How Parents Can Ease the Pressures of School for Children…and Themselves
My daughter started kindergarten this year, and we’ve had our first taste of what could turn into a LONG decade and a half of homework hell. The assignments this year have been few and far between, and they’re usually not overly challenging, but for some reason, she resists. She gets emotional. She procrastinates.
Once I cajole her into getting her homework done, there’s always conflict — ranging from a petty argument over how to dot an “i” (I’m pretty sure using hearts isn’t endorsed in the handwriting curriculum, right?) to a full-blown meltdown triggered by confronting even a slight challenge head-on and facing the possibility that she might not be perfect without having practiced a skill yet at all.
I’ve been doing some major self-reflection lately, and I’ve begun to see some frightening parallels between the homework face-offs and mental patterns I can’t seem to shake. It seems obvious here when I outline it, but here are the biggest challenges I’m trying to overcome in my adult life:
I’m trying to find my authentic voice after a lifetime of acting in accordance with external standards. I’m struggling to stay afloat in my adventure of self-employment, and I know that one of the biggest contributors is self-sabotage. I resist. I get emotional. I procrastinate. Which leads to having to pull all-nighters, which leads to exhaustion and burnout. Then I wonder if I’m good enough to make it. I put off doing the “hard things” because I allow self-doubt to dominate my thoughts and actions. Cue the whole cycle all over again.
I still question whether I’m doing what I really want to be doing with my life, or if I should be doing something completely different that I suppressed long ago. I’m a lawyer, but I remember how much I loved art as a child. I like logical reasoning and legal writing well enough, but philosophical thinking and home decorating really light me up. Or what if my real purpose lies in something I’ve never really even tried, like writing?
I gained some perspective on my own issues (and my daughter’s) recently when our local school board candidates’ debate of the day focused on how to address an epidemic of depression and anxiety infiltrating the district’s middle school. Maybe it’s because of all the reflection I’ve been doing lately, but I almost felt like shaking the parents and candidates debating this issue. Because want to know what other issues they’ve been debating?
- Whether the district should scrap plans to move to a block schedule in middle school because fifth through eighth-graders would only study a foreign language for 2/3 of each school year — which might sabotage their chances of completing multiple years of AP foreign language in high school.
- Whether the district should entertain (as opposed to continuing to stifle) the voices of an ever-growing percentage of parents who are pushing for full-day kindergarten, opining that a full day would allow for a slower pace and more time for social-emotional learning.
- Whether or not a shift to a form of instruction justified by cognitive outcome statistics is right for our district. Said form of instruction has been shown to have zero impact on social-emotional outcomes.
So the mention of the middle school’s mental health issues got me thinking — maybe because it hit home a little too deep for me — that the seemingly isolated “small issues” cannot be separated from the “big issues” like student mental health. Why wouldn’t our middle school students be experiencing extreme anxiety with a cadre of parents demanding that they complete AP foreign language classes in high school before they even enter the double-digit age bracket? How can we think that we’re setting the right tone for years to come when kindergarten is a two-and-a-half-hour blur of cramming in core curriculum with no recess? We’re missing the connection between the prioritization of achievement we’re establishing early on and the then-articulable emotional ramifications manifesting in middle school.
What really drove it all home for me was the incredibly sad story of the Olympic cyclist, Stanford grad student, and talented artist and musician who committed suicide at 23. And I realized this: all of my own hangups stem from a childhood dominated by an emphasis on achievement above all else. I was a national-level swimmer, a talented artist, an all-state flute player, and near the top of my class in high school. I got into all 13 colleges I applied to (including Duke and Yale), and had a menu of full scholarships to choose from, including one for music performance, one for architecture, one for swimming, and several academic. I was that cyclist, only not quite at her level — and you know what, I beat myself up over it for years! Sure, I made it to the senior national level in swimming, but I didn’t make the Olympics. Epic fail. Yeah, I majored in music, but no matter how good I was at the flute, it can never erase the fact that I got a C (the horror!) in a required singing class.
I derived enjoyment from all these varied pursuits (well, except the singing), but looking back, I now question whether any of those things were really “me”, or I was just pursuing them for the sake of “winning” and “excelling” (and then beating myself up because I was only in the 99th percentile and not the world champion). Part of me is thankful for the work ethic that those formative years instilled in me. It got me through law school, over a decade of an arduous job at a prestigious law firm, and laid the foundation for a comfortable lifestyle for my own children in a town where the hot topics center around elitist pursuits and are rooted in positions of privilege. But do I really want to send my children down this same path?
You know how in elementary school, the teachers send home all your graded work in a folder for your parents to see? I recall being in first grade and getting a less than perfect grade on a math test and sneaking the offending paper out of the folder before my mother could see it and hiding it in the bottom of my laundry basket. (Hiding wasn’t on my list of overachiever skills at that point.) When my mom found the paper, we had a heartfelt talk where she expressed how upset she was that I felt like I couldn’t show her the paper. She assured me she loved me no matter what, and that if I ever needed help in school she’d get me help, and it was okay not to be perfect all the time. But somewhere I was getting the message that ….this wasn’t really the message.
By fourth grade, my entire class (including the teacher) had a running joke about my perfectionism where they made up hyperbolic stories about me doing rebellious things. I still have the 4th-grade yearbook riddled with notes and drawings from classmates about my secret membership in a motorcycle gang (which was the teacher’s favorite iteration of the jabs). Fourth grade was the same year where, when I underperformed on a few assignments, having learned my lesson about the inadequacy of my own closet for concealing shameful results, I took the red-ink-slathered quizzes across the street to my best friend’s house, asked her if we could go out in the dense woods bordering her backyard, and hid the papers under a big rock. Surely my mom would never find them there, right? Well, she didn’t, but she did get a call from my friend’s mother that evening. Cue the same speech about not needing to be perfect, and my same inability to let it register.
I am still trying to figure out how much of this perfectionism was innate (my mother swears that most of these inclinations to overachieve were just part of my personality from day one) vs. ingrained by parental influence vs. societal influence. Who knows. It’s probably some combination of all of these. But what I do know is that when I was growing up, school wasn’t nearly the same level of stringent core curriculum standards, testing, and competition it is today. I remember feeling like an outsider because it was not “cool” to do well in school. No foreign language classes were even offered to me until high school. I can only imagine what today’s hyper-paced school system would do to me if I were in it.
But my daughter is. And she’s already showing signs of having the same Type-A tendencies, despite my conscious efforts to model and teach the opposite to her. I wonder if, despite my efforts to the contrary, I’m still passing down the message that nothing less than perfect is acceptable, that being the best is more worthy than being kind, or that she should hold back in social situations for fear of judgment or “not fitting in”. I’m sure on some level I am.
Although I try so hard to practice what I’ve learned is “right” — praising the process rather than the result- I’m sure I don’t adequately conceal my enthusiasm when she tells me she’s on the “E” book bin while only 2 other kids in her class are on the “D” bin and many are still using the “A” bin. I know I didn’t exactly convey the enjoyment of the process over the end result when I set out with her up and down the street in the snow on January 1, the first day of the Girl Scout cookie sale, to beat all the other girls to the punch. We high-fived every time she made a sale, and sure enough, she ended up selling more cookies than anyone else in her troop (and knows it). I’m still a work in progress, but at least awareness is a step in the right direction, right?
So, I decided to test the waters a bit with the homework recently. The bulk of the kindergarten homework consists of a monthly calendar with a task on each day. The students are supposed to select at least 3 tasks per week to complete, and parents check them off as they’re finished. Inevitably, we end up cramming in 12 of these tasks around the 29th of each month before the calendar has to be sent back to the teacher in the nostalgically malevolent folder.
The most arduous part of the calendar is not the actual tasks, but completing a self-reflection journal on the back of the calendar. The parent is supposed to talk through questions with the child and record the child’s responses. Each month, when I ask my daughter “What was your favorite activity and why?” and “What did you learn this month?” she defiantly responds “I didn’t like any of the activities and I learned nothing.” So last month, instead of trying to cajole “better” responses out of her, I simply wrote her real reactions on the journal page.
I’ve got to be honest, it felt pretty liberating to write “I didn’t like any of the activities” and “I learned nothing.” The teacher brought this up at our recent parent-teacher conference, and regrettably, at that point, I kind of backtracked. I told the teacher that I’m concerned about my daughter’s resistance to the assignments, I know she needs to learn to conform to the structures in place at school, and I asked the teacher to emphasize to my daughter the importance of completing the homework and putting some thought into the journal. But part of me wanted to shrug and just say “Yep! She didn’t like doing the stupid calendar, whatcha gonna do?”
So I’ve decided it’s in the best interest of my daughter (and me) to simply stop monitoring her homework. Might as well teach responsibility early on, right? She has to learn that she has things to learn. If she gets a homework assignment and decides not to do it, let her deal with the teacher on it. (Better now when the stakes are really…nothing.) Let her fall. Let her experience the real process of learning — for the experience, not the outcome. If she wants to express herself by dotting her i’s with hearts, let that expression reign. Nobody should silence her voice.
And this serves a dual purpose in that it will be enlightening for me too. I’ll have to be okay with going into parent-teacher conferences and potentially hearing that my child is not “the best”. I’ll learn to accept early on that she’s her own person, and is going to go her own way (because inevitably, that happens to all parents — unless their kids never cut the cord and end up really screwed up codependent adults).
Whether my daughter decides to go to an ivy league college or become an artist who will live in our basement forever, I don’t want her to wake up when she’s 40 and wonder who she is and what she should really be doing with her life. I don’t want her to be one of the middle schoolers in our district riddled with anxiety and depression, even if it means she isn’t on pace for any AP classes at all.
The irony of all this focus on achievement is that I see now that the most successful people in life (if we’re going to let ourselves impose objective standards for a sec) are not the ones who have lived a near-perfect life filled with accolades. They’re the ones who have followed their own path despite input to the contrary from others, and who have wrestled through the tough times before experiencing the really rewarding ones.
I know it won’t be easy to suppress my instinct to give my daughter every possible advantage and try to save her from certain failures and discomforts. But by learning to deal with the small stumbling blocks, she’ll adopt the right mindset to get through the really tough challenges in her life. I want her to be what I’m striving to become now, and be better for my experiences — not repeat them.
So, I’ve decided, she’s on her own. Whatever she does, she’ll own it. I’ll accept her, and I’ll be proud of her, and love her unconditionally. Life is not really so much about what you have the ability to do, it’s about what you choose to do. And a life of freedom and authenticity is my greatest wish for her.
Plus, this approach will be a hell of a lot easier than battling through 12 more years of homework.