Learning Young

April 25, 2015 — Leave a comment

Education, and parenting, can provoke heated debate regardless of where in the world we happen to live. The ‘tiger mom’ of Amy Chua, who espouses a structured and highly disciplined approach versus the ‘panda dad’ of Alan Paul, who believes “it stifles creativity and innovation”. Then you have Texas Lt Governor Dan Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board, who believe pre-K education is a “godless, socialistic” plot and “a threat to parental rights”.

Like most things there has to be a median way.

In his book Anatomy of Restlessness, Bruce Chatwin wrote, “Children need paths to explore, to take bearings on the earth in which they live….” He believed some of our earliest memories are based around paths, whether to school, to the end of the garden, to the shops; in essence wanting to find out where a path may lead. The journey being as important as the destination.

My “I’m nearly four” year-old granddaughter recently started kindergarten, and is thriving in an environment that allows her to learn, to find her own path and to have a few hours a day independent from her mother.

And there’s the nub. Independence. It seems to me, our role as parents is to set our children up to succeed in whatever endeavour they decide to undertake. We try to guide them. We hate to see them suffer, whether from a snub in the playground, a lost ballgame, a bad grade, or a first broken heart. But if we try and ensure all failure is taken out of their little lives, how will they know how to handle failures that will inevitably face them as adults? There are very few of us who have not had a disappointment of some kind, and it is how we manage those later failures that gives measure of the man or woman we have become.

An article on the BBC website triggered thoughts on how much pressure we put on our children to succeed. Parents in Hong Kong taking extreme steps to ensure their toddlers are accepted into “the most prestigious nurseries.” Only then, these parents believe, will their children gain entry to the best primary, and secondary schools, and ultimately the best universities. One mother has a tutor for her eighteen-month-old daughter, who will need to know how to build a house with bricks, know where the eyes go on a felt face, and in the more extreme nursery interviews, be able to identify different kinds of eggs. Really? Of the five eggs pictured, I felt reasonably confident I got three correct. Tutoring is set to begin for this child’s brother when he reaches the grand old age of eight months. These toddlers are also tutored, and tutoring does not come cheap, in ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and not to be greedy, not to hit little Jimmy, and so on.

Parents in the US desperate for their daughters to get into a sorority have been known to spend up to $8,000 for a two-week sorority prep class, wherein their daughters are taught how to behave. Call me old fashioned, but I thought that was a parent’s job. A study by the University of Mary Washington, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, reported that children with hovering parents were more likely to suffer from depression, and a lack of self-worth, than those with parents less inclined to micromanage their offspring.

There is, of course, a difference in giving children a leg up, and all out cheating. A photo doing the rounds on social media recently showed parents climbing the walls and hanging from the windows of a school in Bihar, India, waving cheat sheets at their children inside taking end-of-year exams. Apparently US colleges expect applicants from China to have falsified transcripts, fake letters of recommendation and not to have written their own essays.

But it’s not just in Asia this proclivity to cheat for our children occurs. Tutors writing college papers for wealthy students is not unknown here. One young tutor earned enough to pay his own college tuition from such an undertaking. An extreme example is of an American mother, Catherine Venusto, a school secretary, who hacked into the schools computers to change her child’s grades. Not just once, but a hundred times. Again, really?

I do understand, and agree, education is the way out of poverty, but parents cheating for their children is not going to help them think. If we want independent, free thinking and confident young people we have to allow them to think for themselves, and to make some mistakes. That does not mean abrogating responsibility for their safety. It means giving them the opportunity to find their own path, even if it means some fraught moments for us. And parenting is full of those gut-wrenching moments.

In a recent guest blog for ExpatChild.com on the ‘empty nest syndrome’ I wrote, “Helicoptering our children has I think made the ‘empty nest’ that much harder to bear. Our children have become the focus of our lives, rather than a very precious part of it; necessary of course when they are tiny and truly helpless but not so much as they grow.”

We have to let our children go in incremental steps and a good first step is kindergarten, but on their own merit. Not ours.

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