As usual, parents can’t win

Last week I wrote about the American Conservative’s take on my comments about unschooling. The question was posed, “…will children sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them?”

So, we have to “coach” and “challenge” our kids, but carefully, lest we become a Tiger Mom. While we’re busy avoiding that trap, let’s make sure we don’t unwittingly become helicopter parents, because guess what? A new study shows that young adults whose parents were over-involved and didn’t temper that with enough “warmth” are more likely to have low self-esteem and engage in risky behaviors.

There’s nothing new about parenting advice, but frankly, I’m sick of the blaming. Salon recently published an excerpt from former Freshman Dean at Stanford Julie Lythcott-Haims’s new book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

There’s something ironic about a former dean at one of the most selective schools in the country (admission rate for this year was 5.05%) saying about parents, “Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is ‘best’ for our kids is completely out of whack.”

It’s not that I think parents don’t sometimes go overboard. Of course we do, and we should take responsibility for that, but can the other players in the game step up and take responsibility, too? Might universities, for instance, do something to mitigate the “college admissions arms race”?

When I was a kid, a few B’s, or even a C, on your high school transcript wasn’t the end of the world.  If you ventured out into the world as a teen and got into a smidge of trouble, that wasn’t the end of the world, either. In the information age, that’s no longer true. Everything about our kids’ lives is on the record, and the record doesn’t go away. It’s not a forgiving world for anyone, young people and parents included, so the rise of parenting styles that seek to avoid “mistakes” is no surprise.

The elephant in the room in this discussion is the industrial school complex. We have an education system in this country that embraces standardization, rigid schedules, labeling, and top-down authority. Teachers, increasingly forced to implement packaged curricula and incessant testing, get to determine our children’s strengths, weaknesses, personality traits, and even how intelligent they are. If they’re lucky, kids get a teacher that won’t squash curiosity and critical thinking, but that has to happen in spite of the very structure of school, with its age segregation, bells, compartmentalization of material, and lack of choice for students. Lythcott-Haims writes about the dangers of parents depriving their kids of the chance to be creative, solve problems, and develop self-awareness. I submit that our school system is equally guilty.

What to do? Opt out, of the school system if you can, or at least the culture’s obsession with status. It’s starting to happen, as homeschooling continues to grow, and more people start embracing philosophies like free-range parenting. Parents, forget the societal messages and go with your gut. Let your kids play, because that’s where they really learn problem solving. Let them have free time so they learn who they are. As much as you can, let them choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, so they develop self-esteem and dignity. Teach them to care for others by doing it yourself. Most of all, enjoy them. While we can’t win in the media, we can win with our kids.


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