June, 2001

Hands Off My Volcano

by Wendy Mogel

One evening not too long ago, I strolled through the science fair at a local middle school. The work of the students was not much in evidence, but the fingerprints of their parents were everywhere. No matter how often they are warned by teachers to let their children do the science projects, many parents just can’t let go. They’ve got to jump into the game, using the creaky excuse, “It’s for the sake of my child. Winning a prize here could mean a lot on that college application a few years down the line.”

There seems to be no limit to the parental interference — or subterfuge. I’ve been on a national speaking tour this year and have unearthed some alarming stories, even at wonderful schools. Some of the smartest, most devoted parents are using bizarre, often unethical, nearly illegal maneuvers in the name of protecting their child’s academic standing. A middle-school teacher told me he received an e-mail from a student demanding a point-by-point explanation of her grade on an English exam. Problem is, this was the student’s English teacher. He knew the girl’s writing style and vocabulary. He also knew her gentle nature. The teacher quickly figured out that the e-mail was not written by his student. That’s right, it was written by her dad.

Driven by anxiety that their children will not measure up, parents bend the rules and force their children to do the same. Some have confessed to me that they enroll their children in unnecessary tutoring or test-prep classes and urge them to keep it secret from the school.

Along with lessons in deviousness, children are learning from their parents that actions have consequences. That is, their teachers’ actions do. Frustrated teachers tell me that today’s parents have a very low tolerance for average grades. If a student receives a “C,” not on a report card but on a single test, it’s not uncommon for the parent to phone the teacher and issue a reprimand.

Even “C” students get the message: You are not responsible for your grade, your teacher is. If you don’t like it, it can be fixed — not by working harder, but by complaining.

Why are normally reasonable and ethical parents resorting to such extreme maneuvers? Stock wisdom says that nothing fundamental ever really changes, but our world is fundamentally different from the world we grew up in. The startling and rapid changes we see in the economy, in family life, in religious institutions, technology and education leave us breathless and excited, disoriented and anxious. As sensitive, protective parents, we want to armor our children with a thick layer of skills to prepare them for this uncertain future. We have convinced ourselves that they must excel at every level. If that means tilting the playing field, so be it. We’re ready. But what about our children?

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, the great, uncompromising Chassidic leader, once said, “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah, but will simply instruct their children to do so.”

No parent wishes to leave a child with a legacy of lessons in lying and cheating. Quite the opposite. We care so much about teaching our children ethics and respect that we send them to religious school to study Jewish rules about being a good person. But our children learn far more from our actions than they do from any character-education curriculum. By teaching them to exaggerate, break rules, disrespect adults and be devious, we won’t end up with children armored for the future but with children armored only for a solitary climb to the top of the college-admissions pile. Once they are adults, the bad habits they learn from us are more likely to hurt them than to give them an edge.

When I look at all those science projects so clearly lacking the clumsy, painstaking touch of a young hand, I can almost see Mom or Dad toiling away, their child at their side, begging for a turn with the glue gun. But today’s determined (and fun-deprived) parents are not giving an inch. A papier-mâché volcano! Messy poster paints! Baking soda! Vinegar! Here’s an excuse to play and ensure a good grade for my child. The joy of creation, the satisfaction of doing all that hard work, maybe even the thrill of winning a ribbon — what parent can resist? For the sake of their children, more of them should.

This article first appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

July 29, 2001