As I go deeper into my 25th school year as an educator, I am aware that all years are unique in their challenges and triumphs. And while this year marks my first a Lafayette, it is unique in another major way: it is my first year as a parent of a high school student. My son Ryland is on the cusp of completing his first semester as a freshman at Kirkwood High School and I have had a similar experience that many of our parents have found both angst-ridden and enjoyable. The mixture of coaching, nagging, cajoling and fretting has been more than I can justify for a child that has by his mother's accounting done well in school, activities, and life. I have not been immune from the pull to direct and command my child's experiences.
Joe Ehrmann, who graced the cover of Parade magazine many years ago labeled "The Most Important Coach in America" has stated that parenting has become the most competitive sport in the country. We often look to provide developmental opportunities through elite sport teams, lessons, or programing in the arts that hav the ultimate goal as resume padding for the upcoming college application process. The desire for the right class, with the right teacher, the right coach that will be an elixir that will provide for the admission into the right school and subsequently the right life. The narrative of a narrow band of right answers can be problematic for students and for parents. The book "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success" by Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford's erstwhile freshman dean and undergraduate advisor, touches on these concepts and more. She notes the concern of parenting practices that includes writing papers for their student's class and disputing grading practices, or playing time that can engender dependent and entitled children. Adults transform into "concierge parents"-all in the name of noble intentions.
I have had the good fortune to work in outstanding high schools by any metric, public and private. New Trier High School in Chicago's tony North Shore, has an ACT average above 27, had a post-high school counseling slogan that college admission was a "match to be made, not a prize to be one" in the effort to quell the mindset of defining success as admission to only the most selective schools. Pressuring students to gain admission into schools that routinely admit only 5 to 15% of applicants has ancillary cost of rising student health issues (conservative estimates of adolescent mental health concerns at 20%) and less than enriching school experiences. The high school years are to often driven by more a prescribed "checklist" of resume builders and less by authentic student passions. This focus needs to change both for schools and for families. Now for some counsel from Julie Lythcott-Haims:
Stop doing your child's homework for them or excuse them from household task. This practice shields young people from learning the self-reliance needed to live independently in a post-secondary setting. The laudable rational of allowing more time for academics and extra-curricular activities further removes students from opportunities to be see themselves as contributors to the larger group and the important leadership trait of empathy.
Not affording children the chance to navigate the tough situation-discussion with the teacher, coach, or sponsor after some level of disappointment. The ability to navigate those situations lead to greater self-efficacy as well as skills of self-advocacy. While some direction and coaching can be important preparation for the child by parent, being the "first one on the beach" as one parent stated to me many years ago is undercutting important growth for the student. The conviction in one's ability reach objectives and complete difficult undertakings is grounded in a child's ability, not their parents, to navigate challenges they encounter.
Be less consumed by outcomes of performance. While research encourages high school course rigor as strong indicator of post-secondary success, focusing on results in lieu of the skill and positive habit acquisition course work requires is a short-term win. Further, selecting a path that is void of challenge in order to be risk averse extends the short-term value of grades over learning and misses the opportunity to practice resiliency and the "play grounds of grit" Angela Duckworth championed. Measurements of GPA, ACT, selective admission status and extra-curricular numeracy or statistics too often are commodified. Students should seek rich, deep, experiences in and outside of school that impact on the person your child aspires to become-think eulogy not resume virtues to use a dire but important comparison from David Brooks. Lythcott-Haims points to research supporting less selective schools, which she claimed numbered in the hundreds, provided similar incomes and quality experiences as "elite" schools. Consuming outcome focus allows the ambient anxiety to creep in on young people in ways that are constricting and at times debilitating.
German thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noted children should get both roots and wings from their parents. A gradual lean toward the later allows the overall goal of parenting to make the child age-appropriate independent and yourself obsolete. Teach the value of effort and space for constructive failure, and embracing the daily, deep learning experiences that youth can afford. I hope that I will as well.