With millennials reaching adulthood it has become clear that this hovering style of parenting results in overly dependent young adults, plagued by depression or less satisfaction with their lives and anxiety, who cannot even face the workplace without the handholding their parents have led them to expect. The literature is now replete with indictments of over parenting and the havoc it creates. In her bookSlouching Toward Adulthood, Sally Koslow documented a generation so cosseted that they have lost the impetus to grow up or leave home. The over-involved parent has gone from paragon of caring to a figure of fun.
The pendulum has swung, and as is so often the case, it may have over reached its mark. Parenting pundits now argue for the benefits of natural consequences, for letting the world take it toll on kids as method of teaching them grit and life’s necessary coping skills. Failure has become the new success.
Time captured this zeitgeist with a cover story in which editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs explained:
Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher. We’re often the ones who hold them down.
This thinking was a reaction to a generation of hovering parents who cleared the way and smoothed over life’s bumps, who metaphorically swaddled their children in bubble wrap. But the reaction to this unfortunate method of parenting has perhaps been an over-reaction.
The antidote to heavy-handed parenting is not hands-off parenting. There is not a stark choice between doing things for our children and thereby disabling them, and leaving them to tackle challenges on their own. The middle ground, hands-on parenting, involves neither spoiling a child by clearing their path for them, nor stepping away and watching them fail.
Even as the parenting tide was turning away from helicopter moms and dads, there was a problem with the newfound orthodoxy. Less engaged parenting isn’t always better, and in the realm of education, an involved parent leads to better outcomes. As Gibbs noted in her Time story,
Many educators have been searching for ways to tell parents when to back off. It’s a tricky line to walk, since studies link parents’ engagement in a child’s education to better grades, higher test scores, less substance abuse and better college outcomes.
In a recent New York Times post, educators were asked how parents should cope with an underperforming teen, one who has previously shown ability but has become unmotivated and indifferent. Jessica Lahey, the teacher/author (andregular Atlantic contributor) who wrote the piece, acknowledges that this is the most frequent and difficult question that parents pose to educators. In this case the student in question is in ninth grade and struggling through the difficult transition to the increased demands of high school.
Making students care about school enough to give their best effort is an intractable problem for both parents and teachers. Research shows that many diligent, good students find a sharp fall off in motivation in the middle-school years.
Part of this is a decline in their desire to please their parents and teachers, and part is an increase in the distractions in their lives. For some students the step up to high school from middle school is a tough adjustment requiring study and organizational skills the student does not yet possess. For others, dating, the freedom that comes with driving, and their expanded social life simply prove too difficult to balance with schoolwork. Teachers and parents can find themselves at a loss when trying to reengage otherwise capable students who are underperforming in the classroom.
The educators who weighed in on the New York Times piece were unanimous in their advice. Back off, they urged: Despite a decline in attitude and performance in a student, increased parental involvement is not what was called for. One teacher argued for keeping positive and focusing praise on what effort is evident rather than what is not being accomplished. A professor suggested that parents find out where their student’s interests lay and that they should otherwise not get involved. The sensible argument was made that teens need to find their own motivation and that parents should back off because there will be consequences at school for poor academic performance.
This measured, considered advice is very much in keeping with the times, a reaction to the over-involvement that was recommended a decade earlier. The experts argue convincingly that parents should not smooth over their child’s failures, that they should not make what is wrong right.
This all presumes, however, that the consequences of performing poorly in school will be adequate, timely, and effective in convincing a child to change his or her behavior. It presumes that parental involvement will decrease a teen’s sense of personal responsibility, rather than heightening it. And finally it presumes that schools are teaching all the skills needed to succeed in the classroom, alongside the substance of the curriculum.
If the fallout from doing poorly in school were not so long-lasting, then letting teens find their way would set them up for adulthood. But that is not the case. If in the face of underperformance, parents focus on our children’s successes, seek out their passions, reward them with life’s luxuries, and allow the school to deal with the consequences, we have let our children down.
There are few lives that are not enhanced by doing as well as possible in high school. For kids headed on an academic path, doing well creates more post-secondary school options. For teens headed into the workplace, a degree opens more doors.
Some kids find true passion in the classroom, but for many the prescribed course load is filled with subjects that are uninteresting at best. It does not matter. As parents it is our job to teach our children that liking something or not liking something is an unacceptable excuse for doing poorly. Adulthood is filled with responsibilities we would all prefer to shed, but performing at a substandard level is rarely the best option. A parent’s job is to show our kids how sometimes you work hard at something that does not call to you because that is the right thing to do.
Teens want phones and TV, friends to come over, and to be driven to dances. They want their favorite foods from the grocery store. They want new cleats or skates. They want to go to the movies with friends. The single worst thing that we could teach them is that they can have any of these things if they do not make good on their half of the bargain. So while it may be tempting to attribute a poor performance in school to the vagaries of adolescence we do our children no favors to teach them that they will get something for nothing.
While the notion of natural consequences is an enticing one, it can be an unrealistic expectation. How many schools are going to intervene when kids are giving 50 percent effort and getting by with passing grades? What are those consequences? An astute teacher might express disappointment, and offer the encouragement that she is really expecting more. An advisor might make it clear that honors classes will become out of reach, or that remedial classes are in the offing. But these are hardly consequences to a student who has discovered that Facebook is more interesting than physics.
Waiting for natural consequences may mean waiting until the situation is grim and even then, a shortsighted teen may fail to respond appropriately. Some will come around, others will delude themselves into thinking they have the situation under control right up until the moment that they find out that they don’t. Teens live in the here and now and often underestimate the time and effort an unpleasant task requires.
Students thrive when they feel they can master the task they are given, when they see the purpose of that task, when they are engaged in the work and when they get positive feedback from peers, teachers, or parents for their efforts.
Creating these conditions, and cultivating the motivation that will follow, may well require parental intervention. When teens begin to struggle in school, that is the moment for parents to become more attuned to their child’s academic life, it is the point at which they should step up, not step back.
Parents might need to help students with their review by quizzing them, helping them to find online educational resources or by encouraging them to seek out the teacher or a tutor. Parents may need to remove distractions, provide incentives or reinforce family expectations. Much of the social cred that came from doing well in school has faded by high school. But one thing that does not change is some need for approval from parents. Teens may play tough but are not entirely indifferent to the values in their homes and the friction that is incurred from ignoring those values.
While it is easy for adults to see the direct link between academic success and increased opportunity, those dots need to be connected again and again for teens who are naive about the world of work and higher education. Nancy Hill of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found in a study of over 50,000 students that relating academic achievement to life’s later goals is one of the most effective thing parents can do to help their teens.
Although the study showed that parents’ involvement in school events still had a positive effect on adolescents’ achievement, it did not rank as highly as parents conveying the importance of academic performance, relating educational goals to occupational aspirations, and discussing learning strategies.
Poor performance in high school has its consequences in life and, while a teen may know this intellectually, they may choose to ignore it. Many high-school kids struggle because of their lack of organizational skills. While they may be capable of mastering the material, they underestimate the amount of time required, the careful notes that need to be taken or importance of test preparation or homework assignments. These are skills that can be taught, and reinforced by a parent. They are essential skills that will be needed in any academic or employment situation.
But this involves closer monitoring by parents, rather than stepping away. It involves parents saying, “How much homework do you have?” Here there will be a long pause. “How much time will that take? When are things due? What is your schedule for getting that done given your other time commitments?” Parents can model the executive function thinking that teens can lack, showing them the thinking process that leads to accomplishing tasks in a timely manner.
Many educators suggest that these types of questions are nagging, and taking responsibility for something that should be on the shoulders of the child. As a parent, I have taken a different approach, believing that teens struggle in school because of the challenges posed organization, time management, and deferred gratification and that it is our job to help teach them these large life skills before sending them out into the world.
At one point, with a son who was underperforming in high school, I mounted a large white board over his desk. Every day after school he had to write down every task that he faced and then erase each one upon completion. This served the dual purpose of keeping me informed (without daily nagging) of how much work he faced and where he was in terms of completing it and he had to stare at this oversized to-do list on the wall above his computer. No progress on the list? No car keys, no Netflix, no computer time, and eventually no cell phone. In my very small, very unscientific study I have determined that a teen will do almost anything for a cell phone.
The argument against this internationalist approach is that it cannot be sustained, that working hard at something that is painful or boring because your parents are making you, is not a lifelong strategy for success. It could be argued that parents setting up extrinsic motivation will let a kid down once his life begins to separate further from that of his parents. Here is the good news. High school only last four years, and it is nothing like the rest of life. As soon as kids arrive at college, they are given some choice about classes, teachers, their schedule and the direction of their lives. If they pass into the working world, there is some choice there as well. By demanding that they do their best for four years in the face of the protests we will hopefully have taught them the value of delayed gratification, self-control, and fulfilling their responsibility. And in doing that, as parents, we will have done our job.
“Hollywood dishes out too much praise for small things,” the great actor Jimmy Stewart once said. “I won’t let it get me, but too much praise can turn a fellow’s head if he doesn’t watch his step.” He was talking about the sick power compliments can have on a person’s ego: You hear enough times that you’re awesome and you start to believe that you’re the awesomest. And then you become insufferable.
A new set of studies shows that for kids, high praise can have the opposite effect on self-esteem: It can actually make some children feel worse about themselves. “That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful: The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children with Low Self-Esteem” found that when adults give excessive compliments to children with low confidence, the children were less likely to pursue challenges.
One of the studies involved 240 children who visited a science museum in the Netherlands. The researchers asked each of the kids to complete a self-esteem assessment to determine if they had high or low confidence. Then, the children were asked to draw a famous painting and told that a professional painter would evaluate it. After they finished their paintings, the children were given a card from the painter (who did not in fact exist) with one of three responses: ”You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” (inflated praise); “You made a beautiful drawing!” (non-inflated praise); or no comment about the drawing at all (no praise).
The researchers then tested the kids’ willingness to take on new challenges. They asked the children to make a new drawing and let them pick their subject: either a complex drawing or a simple one. It turned out that the students with low self esteem were less likely to do a complex drawing if they’d received inflated praise. “Compared to non-inflated praise, inflated praise decreased challenge seeking in children with low self-esteem,” the researchers wrote.
So it seems that the best way to improve kids’ self-esteem is to give them frank, straightforward praise. The only problem is, though, that parents and teachers often do the opposite. The researchers also found that adults are more likely to heap inflated praise on children with low-self esteem—presumably in a well-intentioned attempt to make them feel better.
Last month I wrote about how young teachers aren’t being taught how to praise students effectively. Teacher training programs emphasize rules and routines as the key to classroom management but often overlook the role of encouragement in creating a positive learning environment. The “inflated praise” studies only highlight the need for better training in this area. Adults are trying to boost children’s self-confidence, but their efforts are backfiring. Teachers trying to reach kids with low self-esteem need to know what works and what doesn’t.
My eldest son is 20 years old, lives in a house crammed with seven scrabbly roommates, works part time in a restaurant kitchen, doesn’t drive, is a vegetarian, and has homemade tattoos etched into his thighs.
He’s firmly a musician – a drummer in a loud punk band, and he loves nothing more than to tour across North America, playing gigs in sketchy houses in Oakland, Calif., and south Chicago.
He appears to have only one pair of pants – dirty, black cutoff jeans, and his shirts are also of the ripped-off-arms variety. I’m not sure who has been ripping up all his clothes. Maybe there’s a wild dog living in his house.
I’m both proud of and horrified for my boy. His jaw is squarely set, and he’s acutely committed to what he wants to do. And that is to tour with his band in their black-panel van, crisscrossing borders, dodging death in dubious neighborhoods, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and eating vegetarian burritos.
As my children traveled through their teenage years, I emphasized to them: Find your passion and follow it. What I really meant was: Find your passion, but do it in the way I did it. That is, go to college first, get a liberal arts degree, meander through your 20s, and then supplement your undergraduate degree with graduate studies. All while wearing clean, intact clothing.
But what if, as Andrew Solomon so eloquently addresses in his masterpiece, “Far From the Tree,” your child ends up so very different from you? I read “Far From the Tree” because it speaks of children with disabilities (and my youngest son has Down syndrome), but I gained a deeper knowledge of all children who stray from their parents. If we face reality squarely, and give our children the space to be who they want to be, every single child should be different from his parents, and should be allowed and even encouraged to fall far from our trees.
My oldest boy does not show up to family events in his collared shirt and pressed pants. In fact, he rarely shows up at all. He doesn’t respond to calls from grandparents, although he will send thank you texts for birthday gifts, so he still has a sliver of decorum. He’s proudly anti-establishment, and my current lifestyle with my husband (and his stepfather) – living in the suburbs and driving a BMW – clearly disgusts him.
I watch my friends’ children embarking on their second year of college, most of them still living at home with their parents. They are clean-cut, unfailingly polite, sit quietly at dinner parties and patiently dole out answers to questions from adults. Inevitably, someone asks me, “What’s your son doing?” and then I feel a strange mix of pride and apology. “He’s living his life,” I say. “But what graduate program? What path is he taking?” “He’s not in a program,” I say. “He’s working and playing in a band.” They take a deep gulp of wine and look down at their expensive shoes.
I read a biography of Dave Grohl, the former drummer for Nirvana. In it, Mr. Grohl’s mother – a teacher herself – agreed to let him drop out of high school so he could tour with his band. She said that he was good at a lot of things, but school was not one of them. Clearly Mr. Grohl’s path did not include the traditional, go-to-college-get-a-job trajectory.
My son is teaching me that there isn’t just one way to live life. Yes, I wish he would go to college so he doesn’t live below the poverty line and reside in a house of squalor.
But that’s what I want for him. That’s not what he wants for himself. He is not the male version of me. He’s a musician, and the creative life means a guaranteed amount of struggle and heartache. Every time we meet for lunch, I tell him that I love him, and that I’m proud of him.
Even if my boy’s path never rises out of moshing in the basements of America, that’s got to be O.K., too. There are no conditions placed on unconditional love.
AT a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.
So administrators moved to ban the clothing.
They explained, in a letter to parents, that “while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,” the students without it “tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.” What an ordeal.
Many parents favored the ban, a prophylactic against disappointment.
Some did not, noting that life would soon enough deal the kids much worse blows along these lines. And one observer, in a Facebook thread, said this, according to a local TV station’s report: “Perhaps they should dress the children in Bubble Wrap and tie mattresses to their backs so they don’t get hurt.”
I assume that’s facetious.
But these days, you never know.
I occasionally flash on that anecdote as I behold the pushback against more rigorous education standards in general and the new Common Core curriculum in particular. And it came to mind when Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently got himself into a big mess.
Duncan, defending the Common Core at an education conference, identified some of its most impassioned opponents as “white suburban moms” who were suddenly learning that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good.”
It was an impolitic bit of profiling. Gratuitous, too. But if you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.
The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states. In instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate.
What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.
Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?
Apparently not, to judge from some reactions to the Common Core in New York, which has been holding hearings on the guidelines.
One father said that while his 8-year-old son was “not the most book-smart kid,” he was nonetheless “extremely bright.” With the new instruction, however, too many kids were “being made to feel dumb.” There was “no room for imagination or play,” the father groused. “All the kids are stressed out.”
A SOCIAL WORKER testified that she’d been receiving calls and referrals regarding elementary-school students on the psychological skids. “They said they felt ‘stupid’ and school was ‘too hard,’ ” she related. “They were throwing tantrums, begging to stay home and upset even to the point of vomiting.” Additional cases included insomnia, suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation, she said, and she wondered aloud if this could all be attributed to the Common Core.
A teacher on Long Island did more than wonder, speaking out at a forum two weeks ago about what she called the Common Core Syndrome, a darkly blooming anxiety among students that’s “directly related to work that they do in the classroom.”
“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” she thundered, to wild applause. Then she endorsed the idea of parents’ exempting kids from Common Core-related tests. “The mommies in New York,” she concluded, “don’t abuse their children.”
If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
There are sports teams and leagues in which no kid is allowed too much more playing time than another and in which excessive victory margins are outlawed. Losing is looked upon as pure trauma, to be doled out gingerly. After one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach.
It used to be that trophies went to victors; now, in many leagues, they go to everybody — for participation. Some teams no longer have one or two captains, elected by the other players, but a rotating cast, so that nobody’s left out.
Some high schools have 10, 20 or 30 valedictorians, along with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes. Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment.
And praise itself is promiscuous, though there are experts with profound reservations about that approach. They say it can lessen motivation and set children up to be demoralized when they invariably fail at something.
“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.”
David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, told me that he’s all for self-esteem, but that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work.”
“Students will not enjoy every step of it,” he added. But if it takes them somewhere big and real, they’ll discover a satisfaction that redeems the sweat.
And they’ll be ready to compete globally, an ability that too much worry over their egos could hinder. As Tucker observed, “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”
Here’s an interesting article on bullying vs. drama. At CSH, we work hard to have all be responsible for Goal IV, the building of community as a Christian value, as we inspire the girls to address examples of unkind behavior. While it is most effective for the person who is receiving the negative treatment to stand-up for herself, we are also inspiring the bystander to be brave and confront the issue. We are also encouraging the girls to reach out for help, when needed – “never worry alone.”
Acting like a jerk is one thing, being cruel is another. Knowing the difference matters. Bullying is… a repeated pattern of harmful or rejecting behavior that occurs over a period of time, leaving you feeling excluded, isolated, or humiliated on a large scale. Your life feels seriously interrupted, and you can’t see an end in sight.
Drama is… the everyday difficulties that all teenagers experience, including relationship rifts with friends or people you’re dating, onetime instances of classmates being jerks, and conflicts that eventually blow over. People involved aren’t victims or perpetrators—they’re just part of the social world where mean things sometimes happen.
By Melissa Walker You missed a key shot in the basketball game last night, and this morning at school, there’s a Post-it on your locker that says “Choker!” Then in math class, two teammates say you’d better step it up at practice, and kids whisper as you walk by in the hall. You feel kicked around and can’t wait for the day to be over—but are you a victim of bullying?
“If bullying is every single mean thing that happens, then there’s nothing we can do to stop it,” says Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. But recognizing the difference between true bullying and everyday drama can help you brush off the little things, keep situations from escalating, and help you realize when something serious is going on—so you can step in and get help for yourself or a fellow student.
Case 1: Gym Intimidation Paul dreads going to phys ed. He’s always been small and skinny, but now that he’s in high school, the difference between him and other guys his age seems huge. A few of his classmates have started calling him “bird legs,” saying that his chest is “concave” as he changes in the locker room. They also take every opportunity to knock into him or push him down during class. It’s so brutal that Paul would rather serve detention than go to gym.
Bullying or Drama? If this happened once, says Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist in McLean, Virginia, it would just be drama. But since Paul is facing ongoing rejection and humiliation, it’s definitely bullying.
What to do: Paul could try being more assertive—kids who stand up for themselves don’t get bullied as much. “Direct confrontation is the bully’s kryptonite, because deep down they’re scared and vulnerable too,” says Weber. But this is physical intimidation, and if it gets bad enough, Paul should tell an adult. Since the gym teacher doesn’t seem to be stepping in, finding another teacher Paul trusts is key.
Case 2: Out Of Line… Online Jess didn’t think anything of it when she texted David, her friend Laura’s crush, about the math homework. But when Jess went on Facebook later, her heart dropped. Laura and their friend Allie had created a “We Hate Jess” page, where they accused Jess of moving in on David. Jess’s eyes filled with tears. How could her friends post such hateful comments?
Bullying or Drama? It’s both. Laura and Allie feel they’ve been wronged, so they’re not just targeting Jess for no reason. That’s drama. But “the Internet has changed bullying,” says Bazelon. When the drama between Jess and her friends goes public, anyone can join in—and that makes it a bullying situation.
What to do: Bazelon notes that even friends sometimes act meanly. But as tempting as it is, Jess shouldn’t respond online. Talking in person, on the other hand, is much more effective, because it takes the drama down a notch. Jess should contact Laura and Allie, or have a neutral friend do so, and then hear them out. Although it’ll be hard, asking her friends why they did this and telling them how it has hurt her is important. “They will all probably be friends again,” says Bazelon, “so Jess should try and talk it out.”
Case 3: Is mean on the menu? It’s lunch period on Zach’s first day at a new school, and he faces the cafeteria with absolute dread. His heart pounds in his chest as he walks slowly around the room, hoping that someone will look up at him and smile. Finally, he sees an open seat at a table with a group of girls and guys, so he asks if he can sit down. One girl stares at him and pushes the chair into the table. “No,” she says. “There’s no room.” Ouch.
Bullying or Drama? Although that girl at the table is definitely a jerk, she’d probably do this to anyone who isn’t part of her inner circle. So unless she continues to harass Zach in some way, it’s a onetime brush with drama, says Weber.
What to do: The cafeteria is a classic setting for this type of popularity-war drama, says Danah Boyd, author of the upcoming book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens—it’s like a big stage where new kids are in the spotlight, and where mean kids can get the attention they crave. The best thing to do is to bite your lip, turn around and find a seat on the other side of the room. Sure, this drama stings, but remember: It’s probably not personal—and it’s temporary.
How to stand up to drama and bullying: If you see someone caught in a cycle of drama or bullying, there are lots of ways to help. Here’s how to step up and step in.
1. Lend an ear Often it’s hard to intervene in the moment, but letting people who are struggling with bullying or drama know that they’re not alone—that you get it—can have an enormous positive impact. If you don’t know them well, even just asking “Are you OK?” can make them feel less distressed.
2. Find help If the problem is more than you can handle, be a friend—even if you don’t know the victim well—and suggest that they talk to an adult. Ask if they have someone they trust, or steer them toward someone you know. Boyd notes that just “telling a trusted adult” is kind of random—you want to choose someone who you think can really help deal with what’s going on.
3. CONFRONT the troublemaker If you have a lot of confidence, be a role model and an upstander by defending the victim when an incident occurs. Make it clear that you don’t agree with what’s going on. Try saying something like, “You’re being cruel, and it needs to stop.” Then walk away with the victim and get out your superhero cape, because that’s an awesome move!