I have never pretended to be an expert in anything, let alone everything. There are things that I know, and when I am wrong, I am always open to learn. At 60, however, I would like to believe that I have gained some wisdom over the years to be able to state, with high certainty, three things – I love my family limitlessly, I love the Jewish people and my religion, and see in it profound value and meaning, and I love Hillel Day School and what it represents – raising and educating Jewish children to live meaningful, purposeful, and good Jewish Lives.
So please “listen” through these words, which I know to be true through my years of experience, raising and educating my own four children and hundreds of others, and through years of observation and research.
Parenting needs a reset in this country. For too many, it is going off the rails and the consequences are serious. A week doesn’t go by where I don’t encounter several articles on parenting.
Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in her book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, writes about two types of parents, the carpenter and the gardener. The “carpenter” thinks that his or her child can be molded. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,” she says. The “gardener,” on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about “creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem.”
Gopnik spent decades researching children’s development, and found that too many parents are carpenters who often focus too much on who their children will be as adults. The harm in that approach, she says, is that parents and their offspring may become anxious, tense or unhappy. And many do!
For much of the past half-century, children, adolescents, and young adults in the U.S. have been saying they feel as though their lives are increasingly out of their control. At the same time, rates of anxiety and depression have risen steadily. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the age of ten and thirthy-four!
Carpenter parents, or whatever other term you want to use – helicopter, snowplow, etc. — are driven by fear, recognized or not! These parents are also driven by competition and pressure, not by science or reality. Not only are parents feeling undue pressure, but our children are, too.
We compare one child to another, even before they start school. Academic benchmarks are being pushed earlier and earlier based on the mistaken assumption that starting earlier means that kids will do better later. The stark reality, however, is that while expectations have changed, children haven’t. Today’s 5-year-olds are no more advanced than their peers were in 1929, 39, 49; you get the point.
Give your children the time and space they need to grow and develop. Every brain and every child is different, and thus will develop and progress a little differently than the next child. There are ranges of development, and those ranges are usually pretty wide. Enjoy their childhood with them. It is not a race or a competition with other parents!
Be brave and be counter-cultural for the sake of your children. To gain life skills, younger children must be free to play since play lays the groundwork for key skills such as self-regulation and self-control. Free play also develops problem-solving skills and the ability to be with other people, as well as inspiring creativity. A little boredom has also been known to spark the creative spirit.
Be brave enough to open your eyes and see the changing reality. Your children need a different set of skills and knowledge base than you did when you went to school. Real learning takes place when children are engaged, the learning is authentic, and also challenging. Learning for a test is not learning. Simple and true. Memorization to regurgitate back to the teacher is “doing school,” nothing more. Grades squash risk-taking and diminish a child’s willingness to push enough to risk failure. True and “sticky” learning happens when a child feels safe to struggle and go just beyond what feels comfortable.
Hillel has been working hard to create such a stimulating learning environment. We have made great strides, but there is still much work to be done. Parents need to trust that the educators know what they are doing. Remember, you, as an adult are not expert in everything. Why do we maintain this unrealistic expectation that children should be? Like Hillel, schools and educators are rethinking teaching and learning, in part because we know so much more about it. Trust us, and equally important, read for yourselves about the changing educational landscape and what children need today. It will help you to be brave to do the right thing for your children, socially, emotionally, and cognitively. May I suggest starting with Gopnik’s books.
Love your children enough to allow them to be who they are and to explore their passions. You have no idea what jobs will exist when they become adults. But many that you assume will be there certainly may not be! The world is changing at an exponential rate.
Love enough to place an emphasis on manners, ethics, values, empathy, compassion, perseverance, and responsibility. These are the real life skills that will serve our children well regardless of the world they inherit. This requires parents to set boundaries, and to take time to explain the differences between right and wrong, righteous and evil, appropriate and inappropriate. Children need this guidance desperately from their parents. Our Jewish tradition provides a rich and meaningful framework.
Love enough to allow your children unstructured time.
Love enough to limit everyone’s use of personal devices and time spent on social media, children and grown-ups alike. Rediscover the outdoors, nature and board games together. Talk to each other. Read books together. The simple things are profoundly important. All it requires is your time!
Love enough to take back family time by bringing or reintroducing the rhythms of Jewish life into your homes. Shabbat and the holidays enrich our lives. I know it is easier said than done. Take it one step at a time.
And finally, love enough to recognize that your children are sacred. They want and deserve your love, your time and your acceptance of who they are and what their dreams are. Expect them to learn responsibility and to learn the value of hard work, but don’t measure them by the grades they receive or the courses they take. That is not WHO they are. Celebrate their gifts, their dreams, their hopes, their strengths.
Listen, be brave, and love your children enough to let them become their best selves!