Last school year, I saw a young mother and father in the Decatur Public Library leaning forward over a small table overparenting their three-year-old daughter as she tried to put together the puzzle of an alligator with 26 green pieces A to Z. The A-piece belonged at the nose and Z at the tip of the tail. Their intensity was disturbing. They talked at her constantly as if their willpower could get their daughter to put the alphabet in order.
“Everyone knows” that the problem with “kids these days” is “parents these days.” If a child isn’t performing in school, his parents didn’t give him a good enough head start. Anxious that their children may fall short academically, one parent actually defended her daily academic work with her four-year-old with these words: “These days if your child isn’t reading by kindergarten, he won’t succeed in school.” This notion is false, and merely holding it in mind is a net negative for the child.
In some environments—most notoriously metropolitan areas like New York, where this anxiety has grown to epidemic proportions, we can see the results of panic. In “Raising Successful Children” (New York Times, August 4) Madeline Levine’s writes:
“Having tutors prep your anxious 3-year-old for a preschool interview because all your friends’ children are going to this particular school or pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting….”
Naturally a parent might be anxious in this climate, but this anxiety is a bad educator and can cause parents to be both bad teachers and bad parents. When parents try to engineer their children’s success they, paradoxically, undermine their chances for success.
The self-determination of the child is key. If it is good for a child to put that alligator puzzle together, its value is wasted with the parents hovering. The child needs to concentrate on the challenges of the puzzle (sharping their visual acuity, looking at things from different points of view, seeing the relationships between the positive and negative spaces, building their motoric competence, coordinating what they see with what they want to do, and so on.) She needs to make decisions about what she wants to do and how to do it. She needs to earn the satisfaction of mastery and completion on her own–otherwise the victory goes to the parent, not the child.
Parental over-involvement can interfere with brain development by:
1) Distracting the child from the task.
2) Reducing the complex decision-making that flows from the child’s own inclinations to a simple decision: “Hmmmm, Do what my parents want or do what I want?”
3) Preempting her sense of mastery and competence.
4) Making the project an adult project.
These four points apply to all direct parental involvement in children’s enterprises. If we want our children to feel a sense of their own competence, they have to experience that competence under their own steam. Internal motivation is essential to maximizing learning.
The best thing parents can do for kids is to trust that their children can rise to challenges.
Levine’s article ends with: “…But we must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering….
“A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety.”
The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children, second edition of my first book will be released this week. I am not foolish enough to think it will make much of a dent in the craziness that is possessing those responsible for education these days, but I do hope that it will help some parents put their children’s education into perspective.
As I say in the introduction: “If I could be granted one wish for our children it would be that their parents and their teachers would shift their focus from short term issues to long term interests (from test scores to enthusiasm, from measuring up to making something of yourself, from staying out of trouble to learning from mistakes, from getting into high school & college to getting the most out of it when they get there, from independence to interdependence, from goodness to having integrity, from fear to love.”) Let the kids use the short-term issues for their own character development.
How should parents get their kids ready for school? Remember that if they are going to kindergarten, they have been practicing being human in this world for 43,000 hours already, believe in them, and remember who’s going to school this week. Enjoy your children.