Posts tagged “doing school

Don’t Rescue Kids! Really?

Parenting isn’t for the faint of heart. As parents, we struggle to find the path of appropriate support. Kids need our protection, especially early in their lives, and our guidance as they get older. It’s easy, though, to become convinced that as adults, we know what is best for our children, including what ranks as acceptable goals and performances in school, and ultimately even the career path our child should choose. We can become so convinced about the path our children should follow that we create a life map for them and force them to follow it.


Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult, recently gave a TED talk entitled How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over-Parenting. It has already been viewed over a half million times.

Lythcott-Haims, with insight and humor, describes parents who are desperate for their kid to get into one of a handful of colleges and universities that routinely deny almost every applicant that seeks entrance into their hallowed grounds. Desperate parents, anxious to Bask in the Reflected Glory (BIRG) of their kid, create desperate students who are withering under high rates of anxiety and depression. Such kids are absolved from chores and even sleep as they try to attain the impossible. The purpose of childhood, she emphasizes, should not be about grades, scores, awards, and accolades, which are based on a super narrow definition of success, a process, whether successful or not, that comes with a long term cost to children’ sense of self. With eloquence and her own conviction, which is all the more impressive given her role at Stanford, she concludes by urging parents to be less concerned about elite colleges and more concerned about their children having the habits of mind to be successful wherever they go, to be less concerned about grades and more concerned about success built on love and chores. Yes, chores.


“I gotta get this lawn mowed.”

I first wrote about the BIRG acronym in Vexed in California (January 9, 2013), and then described it more fully in Why Fulfill Your Own Dreams, When Your Kids Can Do It For You? (February 28, 2013). Click on these titles for a quick review. BIRG parents seek to have their Basic Need for Power and Success met through the achievements of their children. BIRG parents are much less concerned, if at all, with their children discovering and establishing their own identity, and the schools classes and career path that ultimately come out of that identity, and more concerned about their child performing in a way that makes them as parents look good – not just good grades, but great grades in honors classes; not just sports involvement, but starting roles on multiple varsity sports; not just being involved in a club, but being president of the club. You get the picture. Hiding behind the guise of simply wanting what is best for my child, parents exploit their children’s efforts and even health for their own gain. Should parents, instead then, let their children flounder as they go about “discovering” themselves. As Lythcott-Haims forcefully replies, “Hell, no!” Loving support that honors the interests of our children does not have to morph into BIRGing. It’s just that we don’t do our children any favors when we prevent them from finding their own sense of self.

I wonder if Julie Lythcott-Haims is aware of the work of Denise Clark Pope, a fellow Stanford professor and author of the book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. I really recommend Doing School for high school teachers and parents of high school students. It is very readable, partly because it is based on five case studies – real students Pope shadowed at a top high school in the Bay Area. Wanting to discover what engaged students in the process of learning, she discovered instead that students are committed less to real learning and more to creating an impressive resume. Students, she found out, are simply “doing school,” which, unfortunately, is another way of saying they are trying to win the game by playing according to the rules we, as adults, have created. A really interesting and important read.


Finally, Glasser talked about the importance of not rescuing kids. Over-parenting prevents kids from leading their own lives, including solving problems of their own creation. We establish our identity as we are given chances to experience success, all the while keeping track of what we did well, and failure, which then can include fixing what we messed up and then making a better plan for a future attempt. A story from scripture comes to mind, the one where John the Baptist is trying to explain his role to his disciples, who are concerned about a new preacher, someone named Jesus, who was taking attention away from John. To this John explained, “He must increase and I must decrease.” This phrase might be good to keep in mind when it comes to parents (and teachers) having specific pictures in their head of what their child’s success and future look like. “My pictures need to lessen as I help my child nurture the pictures that are important to him,” a parent can decide. Our love and support are never removed during this shift toward their freedom and responsibility. Unconditional love is always the key!


It was so good to meet and work with the staff at Indiana Academy last week in Cicero, Indiana. Steve Baughman, the principal, is leading a young, committed team toward a school culture that is based on the concepts of choice theory.


Partners discussing how schools may use the Deadly Habits without intending to.


Head deans at the academy during one of the partner activities.


Partners squaring off during the “You’ve Got to Be Kidding” activity.



No Sense of Agency


The cover of this month’s (Dec 2105) Atlantic is compelling. Set against a blank white background a teenager stands, his head down, one hand up covering his eyes. Next to him the headline The Silicon Valley Suicides, along with the gut-wrenching subtitle Why are so many kids killing themselves in Palo Alto?

The article explores the impact that student deaths have on local high schools and middle schools, as well as the nightmare that families and communities must work through when a child makes this final decision. While it was difficult to ask Why? in the midst of such indescribable loss, parents, classmates, and community members did comment on possible factors. A re-occurring theme has to do with pressure students feel to succeed. This pressure can begin at home through the high and very specific expectations of parents and then is applied and intensified at school both academically (the push for honors classes and grades) and non-academically (though non-curricular activities like sports, music, drama, leadership positions, internships, etc.).


The amount of work that teenagers are attempting to accomplish, both inside and outside of the classroom, is simply overwhelming. Lack of sleep and anxiety are constant companions of kids trying to live like this. The situation is made more complex since students themselves outwardly seem in agreement with their lifestyles. They often express a desire to do better, to be more organized, to study harder, and to accomplish more. Who are we, as adults, to get in the way of their goals?

It may be, though, that we do need to get in the way of their goals. We must not forget, for instance, that students are trying to succeed within a system that those preceding them have created. They can’t be blamed for wanting to get over a bar that adults have set for them.


I was first alerted to this problem through the work of Tom Amato, director of the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, and his connection to Denise Clark Pope, author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (2003). Pope, a professor at Stanford, described students who were caught up in the chase for success, a chase that had almost nothing to do with actual learning and everything to do with looking good and getting into an elite university. Amato also introduced me to Madeline Levine, a child psychologist from the Bay Area, and her book, The Price of Privilege (2006), which described how kids awash in wealth can be so alone and feel so misunderstood.


Levine was quoted in the recent Atlantic and I think the point she makes is crucial. Of Levine the article shares that –

What disturbs her the most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. A decade ago, she used to referee family fights in her office, where the teens would tell their parents, “This is bad for me! I’m not doing this.” Now, she reports, the teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice.

The phrase no sense of agency originally struck me because of its creativity, but as I thought about its meaning it began to strike me because of its awful implications. I became filled with sadness as I thought about teenagers with an identity and sense of purpose crafted and forced on them by their parents or the school system. I came to realize that no sense of agency is another way of saying giving up. As much as we may have goals for our students, I am confident none of us intentionally wants to direct them in such a way that they give up. This isn’t about us forcing students to adopt our pictures of success or even about doing what’s good for them. It’s about the Caring Habits of listening, supporting, and accepting, and staying in a connected relationship with students no matter what.


It was hard reading the article and hearing parents of a child who committed suicide wonder aloud about how they could have missed the signs. I have no easy answer for that. Based on the ideas of choice theory, though, I can offer the following –

+ Stay connected. Positive relationships are everything. As Glasser would say, “As long as you’re connected you have influence.” This is why the Caring Habits are so important.

+ Seek to help children and students form their own identity and create their own life purpose. It is all too easy for us to attempt to meet our own need for Power and Success through the success of our children. This agenda is unfair to the life journey of our child or student. And it is unhealthy for us.

+ Stop being enamored by the elusive chase for the top, especially when the end in itself seems to be an elite university and a high-paying job. School shouldn’t be a competition, but instead should involve the engaging, joyful pursuit of learning, real learning.


Without faultfinding, Glasser would have had much to say after reading The Silicon Valley Suicides. Find out why in his biography, Champion of Choice.

The book that connects the dots of William Glasser's ideas and his career.

The book that connects the dots of William Glasser’s ideas and his career.

%d bloggers like this: