Raising children, being a good and loving parent, is among the most rewarding, humbling, complex and important experiences life offers. While there is no dearth of opinions and resources suggesting how to get it right — just visit any local bookstore and explore the parenting section — the truth is there is no one right way. Oh, if only there were. Successful parenting is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. My experience, gained both in more than 30 years of work in schools but also, maybe more importantly, as a parent myself, has taught me there are just too many variables involved to allow us to fool ourselves into thinking there is one right way. Whether your tastes and interests in theories of parenting run to Spock, Brazelton and Leach or Dewey, Rousseau or Montaigne, there are seemingly as many expert opinions available as there are parents. As Alvin Toffler quipped, “Parenthood remains the greatest single preserve of the amateur.”
Being a parent is primal, it is universal, and it elicits some of the strongest emotions we ever muster. As we begin a new school year at Blake and welcome 171 new students and their parents to our community, I remind us all of the invaluable lesson of Goldilocks. When I talk of good parenting, in large part I’m talking of avoiding the too hot or too cold and finding the just right for each child.
Loving, supporting and helping your child doesn’t mean making sure that he or she never stumbles or falls. If children are to learn how to regain their balance or get up after a fall, they need experience doing so. One of our jobs as a school is to challenge children, to encourage them to take risks, to try things here in school that might not come easily to them and, in the process, learn about themselves.
Children learn a great deal by observing their parents. When your child doesn’t make the tennis team, doesn’t get an A in mathematics, or doesn’t get elected class president, how you react is critically important. Try to train yourself to take your cues from your children. How do they react? Recall those moments when your child was very young, slipped and fell and looked at you for guidance. If you rushed to scoop her up with a look of panic on your face, you were more likely to be greeted by an ear-piercing scream. Whereas, if you noticed no blood, nothing to suggest serious injury, and you managed a more controlled reaction, your response likely elicited a less alarmed reaction on the part of your child.
Lori Gottlieb wrote an article that appeared in The Atlantic this summer under the title “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Much of what I have to say here was inspired by that piece. Gottlieb herself draws heavily on the witty wisdom of Wendy Mogel, who’ll be coming to Blake on Jan. 26 to speak to parents. If you miss it, you’ll hear about Mogel and her stories from other parents who do attend, and you’ll be sorry you weren’t there. Her shtick is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. She has an important message that we poorly serve our children when we protect them from every possible mishap.
I sometimes wonder what our society might be like if Jefferson et al. had settled on life, liberty and something else other than happiness. Is happiness really the ultimate goal? What about meaning? Life, liberty and the pursuit of a meaningful life? Gottlieb writes about what can happen when children believe that they’ve been given every opportunity but still aren’t happy. We can, if we are not thoughtful about what we do in raising our children, encourage a psychological expectation that every day of life needs to be brimming with happiness. I question how helpful or realistic that is.
Children need autonomy. They need a sense of agency. They need to know that their life is of their own making. It is our job as parents and teachers to give them the confidence, the skills, and the opportunities to make mistakes and to recover from their mistakes. We need to provide the love children need to make a life of meaning, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be the occasional skinned knee.
As we start this year, I remark as I always do on behalf of myself and my colleagues how grateful we are to you that you entrust your children (for what means more to you than your children?) to us for their education. This is a partnership we do not take for granted, and yours is a trust we strive to earn again every year.
I wish you all a wonderful school year.