Excerpt: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
Chapter 2: The Blessing of Acceptance
Discovering Your Unique and Ordinary Child
I recently read a third-grade school newsletter that used the word special five times on two pages. The Thanksgiving Sing was special. So was the Spellathon. The Emerging Artists exhibition was special. Even the unassuming Pie Drive was, for reasons not clearly revealed by the newsletter coverage, special indeed. And, finally, this year’s third-grade class was in itself a very, very special group.
I wondered, Is it possible? So much specialness concentrated in one place? A cosmic coincidence? Or was this really an extraordinary school with unusually dazzling children, committed teachers, generous and energetic families? In fact, this school is a fine and good one. The children are intelligent and well behaved, the teachers care, the parents give of their time and money. But it is not a terribly unusual school, and I questioned the benefit of believing otherwise.
The third-grade newsletter was not unique. At nearly every campus I visit, the staff, the posters on the walls, and the overall atmosphere emphasize that this is not merely a place of learning, it’s a breeding ground for enlightened, compassionate champions. The schools are not to blame for their hubris. Parents, with their grand expectations for their children, have sparked the outbreak of specialness.
My friend Paula, who runs a terrific elementary school, told of taking a mother on a prospective parents’ tour of the campus. The mom said that her daughter Sloane had a strong interest in science. “At another school I visited, the kindergarten teachers put streamers in the trees to demonstrate the properties of wind to the students,” she reported. “I’m hoping you would do that here too. I wouldn’t want Sloane to miss out.”
“We have leaves on our trees,” Paula responded. “They do the same thing. Can’t guarantee we’ll be using streamers.” Sloane’s mother sent her daughter to the school with the streamers.
The principal of another school complained to me about his frustration with parents’ expectations:
What’s going on here? Why does the newsletter shout hosannas? Why is Sloane’s mother so anxious for her daughter to experience a miniature physics lab in kindergarten? Why can’t parents let their eight-year-olds develop at a natural, raggedy pace?
Too many parents want everything fixed by the time their child is eight. They want academic perfection, a child as capable as any other child in the Western hemisphere. Children develop in fits and starts, but nobody has time for that anymore. No late bloomers, no slow starters, nothing unusual accepted! If a child doesn’t get straight A’s, his parents start fretting that he’s got a learning disability or a motivation problem. The normal curve has disappeared. Parents seem to think that children only come in two flavors: learning disabled and gifted. Not every child has unlimited potential in all areas. This doesn’t mean most kids won’t be able to go to college and to compete successfully in the adult world. Almost all of them will. Parents just need to relax a little and be patient.
When I began studying Judaism, one of the first things that struck me was how directly it spoke to the issue of parental pressure. According to Jewish thought, parents should not expect their children to be anyone other than who they are. A Hasidic teaching says, “If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t tell him to be a doctor.” Judaism holds that every child is made in the divine image. When we ignore a child’s intrinsic strengths in an effort to push him toward our notion of extraordinary achievement, we are undermining God’s plan.
If the pressure to be special gets too intense, children end up in the therapist’s office suffering from sleep and eating disorders, chronic stomachaches, hair-pulling, depression, and other ailments. They are casualties of their parents’ drive for perfection. It was children such as these who spurred me to look outside standard therapeutic practices for ways to help. In Judaism I found an approach that respects children’s uniqueness while accepting them in all their ordinary glory.
In Chapter 1 I described my surprise and confusion when, after conducting tests and telling parents that their child was “within normal limits,” the parents were frequently disappointed. In their view, a diagnosable problem was better than a normal, natural limitation. A problem can be fixed, but a true limitation requires adjustment of expectations and acceptance of an imperfect son or daughter. Parents feel hope if their restless child is actually hyperactive, their dreamy child has ADD, their poor math student has a learning disorder, their shy child has a social phobia, their wrongdoing son has “intermittent explosive disorder.” If there is a diagnosis, specialists and tutors can be hired, drugs given, treatment plans made, and parents can maintain an illusion that the imperfection can be overcome. Their faith in their child’s unlimited potential is restored.
Why are parents so anxious to be raising perfect children? The answer is twofold: pride and fear of the future.
Janet asked for advice from me and the other members of our parenting class about how to “talk sense” to her older son.
Laypeople call it bragging; psychologists describe it as “achievement by proxy syndrome.” Some parents use their children’s achievements for their own sense of security, personal glory, or the fulfillment of unfulfilled dreams. Even parents who don’t use their children as a hedge against existential fears or a badge of their own worth can find it hard not to succumb to the fever of competition.
Do you know about the Johns Hopkins Talent Search? They offer sixth graders the chance to take the SAT. If a student scores in the same range as the average twelfth grader on either verbal or math he qualifies for a special summer academic program on a college campus. I know that Dylan would qualify in math but he says he doesn’t want to sit for the test. This is crazy because the school wouldn’t even know his score and if he makes it and enters the talent search program it would look great on his transcript.
It wasn’t always this way. In the past, parents produced children for their work value (hands to labor on the farm). Today many parents see their children’s achievement as an important family “product.” This attitude leads to an upside-down, child-centered perspective where we cater to children’s whims yet pressure them to achieve at all costs—academically, socially, and athletically. But this pressure can backfire.
Children who feel that they are expected to surpass their parents’ already high level of achievement or to demonstrate skills that are beyond their capabilities will suffer. Some children are one-trick ponies, and trying to get them to master a broad variety of skills is futile and destructive. Keep at it, and they’ll even forget their one trick. Other children begin to feel as if they are working only for their parents’ satisfaction, and they openly rebel. Some respond to the pressure by losing their intrinsic enjoyment of mastering skills, and still others use psychosomatic symptoms to get out of the running. By exaggerating their defects, these children hope to avoid failure and to have their progress measured by more individual, realistic standards.
Your child is not your masterpiece. According to Jewish thought, your child is not even truly “yours.” In Hebrew there is no verb for possession; the expression we translate as “to have,” yesh li, actually means “it is there for me” or “there is for me.” Although nothing belongs to us, God has made everything available on loan and has invited us to borrow it to further the purpose of holiness. This includes our children. They are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving God. Our job is to help them find out what it is.
If children were required to excel only in certain areas, they might be better able to cope with their parents’ expectations. Psychologist Michael Thompson says that we make unfairly “generic” demands on our adolescents: “It is the only period in your life when you’re expected to do all things well. Adults don’t hold themselves to those standards. We don’t interview the pediatrician about whether he can throw a basketball, or quiz our accountant on biology before we let her do our taxes. In elementary and high school we celebrate the generalist, but in the real world there is no room for the generalist except on Jeopardy!”
The age at which we expect children to become very good at everything is getting lower. Part of the reason for this is parents’ fears of an uncertain future, one that is hurtling at us more quickly than ever before. The computer bought today can be replaced by a cheaper, lighter, snappier-looking one with a faster modem by the time we get it out of the box. Parents worry that in this hyperpaced world, only the child who excels at everything will survive. If young Maya can’t design her own Web site, stay at the very top of her class, run a marathon, and speak confidently before large groups, she’ll be left in the dust.
Our attempts to prepare our children for the future are limited by our own imaginations of what the future will be like. We’re apprehensive, but our children are not. The high-tech, rapidly changing world that seems so mind-bending to us is normal to them. “Preparing” our children for this new world by turning them into supercompetitive generalists is useless because we can’t second-guess the skills they will need twenty years from now. The only things that are certain to be valuable are character traits such as honesty, tenacity, flexibility, optimism, and compassion—the same traits that have served people well for centuries.
Remember Lake Wobegon, the fictional town created by Garrison Keillor, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”? That sunny, statistics-defying state of mind is familiar turf for elementary school teachers. They describe hearing the same song every year when it’s time for parent conferences. One weary middle school director told me,
Some parents can maintain the specialness myth with their children long past fourth grade. Is this good for the child’s self-esteem? Listen to Isabel, a student I interviewed at an elite private school. Isabel will be entering the eleventh grade next year. She told me that she was having a hard time socially. The last two boys she wanted to have as boyfriends hadn’t been interested in her. Her teachers seemed to favor other students. She felt confused and hurt:
Parents are so nervous. If their child is doing well in everything it’s like a badge for them that everything is OK. If their child is, God forbid, average, they panic. That’s why so many teachers have started giving “Lake Wobegon” report cards. Teachers are afraid that if they give anything less than an A, parents will blame their child’s poor achievement on the teacher’s lack of skill rather than on the child’s limitations. This is a shame, because real problems get glossed over or missed until fourth grade, when there’s no more hiding it and the child’s weaker areas show up on standardized tests.
Like so many parents, Isabel’s mother and father were afraid their daughter would think she was ordinary. Whether they were also reluctant to admit to themselves that their child was “merely” average, I don’t know. But their Lake Wobegon attitude has not benefited Isabel. They’ve put her on a pedestal and now she’s stuck up there, unable to find out what level she would reach if she had a chance to bob around with everybody else.
I know why this is so hard for me. My mom and dad always, always made me feel like I was the best: the most beautiful, the smartest, the most charming. And mostly I’ve done well in everything. But, now I’m finding out that I’m not that unusual. Maybe I’m good enough, but I don’t know anymore.
There is another aspect of contemporary child-rearing that places still more pressure on our children. Over the past twenty years, teachers and social scientists have downplayed the differences between boys and girls. It’s been done as a corrective to a history of inequality, but the result is that we’ve come to expect boys to behave like girls and girls like boys in circumstances where this is difficult for them. There’s no question that all children should be encouraged to pursue whatever field interests them, but a gender-blind approach can sometimes increase the stress on our overstressed kids. Gone are the gender-based safe havens of the past; now both sexes have the opportunity—the obligation—to excel in every arena, from academics to sports, from being a good listener to being a leader.
God is the original maker of distinctions: light from darkness, the seventh day of rest from the six days of labor, sacred from profane. While remaining aware of the potential for discrimination, we can also remain respectful of innate distinctions between boys and girls. For example, their interests and developmental stages are often different. Instead of trying to ignore or flatten these differences, we can pay attention to the ways they are revealed in our children’s behavior. If you fear that acknowledging any gender differences will lead to unfair treatment, your children may miss out on getting what they need. In order to treat our daughters and sons fairly it is sometimes necessary to treat them differently. Honoring distinctions can lead to equal opportunity.
Laurie’s son, Noah, was born when her daughter, Rachel, was four. “I was amazed at the differences from the start,” she said. “When Noah was a baby he shouted ‘Ball!’ whenever he saw the letter O. He insisted that I walk on the trafficky side of the street instead of the lovely tree-lined residential side so he could see the trucks up close. He called out to every one, ‘Rrruuum! Rrruuum!’”
Noah concentrated so hard that he could do only one thing at a time. If Laurie wanted him to listen to her, she had to hold his three-year-old face in her hands. She couldn’t take him with her on errands because he’d run away. Laurie and her husband, Mark, decided that they would never allow Noah to have toy guns or to watch TV, only educational videos. That didn’t stop Noah from shooting at everything—he’d just cock his finger or make a gun out of his toast or a graham cracker.
What will happen when this truck-loving, hyperfocused, shoot-‘em-up guy gets to kindergarten? When he has to sit still at a table for a chunk of the day and practice printing upper- and lowercase letters? When he has to cooperate nicely all day long? When no fart noises or finger guns are permitted? (“Noah, I know you remember how to use your words, right, Noah?”)
Here’s what his teacher might tell Laurie: “Noah has such a hard time sitting still and following instructions. We’re wondering if this might be ADD. Of course, Noah is too young for us to know for sure yet. But you might consider having him tested next year.”
Kindergarten used to be a place for making clay handprints, singing songs, and listening to stories, nothing more. The teacher’s goal was to help the children learn how to be part of a group and to swim around in a pond bigger than their own home and family. But in many schools today the early elementary grades have become a time for mastering high-level academic tasks, and this takes a level of concentration, discipline, and fine motor skill that lots of boys haven’t yet developed. Debbie Davis, a school-based learning specialist in Los Angeles, described a group of second-grade boys and girls she had recently evaluated. “The differences were apparent on the first day I worked with them. The girls could concentrate twice as long as the boys and wanted to do whatever they could to please me. They told me they loved my bracelets. The boys didn’t last too long on the phonics assessment before they started a lively and graphic discussion of what happens when you throw up on a ship.”
Most boys get by just fine in school, but many do suffer from our inappropriate expectations for their performance and comportment. As classrooms get more crowded, the problems get worse. I suspect that if Tom Sawyer were around today he might be put on Ritalin. For some boys, our inappropriate expectations are a recipe for resentment of adults, demoralization, bitterness about schoolwork, and shame about normal “boyishness.”
What of our expectations for girls? Fifteen-year-old Allegra is beautiful, capable, and articulate. She attends an all-girls’ high school, where she earns straight A’s. Allegra also plays the bassoon, not because she loves the sound but because she believes that this unusually difficult double-reed instrument will give her an edge on an Ivy League college admission.
Allegra doesn’t have time to go to parties anymore. Most of the time she is working. Allegra is often up at midnight or 5 A.M., pounding out twice as many pages as were assigned on her English essays. Only last year she was a happy-go-lucky middle schooler; now she’s ten pounds underweight, almost always has a stomachache, and by constantly winding her hair around her finger while she studies has pulled out many tiny patches at her hairline.
If boys risk getting their spirits crushed in early elementary school, girls face a different challenge—fulfilling impossible expectations in adolescence. Allegra is under siege from the pressure to excel in everything. She believes what girls have always believed: it’s important to be a sympathetic listener, good in English and the arts, as slender as a model. And she feels that in order to be genuinely worthy she has to excel in all the traditionally male domains as well: winning prizes at the science fair, making the varsity volleyball team, getting elected head of the student council. Allegra has this to say about her future: “I know I have high expectations but I sometimes feel that if I don’t attend at least one summit conference in my life and personally solve the problem of hunger in Rwanda I will be a failure. Not to my parents, just to myself.”
While we’ve made strides in actively promoting equal rights for women and recognizing emotional vulnerability in men, we’ve ignored some of the other protections boys and girls need—protection of young boys’ natural rough-and-readiness and protection of girls from feeling they must excel in everything all the time. If we want to give our children what they need to thrive, we must honor their basic nature—boy or girl, introverted or extroverted, wild or mellow.
A key concept in Hasidic thought expresses the idea of balance: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pockets at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust.’ On the other, ‘The world was created for me.’” The divine and the ordinary merge in Judaism, where the holiest day of the year is not Yom Kippur, the majestic and awesome Day of Atonement, but every Saturday. This potentially average day of the week is such a distinctive time that, according to tradition, a band of ministering angels follows each person home from synagogue to help usher in the special spirit of the day.
AN ANTIDOTE TO SPECIALITIS:
In Judaism, a holy place is not a magnificent cathedral but the sukkah, a rickety hut erected in the backyard or on the balcony to celebrate the harvest in early autumn. Holy objects? The Torah, a length of parchment wound around two undistinguished wooden rollers. Holy food? Challah, a plain egg bread. And on what does the future of the world rest? Not on great acts of heroism but on the breath of schoolchildren who are studying their tradition. This very democratic system gives a special grace to every child and stunning glory to none.
Within Judaism you can find an antidote to the “specialitis” our culture fosters. Judaism asks that we raise our children not in hope that they are the Messiah but to be themselves. Consider the wisdom of Rabbi Zusya, an early Hasidic leader and folk hero. Zusya was known as a modest and benevolent man who, despite his meager knowledge of Torah, attained merit because of his innocence and personal righteousness. Before he died he said, “When I reach the world to come, God will not ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses. He will ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusya.”
In Judaism we are continually reminded to take into account our children’s differences and allow natural endowment to reveal itself. Throughout the Torah, the sages make reference to the need to preach and guide in a way that will reach each person. At the Passover seder, tradition instructs us to tell the story of our escape to freedom so that it will be understood not only by the wise child, but also by the wicked, the simple, and the clueless one; each at his own level, each with the right tone and language. The Jewish message is consistent: Every child is unique. Don’t treat all children the same way or you will not reach them.
How can you see your child’s gifts and limits clearly? How much can and should be left in God’s hands? Here are some guidelines that have been a great help to the parents with whom I work.
I once read a beautiful teaching attributed simply to “a modern educator.” It read: “Try to see your child as a seed that came in a packet without a label. Your job is to provide the right environment and nutrients and to pull the weeds. You can’t decide what kind of flower you’ll get or in which season it will bloom.” When we are open to the differences in our children, we’ll give them the soil they need to flourish.
Simon’s parents came to see me because he was falling behind in school. The middle child of three, Simon’s pace and talents were different from those of other family members: he ate more slowly, he wasn’t interested in reading the comic page in the newspaper, he was a better athlete, a better artist, and more outgoing than either his parents or his siblings. If the family was on an outing and they walked past someone eating an ice cream cone, genial Simon might say, “That looks good. What flavor is it?” instantly and effortlessly acquiring a new friend.
Simon attended a high-pressure school and had a hard time keeping up academically. When I met the family, he was pale and had become withdrawn. He was being tutored in four out of five subjects and took medication for Attention Deficit Disorder. He had a poor appetite and a facial tic. After switching to a school with a slower pace and less social and academic pressure and replacing tutoring with visits to a skateboard park after school twice a week, Simon blossomed. He no longer needed medication to concentrate on schoolwork and homework. His spirits were high.
Many families have a Simon, a child whose talents and tempo and needs differ from what is assumed to be normal by the rest of the group. Your “different” child may be fast-paced, impatient, and quick to act, while your family tends to be slower and more reflective. Your child’s temperament is a God-given blueprint for his personality; he couldn’t change it even if he wanted to. Rather than fret because he doesn’t approach the world in a way you can easily understand, try raising your tolerance for differences.
It helps to know that the psychiatric definition of “normal” is quite broad. In a landmark study of temperament, researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas found a wide range of normal variations in children’s natures that were obvious even in infancy. Some of the attributes they studied included:
- Emotional intensity: some babies rarely whimper and are easily pacified, while others are often frustrated or upset and will howl for hours.
- Persistence: some are easily redirected to a new activity and will take no for an answer, while others refuse to cooperate and will fight to continue in their chosen activity.
- Flexibility: some children adapt easily to change, surprise, or a break from routine, while others will resolutely reject anything new, such as toast cut in triangles instead of rectangles.
- Sensitivity: some children are easily disturbed by loud noises, smells, rough or slimy textures, or tags on clothing. These children are often also highly perceptive and aware of emotional nuances or visual details. They are the ones who notice your shifting moods, a rainbow in the gutter, Mom’s new earrings, or the letter X formed by spaghetti strands.
- Energy: some children thrash around when sleeping, can’t pass a door frame without jumping up to touch the header, spill their milk at every meal, and can’t tolerate long car rides. Others will sit and play quietly for hours and move slowly when it is time to switch to a new activity.
- In first reactions to new situations, such as new food, a new car seat, or a new playmate, some children are always wary, while others plunge right in.
- Mood: some are happy and optimistic, others serious or bristly.
- Sociability: some children are more solitary and private and refuel by solitary activities such as playing Nintendo. Others refuel by being with people; they share thoughts and feelings easily, make others feel comfortable, and love to talk. These are the children who will follow you to the bathroom and stand right outside the door keeping up a nonstop monologue.
- Too often parents interpret a child’s behavior as rebelliousness when in fact she is just being true to her nature. In some ways, this goes back to wanting our children to be our opus. We expect them to be like us (only better, smarter, and more ambitious), and if they veer too far in a different direction, we assume they must be doing it to get attention or to rebel. Parents who adopt children recognize that there will be inherent differences between their children and themselves, but biological parents are sometimes slower to catch on. One of the most generous gifts you can give your child is to study her temperament, and once you’ve learned it, work to accept it.
Choose your targets for criticism with care. Lisa told me that once she started thinking about loosening up her standards of proper comportment for her son, Oliver, she realized that “I was always on him. I was like a diagnostician. Show me Ollie in any situation and I could tell you what he was doing wrong.”
Instead of criticizing her son at every turn she chose one behavior to try to alter at a time. Her first target was jumping on the furniture. She approached the problem from a few different angles. Wanting to respect Ollie’s high energy level, she provided an alternative jumping opportunity: a mini-trampoline in the family room. She also put a sign on the couch that said “No Jumping” and immediately intervened by banning Ollie from the room if he started to jump. “Sorry, Ollie, You have lost your family room privileges for today. I’m sure you won’t forget the rule tomorrow.” Once “no jumping” became a habit, Lisa set to work on helping Ollie to remember to use his “inside voice” instead of shouting when he was in the house. She approached other problem behaviors by protecting Ollie from temptation. Since he couldn’t seem to resist racing the shopping cart down the aisle in the supermarket, she decided to avoid taking him there unless she had no alternative. Her overall goal? To avoid giving Ollie the impression that his rambunctiousness was something to feel ashamed of.
To help your daughter maintain balance in a world that fills her with mixed-up expectations—be a flawless beauty, be the next surgeon general—talk openly to her about these issues and about the pressure to be the best in everything. Encourage her to pursue hobbies and pleasurable activities instead of focusing all her energy on the big-ticket items that look good on college transcripts. Resist mocking or demeaning her early adolescent vanity or boy craziness. And watch the example you set. One mother told our class that she always took off her glasses when she looked in the mirror so she wouldn’t see her beauty flaws up too close. Another confessed that she weighed herself twice a day. It’s no use hiding tricks like this from your daughter. She is psychic. You can’t expect her to accept herself when you are zealously self-critical. To truly set an example for her, you have to be willing to look in the mirror, get off the scale, and accept yourself as God made you.
Donald Winnicott, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, often wrote about “good enough mothering” and the “ordinary devoted mother.” He says that “inherited potential will be realized” when “the environmental provision is adequate.” Adequate, not exceptional. You can only do your part. You can’t control the outcome. In our competitive world, it’s often easy to forget this and to blame ourselves, our child’s teacher, or other outside influences if our child is not achieving at an extraordinary level or doesn’t seem terrifically happy.
Dr. Winnicott is reminding us that in order to flourish, children don’t need the best of everything. Instead they simply need what is good enough. This may include good enough (but dull) homework assignments, good enough (but a little crabby or uninspired) teachers, good enough (although insect-infested and humid) summer camps, and good enough (although bossy and shallow) friends. Consider that “good enough” can often be best for your child, because when life is mostly ordinary and just occasionally extraordinary, your child won’t end up with expectations of herself and those around her that can’t be met on this worldly plane.
Recently an acquaintance of mine took the “good enough” plunge with her sixth-grade daughter, Gaby. Gaby was not unhappy in her private school, just unenthusiastic. Her mother had to prod her to do her homework each night. After testing showed that Gaby was qualified for a magnet program for the highly gifted, she transferred from the private school to a public middle school of two thousand students. The bathrooms at the new school were so dirty that Gaby never used them after midday. Twice during her first year students were arrested for having weapons on campus. At her previous school there were twenty-two students in each class. At the new school there were thirty-four. Here’s what Gaby said about the experience:
Gaby’s mom and dad saw what their daughter needed and took a chance at providing it for her. The campus, class size, and bathrooms were far below the standards her parents would have preferred, but for Gaby the school was more than good enough.
I never realized it before, but in my old school I thought there was something wrong with me. I love to read and no one else in my class had books all over their room. My new school is so fun. All the kids in my program have my sense of humor! They read the same books I do and we trade them all the time. I’m working ten times harder than I did last year but it’s worth it. I’m really happy here.
TO BE AN EXTRAORDINARY PARENT
I meet many parents who are trying so hard to be perfect parents, to make everything just right for their children, that they’re draining away their pleasure in parenting. They’re too exhausted and too unconsciously resentful to enjoy the amazing show of childhood. For these parents, every minute needs to count. If Lana is playing in a puddle, Mom needs to turn the experience into a science lesson about microorganisms. If preteen Brandon is restless or in a bad mood, his parents strive to get to the bottom of it instead of letting him be.
DON’T PRESSURE YOURSELF
There are a few varieties in the garden of perfect parents. Some stay-at-home-and-raise-the-kids moms figure that they had better do a superb job of it to prove to themselves and others that they’re succeeding at the art, craft, and science of child-rearing. Some full-time working moms want things to be very special for their children because they feel guilty for not being around as much as their own mothers were. The moms who work part-time do a bit of both! And then there are all of us “geriatric” parents. Provided with these precious little vessels for our hopes and dreams, we turn them into our latest project. With midlife recognition of mortality at hand, we’re set up to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our children.
My advice to all of these parents is to tolerate some low-quality time. Have a little less ambition for yourself and your children. Plan nothing—disappoint your kids with your essential mediocrity and the dullness of your home. Just hang around your children and wait to see what develops. Strive to be a “good enough” parent, not a great one. It can make everyone in the family relax and paradoxically make life richer.
Every child cannot be good in everything, and no amount of encouragement or teacher talent can make it so. It usually falls to a teacher to deliver the news that our child is not the next Einstein or Marie Curie. Many parents are not prepared to hear this, not even in the early grades. Last year I had a call from a father who was angry and insulted about the treatment his son was getting at the hands of his second-grade teacher:
This father was not pleased to learn that in my opinion, removing Reed from his class would send at least three damaging messages: that whenever he isn’t delighted with a situation he can escape it rather than see it through; that the usual rules don’t apply to him; and that he needn’t respect the authority of his teachers. I told Reed’s dad that when a parent complains about a child’s awful teacher I usually say, “Great! He’ll learn a whole new set of coping skills dealing with her, skills he’ll need on the job and in marriage.” If you feel that every teacher in the school is underwhelming, you’ve got a problem. Either the school is inappropriate or your criteria are unrealistic.
Reed’s teacher doesn’t appreciate how special he is. He started talking when he was ten months old, played complicated games on the computer before he entered kindergarten, and impresses everyone he meets with his intelligence and creativity. Except for this teacher. All she seems to care about are a few missing homework assignments and the fact that he talks a little too much in class. My wife and I want to interview the other second-grade teacher and possibly have Reed transferred to her class, but the school doesn’t think we have an adequate reason for doing so.
The ultimate test of parents’ relationship with their child’s teacher comes at report card time. Today’s teachers are experts in the art of constructive criticism, of affirming children and building up their strengths. At many schools, boys and girls are coddled and protected. Their report cards are lyrical essays full of detailed observations about what makes each child extraordinary. One principal observed that the report cards have become a cross between “a work of romantic fiction and a legal document.”
In contrast, the Jewish day school to which I sent my two daughters was wonderfully matter-of-fact. I recall a parent-teacher conference lasting under seven minutes, including the small talk, but we learned what we needed to know about our daughter: she was doing well. If we needed flattery, we could talk to her grandparents about her. The school was not a cruise ship. When the girls graduated they would not be shocked to discover that life isn’t a process of continuous encouragement. Unfortunately, this straightforward approach is the exception, not the rule.
The trend toward Lake Wobegon report cards is a recent one. For most of this century children’s feelings were not spared when it came time for grades. When the writer Roald Dahl was a boarding school student in the 1920s, his English composition master had this to say about him:
This teacher’s biting review reminded me that frank talk has evaporated from most report cards—and that it takes time for children’s talents to develop. If you can look at your children’s early efforts and uneven report cards calmly, you’ll see how they are progressing through the hard business of thinking and growing.
I have never met a boy who so persistently says the opposite of what he means. He seems incapable of marshalling his thoughts on paper…. Consistently idle. Ideas limited…A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel. See his report on boxing. Precisely the same remarks apply. Too slow and ponderous. His punches are not well timed and easily seen coming.
Your child’s teacher spends nearly as many hours during the week with your child as you do. While you are the expert on your own Nora or Eli, she is the expert on seven-year-olds and knows more about them than you ever will. By giving her the benefit of the doubt and resisting playing either offense or defense, you have a better chance of making her both your and your child’s ally.
Wondering whether to label your child’s misbehavior as problematic or normal? Check in with the nonprofessional experts all around you. If the math and science teacher says that your daughter is doing poorly and you’re feeling demoralized about her abilities, schedule a visit with the art and music teachers. Learn about how she functions and what motivates her in her areas of strength. Bring this knowledge to your conference with the math teacher. If the problems are social, do some sleuthing and talk to the social experts—the parents of your child’s friends—to hear about what happens on both the successful and unsuccessful play dates and sleepovers. Find out if other parents have the same expectations and the same problems. Jewish wisdom teaches us not to hold ourselves apart from the community but to use it for support and learning.
The sages advise us to study Torah lishma—“for its own sake”—rather than to impress others with our scholarship. A paradox of parenting is that if we love our children for their own sake rather than for their achievements, it’s more likely that they will reach their true potential. If you place too high a value on straight-A report cards and a slateful of extracurricular activities, your child may feel that she needs to excel in all areas in order to retain your respect. But if she senses that you respect her for the qualities with which she’s been naturally endowed, she’ll gain the confidence she needs to truly shine, even without streamers in the trees.
Copyright © 2018 by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.