Tuesday, July 26, 2005

What they want; what they need

Read this article in my local paper recently about how parents are overscheduling their kids' lives. What really caught my attention was the headline (Experts Say It's OK for kids to be Bored) which I put on the refridgerator for my 10-year old son and his friends to see, and this quote from a parent: "So much depends on the child, what they want and what they need," she said. Her daughter, Jacqueline, 12, is scheduled to be tutored five mornings a week during the summer but reserves the afternoons for fun. "I want her to get a jump-start on school. I think a lot of parents want that for their kids, especially in such an academically competitive area like this."
She's right. The area I live in and teach in are academically competitive. I certainly see this as a classroom teacher and adviser for the school newspaper. Most of the kids who join the paper do so for their college resume not because of any real interest in journalism. Don't get me wrong, most of these kids are very committed, as they are to everything. They have schedules crammed with AP courses, they do community service, many are in the band or plays, and are members of other clubs or sports. They do this all to serve the goal of getting into one of the colleges of their dreams. And I guess this starts with things like being tutored in the summer when you're 12.

I just wonder what we're doing to our kids. Yes, they are developing tremendous work ethics, and are being challenged in some ways, but some of them have become so competitive that they won't do anything if it doesn't serve their goal. They weigh whether an assignment is worth their time by how it will effect their grade. And of course if credit isn't being given they don't put any real effort into it, which brings me back to the quote. Yes, as parents and teachers, we should be concerned about "what they want and what they need." But what is that? Is it giving them the tools so that they can get into that college of their dreams? Is that all it's really about? Because from my experience, and from the responses I've received from kids, that's the way they view most of what they do in high school. It's an obstacle course they must navigate to get to the real race. And what about the majority of high school students who are not as academically competitve? How do we motivate and better involve them? How do we make school more relevant to them? This has become a major theme here lately and one that will continue to be explored. Any ideas or experiences would be greatly appreicated.


Dan Van Antwerp said...

I'd like to comment on two specific issues brought up in the main posting.

First, I'm not sure if I agree that pushing kids so hard all the way through school, and buying into such an ultra-competitive environment, is actually developing a true "work ethic." To me, the word "ethic" is much more important than the word "work" in that phrase. It's not the work itself, but why one does the work that is important. In order to have a work ethic, one must value the work itself, but I'm afraid that parents are simply encouraging their kids to focus solely on the end result. True, this may teach them to work hard, but does it really teach them to take pride in and enjoy the process?

I also feel that it's unfortunate that kids' dreams are now embodied by colleges, rather than visions of what they want their lives to be like as adults. As I grew up, my "dreams" evolved as I matured: garbageman, astronaut, baseball player, rock star, and finally, teacher (this seems a rather humble compromoise in this context, but I really did aspire to teach.) I envisioned getting married, having a family, taking my children to ballgames, being happy and fulfilled. Never did getting into the "right school" enter into this equation.

The problem now, I think, is that these "dreams" belong to the parents, rather than their children. They work for years to reach these goals, to suddenly realize that now they must really think about what comes next. How many of them have really thought beyond the objective of obtaiing college acceptance? How many of them have been encouraged or given the time to dream and daydream about what the rest of their lives might look like?

My wife and I have agreed not to push our son too hard as he moves through his school years. Sure, if he really is interested in learning about a certain subject or skill, we'll do everything we can to enroll him in programs, get him training, and allow him time to pursue his interests. But more importantly, I think, I want to make sure he has the chance to enjoy being a kid.

Tom McHale said...

Thanks Dan. I appreciate your viewpoint. As a parent, I think this can be one of the most difficult decisions to make. How do you decide when to push your kids and when to let them be? I guess when you think about it, having your child tutored during the summer isn't really any different than sending them to a sports camp. The question that arises, of course, is whether the child has a passion to pursue this or not. And as I've learned through my ten-year-old son, this can change from day to day. As you have rightly pointed out, this is the way kids are. So how does a parent determine when to push and when to back off? How do you encourage your child to develop a true passion and work ethic for something when they are still trying to figure out what they enjoy and have a talent for? It's a difficult balancing act and I believe balance is the key. As you've said, it's important they have the chance to enjoy being a kid. And the most important aspect of being a kid is discovering who your are through play and experimentation.

Dan Van Antwerp said...

Tom, I agree with your observations about the similarities between tutoring and sports camp. If a child really wants to learn to write, for example, a parent might be doing him/her a great favor by hiring a tutor for the summer. I would imagine, though, that in most cases (I know this from experience) kids have other ideas about how to spend the summer, and resent being forced to study during the "off-season."

Speaking of playing and learning, I heard an interesting story on NPR last week. Here's the link:


I agree with a lot of what Steven Johnson has to say about games. I had a lot of idle time growing up (in the days before video games and cable, of course.) I spent my summers playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, D&D, and any number of complicated Avalon Hill boardgames. I even made up a few of my own. I really feel, though, that these games were invaluable in developing my imagination and critical thinking skills, and really helping me to learn about a wide variety of subjects.

Given enough time to play, kids will discover worlds they may never have even known existed, and develop keen interests that will prompt them to research and explore on their own.

On the other hand, I don't think it's necessarily best to just let kids do whatever they please without ever having to conform to parental expectations. My dad always tells me the story of how his mother chased him down the street and through fields, even jumping fences along the way, when he refused to practice the piano. This certainly makes my grandmother sound overbearing, but the end result was that my dad grew to love music. He recently retired after 40 years of music teaching, and has passed that interest along to me, as well. What would have happened if his mother had given in to his initial lack of interest?

My theory behind all of this is that my grandmother was very perceptive - she observed some ability or potential in my father that he didn't see or didn't want to see. But I also don't think she had a "career" in mind for him. She wanted him to be the best he could be for his own sake, and I think that is what is sometimes missing from the equation today.

Tom McHale said...

Thanks for the link, Dan. Stories like Steven Johnson's, and yours, and Marc Presky's theories have certainly put my mind at ease about my son's video game playing (although he still claims I'm evil for not allowing him to have a GameBoy, but that's another story). I like the way you view this whole thing. Noticing potential in your child and encouraging them to pursue it (even if you have to jump a few fences) is important, and so is allowing them to discover what they enjoy. Summer is an excellent time for them to do this. It's too bad we can't incorporate some of this kind of learning into the classroom in some way. Or can we?

jon said...

After we paid for our kids summer camp virginia we found it tough to recover! I totally agree with you!