By Saving, Do We Condemn Our Children?

Kay Wyma’s recent talks to EDS parents and faculty were on an old topic but with a startling new revelation. She wove delightfully familiar parenting stories that were alternatingly affirming and provocative.  Wyma has found an endearing style to deliver fairly straight talk to parents about how to work against the contemporary culture of entitlement.  Although this is not a new topic, especially in the independent school world, Mrs. Wyma delivered one piece of information that stopped me cold in my tracks.

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve attended many similarly themed workshops and have worked with the likes of Stephen Glenn (author of How to Raise Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World) and Wendy Mogel (author of Blessings of a Skinned Knee), whose books I recommend along with Mrs. Wyma’s Cleaning House: A Mom’s 12-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement. Each of these experts in his or her own way has made a compelling case that parents today overprotect children.  We all are familiar with clever terms such as helicopter  parenting, bubble-wrap parenting, and smothering.  However, until Mrs. Wyma quoted some important research, I did not realize the potentially dire consequences of this parenting style.

It turns out we risk far more than merely raising spoiled, entitled young people.  Overprotective over-parenting has been linked to increases in anxiety and depression among young people.  The very issues that lead many to over-involvement in their children’s lives—wanting to protect them from the damaging effects of conflict, disappointment, struggle, and failure—are actually exacerbated by our well-intentioned efforts.  The cure is spreading the disease.

This is counter-intuitive for most of us.  I think parents often justify the trade-off in ways that go something like this, “I will risk spoiling my child a little bit (they’re just precious children after all) in order to protect them from becoming hurt, anxious, depressed, or disillusioned with school or life.”  Others like Glenn and Mogel have questioned whether that’s a good trade-off, but Wyma brings to light research that reveals it’s no trade-off at all.  This is not a question of parenting styles and choices, it’s a matter of consequences.  Quite simply, over-protection is a terribly misleading term, it leads to increases in anxiety, depression, and diminished success in life.

The lesson is clear.  We need to love our children, believe in our children, trust our children, and let them struggle with the challenges that life presents them.  They will be stronger, wiser, and happier as a result.

Nimbleness, Responsiveness, Innovation, Accountability: How Independent Schools Meet 21st Century Demands

In his book, “Creating Innovators:  The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner asserts that our current K-12 education systems are not “teaching the skills that matter most in the market place.” In an interview with Thomas Friedman, he explains, “Today, because knowledge is available on every internet-connected device, what you know matters far less that what you can do with what you know.”

We all know the world is changing; and changing more rapidly than ever in the history of man.  Schools today must pay attention to those changes and respond accordingly.  Unfortunately most of our schools are not nimble enough to respond appropriately to the changing landscape.  Large, bureaucratic state-run systems are hampered by their sheer size as well as an inordinate emphasis on content and a single standardized state test.  America’s bi-cameral political system is intentionally designed for change to be slow, which helps keep our government from following cultural fads rather than leading the culture.  But this plodding, monetized political process is not conducive to making the necessary adjustments in education that today’s student deserves.

This is the great value and purpose of independent schools.  Independent schools, which are locally run and funded, can be nimble, responsive, and innovative while being truly accountable to results.

Nimbleness: Independent school can respond to changing conditions in thoughtful, incremental ways that keep the students’ needs central.  For instance, because they have site-control of budgets, they can make sensitive and sensible adjustments in economic downturns without resorting to draconian measures – such a reducing services, eliminating critical programs, or reducing teaching days — that impact students and learning.

Responsiveness: Independent school communities are small by design and engage parents and the larger community with intention.  Independent schools are student-centered and have as their mission the individual growth of individual students. This allows for appropriate responses to individual student and family needs, as is mission appropriate for the school.  Most importantly, independent schools can focus time, energy, resources and instruction around what Thomas Friedman calls the vital “soft skills,” such as resilience, creative problem solving, collaboration, cultural competency, and ethical values.

Innovation: Again, because the governance is located at the school, Independent schools have a greater ability to be innovative, to quickly implement good ideas and new technologies, to run pilot programs, and sample curricular changes.

Accountability:  Independence does not mean freedom from accountability. In fact, the best independent schools use a variety of assessment tools and data to evaluate their performance and outcomes – both academic and “soft” skills — including multiple nationally standardized tests, competitive high school and college placement, teacher observation and assessment, and tracking alumni performance in school and beyond.

Tony Wagner says, “We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over.” By contrast, a good independent school’s mission is to exercise nimbleness, responsiveness, innovation, and accountability in ways that take into account the development of the whole person with the skills and attributes necessary to lead meaningful, productive, and satisfying lives in the 21stcentury.

An Attitude of Gratitude

This year I had the unusual pleasure of attending Thanksgiving chapel at three different Episcopal schools.  It’s as if God knows when we need to hear the message more than once! Here is the message I heard in three, different, compelling ways with three different communities: as we move away from the holiday of Thanksgiving and into the season marked by giving and receiving, let us take with us the attitude of gratitude. If we could adopt the spirit of thanksgiving all year long, everything – yes, everything – would change.

At our Thanksgiving chapel this year, Bishop Scott Benhase reminded us that “the prayer of thanksgiving precedes all prayers, and the attitude of thanksgiving precedes all other virtues.”  An attitude of thanksgiving must come first before all else.

At the Thanksgiving chapel at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, DE, the Headmaster, Tad Roach, described various levels of gratitude.  At its simplest level, thanksgiving is expressed in notes and cards, by saying please and thank you as we teach young people to do, and acknowledging an act of kindness from someone.  At a higher level of gratitude, we contemplate and consider the blessings of many people in our lives – parents, friends, teachers, mentors, and others who have loved and supported us.  At a higher, more developed stage of gratitude, we begin to understand the countless unknown people who have contributed through sacrifice to our well-being, safety, and pursuit of happiness. When we think about the concept of Thanksgiving this way, Roach says, “We see that giving thanks frees us from the temptation to see ourselves as the center of the universe, magically entitled to privileges, rights, resources, and honors…When we give thanks, we begin to peel away what George Eliot calls ‘our moral stupidity’ – our inability to see that our own desires, our own needs, our own anxieties, and our own preoccupations fade away in complete insignificance in light of the human drama going on all around us.”

The highest level of thanksgiving, according to Roach, is expressed when we live out this gratitude in celebration of the human spirit and God’s love for us – when we become the giver of sacrificial support rather than merely the recipient.  When we choose to live, speak, and act in ways that are more civil, more humane, and more generous, we become Thanksgiving.

So let us not leave Thanksgiving behind. Let us embrace it and take it with us into this season of Advent.  Let’s make an attitude of gratitude our shield and defense against the selfish, profane lopsided priorities that can so easily hijack the season of Christmas and the entry into a new year. If we could adopt the spirit of Thanksgiving all year long, everything – yes, everything – could change.