Protecting children

Parents very easily pull out the following trump card in the middle of any argument when the issue(s) actually revolve around the parents, “I’m just thinking about the kids.”

Really.

So you’re taking post-graduate classes in learning theory, behavioral theory, and trying to assess what is the best for all kids? First, that’s impossible. As any of us with kids knows what works for one child definitely does not work for all children. Not most likely: definitely.

Getting down to the meat of it, then, parents really have the interest of their own children and families in mind. Since parents are, on average, limited to a sample set of 1.8 kids per family, that seems to be a pretty limited base on which to set an opinion.

That’s fine. I’m not knocking protecting one’s own children. Not at all.

I’m knocking making the masses have to conform to every special circumstance.

I’ve said it.

The term among educators is “differentiation.” I’m all for it. It’s important for good educators to understand that little Johnny learns differently, and at a different pace than Susie, and that the differences are not qualifiers – one is not better than another because of it – they are just different.

Herein lies the rub. How can any single teacher in the actual classroom do this year in and year out among increasing numbers of different students, and do this differentiation well for every student, particularly those that fall far outside of documented “norms?”

This isn’t a knock on kids at all. It’s a knock on parents.

So the bigger question becomes, “What role do we expect our public schools to serve?”

At our elementary school the undocumented and unspoken expectation is to not only educate our children – a large enough task on its own – but also to provide tools for behavioral modification. Our fund raising efforts on the campus put a small yet significant amount of money towards a program that teaches children skills for constructive conflict resolution.

Those are good skills to have, aren’t they? Sure. But is an elementary school the place for that, particularly when anecdotally I see that many of the kids who are the champions of the program in front of their teachers and parents are the greatest violators of the mantras?

We’re all looking out for our own kids in our own way, but we, as parents, have to start to admit that the increasing expectations that we have on our public schools are just as much to blame for their current failures as the decreasing budgets provided by Sacramento (or choose the state capitol near you).

The push for ubiquitous public education in the United States started with Thomas Jefferson, but even then the desire to educate children had a higher, nation building context. A 1999 paper sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research and conducted through Harvard University noted “The education and training of a population, in the United States and elsewhere, is a critical input to productivity and thus to economic growth.”

And yes, the closing sentence of the introduction of this paper acknowledges the more esoteric benefits of education: “Education can, thus, serve a multitude of functions in the economy, polity, community, and religious and personal lives of a people.” Eighty percent of the opening paragraph of the introduction for the paper, however, illustrates the importance of education in preparing children for being productive members of society.

A September 2008 article in Diablo Magazine researched and addressed the issue of too much homework. One of the first comments to the article on the Diablo Magazine website noted, “I once had a friend from Europe , a doctor’s wife, say that we coddled our children here in America and that European youngsters are ready to go to college at the same age that we are still treating ours as children.”

Again, anecdotal evidence, but many of my peers at least say to my face – I don’t know what they say behind my back – that we do indeed coddle our children too much. The problem with this is that no one knows how to extricate ourselves from the cycle; there is too much social pressure. Writing that, and re-reading the sentence seems so lame. But how many of us make decisions that follow along with accepted norms simply because following our instincts for smaller issues is not as important to us?

What sparked this meandering rant? I attended a Community Coordinating Council meeting the other night, which is a gathering of the school district’s PTA Presidents and school board members. The discussion was homework. How much is enough? What should it cover? Is it even necessary? There were many great things that came from the meeting, but the above … issues, shall we say, seemed to dance just under the surface for me in the responses everyone at the table had, including myself. How are these decisions going to effect me and my child?

I had made a passing comment to the district superintendent that maybe I was too much of a hard ass, thinking kids almost don’t have enough homework. Maybe I’m terribly lucky because the teachers my children have had so far have always given homework that was relevant and made sense. Maybe I think we as a culture – Californians and Americans – do coddle our children too much, but that’s another posting for another day.

Bottom line, what do we expect public education to provide? Personally, from a teacher who’s pay is never going to make him or her overly affluent, who’s work day extends far past the time he or she is in the classroom, I hope to have my sons see concepts and ideas presented in a few different methods, and hopefully one of those methods fits the way that my sons learn. After all, there are 26 other kids in the classes with each of my sons. I then expect to spend time with my sons after school to go through homework so that I can not only witness what kind of progress they are making, but also learn how they learn; this was a real struggle between my oldest and me last year: a struggle that we worked through, and figured out, and now I know my son much better because of it.

Public school is not a place for him to learn right from wrong, or how to resolve conflicts, or how to be a child. At school my boys can exercise the things we talk about at home, at night, and on the weekends, regarding how we as a family choose to resolve conflicts, and deal with other people. If I haven’t over-committed my sons to too many overlapping sports, and extracurricular lessons then they’ll have more than enough time to be kids in the afternoon every day after school, even with two hours of homework. These were some of the concerns of other parents in the council.

Focusing on the expectations that parents have of today’s public education system may help right a few of the ills in today’s ailing schools. For me, I try to remember why public education was even created in this country. We are supposed to be preparing our children for life outside of the home, life as an autonomous person. Where I know my thoughts greatly diverge from some of my parenting peers is that I fully believe we have come to a point where we overly coddle our children. The modern concept of childhood – of sheltering children from difficulty, and immersing children in a sugary-sweet start to their upbringing – is very recent, and very Western, and in my opinion is adding to the slipping test scores in our system.

I’m not proposing tossing kids out into the fields to sew seeds, or gather straw as soon as they can walk. Like anything there has to be balance, a balance we have most definitely lost. There is no conflict in sheltering children to a certain degree while also placing on them expectations for excellence, not just expectations of good enough, and therein lies my deepest ire. I’m convinced that our society is being bogged down by the weight of many people – not everyone, but many – being perfectly happy with good enough.

 

RJ Lavallee is the author of IMHO (In My Humble Opinion): a guide to the benefits and dangers of today’s communication tools on sale at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and lulu.com.

 

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