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Teach the Parents Well

February 9, 2014

Freckle Face Girl with Sad Eyes“Parents have become…I really have to be careful…delusional.”

These were the first words spoken to an audience of educators by Madeline Levine in her presentation on “Creating Authentic Success in Our Students.” Dr. Levine, author of The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well, went further to state that parents’ “false assumptions are damaging to their children and to teachers. It’s time to expose some of that.”

I gained some insight recently into the harmful misperceptions parents can instill in their kids. A few weeks ago, on a vocabulary quiz for my middle-schoolers, I found that about half the class missed the word struggle by choosing the same wrong answer: “to do badly.” How disheartening is was to hear some of my youngsters admit, “That’s what my parents told me it meant.” Of course, the real meaning is “to work hard,” a kind of struggle that sadly may be foreign to them.

Dr. Levine, who was instrumental in the formation of Challenge Success (an educational program for parents), wants teachers to help educate parents about the kind of damage they are doing to their kids. Here’s what she thinks they need to know:

  1. Kids believe there’s a single trajectory to success, and they get this idea from their parents. Let parents know that their inaccurate reporting about how success is reached can impair kids in terms of coping skills to deal with challenges. Recommendation: Advise parents to talk to kids at the dinner table about their own risks, failures, and mistakes – and how they learned from them.
  2. Kids become dependent on their parents for all the “right” answers, for clearing away all the obstacles to their becoming straight A students, which is what their parents think will make their kids more employable. Ironically, this means parents actually make their kids more unprepared to enter the work force. They do this by pushing kids away from activities that will make them employable (based on their own interests) and towards activities and decisions that will make them less prepared to enter the work force (more AP’s, tutors and test prep, ridiculous “community service” experiences abroad, etc.). Recommendation: Tell parents it’s better to send your kid to Target to work  than to Rwanda – at least they will learn some real skills in the process; help kids understand that businesses want to employ happy rather than sour, empathetic rather than entitled employees, young people who know how to solve problems rather than wait for others to provide all the answers for them.
  3. Kids are robbed of the “zone of proximal development” where real learning occurs. Parents step and do what kids should do. They react by doing what kids can almost do, and by confusing their own needs with their children’s. Recommendation: Parents need to stop and tend to their own needs and let children learn for themselves.
  4. Kids need to learn how to have “successful failures” – the kind that can give them a leg up to the next level of learning. Instead parents “find substitutes to give that leg up.” Parents who encouraged their kids when they were learning how to walk find themselves terrified that their children will make mistakes detrimental to their futures (even when failure and responsibility for it are the best lessons they can learn), resulting in serious emotional problems in their children. In affluent families, twice as many children than the rest of the population are emotionally impaired by the sixth grade; among all children, one in four has a clinical diagnosis as serious as true depression or anxiety disorders. Recommendation: Teach parents about the value of mistakes to teach resilience, self-control, self-management, self-soothing, etc.
  5. The greatest stressor among kids today now turns out to be school. Parents’ emphasis on academic success is taking its toll as they attempt to remediate every relative weakness. Recommendation: Help parents understand their children’s strengths and interests in order to cultivate a true zest for learning. We need to pay attention to what students are good at and what sparks their interest – and cultivate that.
  6. Students want, more than anything, to spend five minutes a day with a sane adult whom they can count on. Recommendation: Model the “soft skills” of kindness, empathy, trust, and caring that we want our students to learn; talk about justice and world peace, things that used to occupy the minds of the young, so that our kids will care about these things once again.

Levine’s Definition of “Authentic Success”

“While we all hope that our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life.

“Our job is to help them know and appreciate themselves deeply, to be resilient in the face of adversity, to approach the world with zest, to find work that is satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal, and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to the world.”

Dr. Levine asks us to translate this idea of success for our students’ parents. To do that we need to set boundaries for parents to follow and stand tall in our profession to stop parents’ abuse of teachers as servants and scapegoats for any problem that arises. Maybe if we do, parents will start to listen and we can work together to help their children become healthy learners once again.

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via Compfight cc

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