Last week my neighbors invited me to join them in listening to a guest speaker at their child’s school. As I walked into the gymnasium where he was speaking, I knew I had heard his spiel once before, as a faculty message at my own school.
Michael Thompson is known for his books on child psychology and development, including Raising Cain and The Pressured Child. Indeed, his talk was about the Pressured Child and how parents needed to step out of their careerist schema of school to consider how their children saw and approached school. He gave some very effective illustrations on how mind-numbing and oppressive the school schedule is (“Would you accept a job that doubled your salary but required you to sit through six meetings led by other people every day?”) and how most kids don’t bother competing academically (“After a couple of years, it becomes clear to everyone which two or three people in the class have a chance at becoming valedictorian at the end.”)
He argues that what kids are interested in is development — growing up. As Seinfeld has said in one of his stand-up routines, kids are all about “up.” They want to get bigger, faster, more independent, more cool, more popular, more respected. Makes sense to me — and it’s something that I probably ought to keep in mind as I consider how I can corral my students’ attentions.
Thompson compared school to a long hike — like the Appalachian Trail — something that any able-bodied person is able to do, though at varying speeds, wills, and temperaments. Only a few relish the experience; they have, as he puts it, good fitting shoes. What parents need to know, he stressed, was that they could never fully understand what that experience is like for their children — that the most they could hope is to stand a quarter-step behind their kids along the journey.
He ended his talk by suggesting that parents should gauge whether their children are receiving three things from somewhere in their school: connection, recognition, and a sense of mastery. Beyond advocating for those, he argues, parents can’t, and shouldn’t, do much more.
What’s interesting is just before my neighbors called me up to invite me over to Michael Thompson’s lecture, I was looking at the following trailer for the documentary, Two Million Minutes:
And now you have the strongly persuasive message that our children are not pressured enough, that Michael Thompson’s position is a luxurious one from a position of isolated privilege — a position that seems more and more delusional as the rest of the world claws its way faster and faster to overtake America’s first-world status.
This is a very real tension that I constantly face, both as a teacher, and as a new parent. One side holds up in empathy the interior experience of the individual. It argues for an ecumenical valuation of skills and strengths that defies clear-cut standards of achievement. It prioritizes, instead, holistic well-being and happiness.
The other side holds up the consequences of social expectations and marketplace competitions. It stresses the conformity needed to practically convert private assets to public value. It acknowledges the obeisance one must give to political reality, and prioritizes strategic mobility within that reality.
Overemphasize one side, and one is in danger of coddling children past granularities of meaning and fostering resignation or entitlement to their station in life. Overemphasize the other, and one risks a soulless oppression that encourages cynical ambition.
Framing this dilemma as a tension between two sides makes it sound like what is needed is balance, a compromise. Make sure our schools don’t neglect standards and a commitment to excellence. At the same time, make sure they remain flexible and empathetic to individual student needs. That sort of thing.
Upon reflection, though, I don’t think that’s right. What we have here is not so much a spectrum, but a prism — these two positions are different facets of the same problem. Consider how they both express an anxiety about “the other”. One position ignores it, distancing itself from the systemic inequality and suffering that it is ultimately the beneficiary of. The other position fears it and actively works to maintain that very system. Both are working from a position of self-interest and self-absorption — or, more kindly, self-preservation. One can see why illegal immigration is such a thorny issue in America right now.
As the son of immigrants I remember constantly being goaded to work harder, study more, get better grades. I was pressured to go to the right college and get into the right profession. I remember thinking that my parents just didn’t get America — at least the America I was observing and experiencing. I could see for myself that success wasn’t necessarily achieved in one dogmatic dimension. I got the notion that one might achieve more success simply by following one’s bliss, that with a little luck and hustle everyone ends up all right. I wonder now if we both missed the point. What do I tell my own child?