As I was sitting at my desk this morning applying the latest in one of my favorite nail polish lines (Essie) to my nails, ‘Go overboard’ — a rich, dark sea green, to coordinate with the five new outfits I have already lined up on the bench next to my bed for the week ahead, I was musing to myself that I give myself permission to be reinvented regularly. Otherwise, even five years ago, when I was simply wearing something every single day that Milani called ‘Angel pink’, or ten years ago when only Chanel would line my fingertips, I would never conceive of wearing every color of the rainbow on toes and fingers the way I do now. That made me think about what teachable trait enables people to evolve and progress rather than harden and atrophy in various aspects of their lives, irrespective of age, socioeconomic category, gender or IQ, an ongoing topic of interest to me.
Does teaching kids to get ‘gritty’ help them get ahead?
And what exactly defines progressing, what is the goal toward which we should be evolving as individuals and as social animals? My suggestion is that we promote happiness and health of the greatest number of people and do so by espousing (to invoke Aesop): slow and steady wins the race. To do this, of course, we have to understand what it means to be human as a species: a civilized social and cooperative hominid.
It is trendy now to accuse parents and schools of being too soft, and easy instead of militarizing child rearing, and to put undue emphasis on individual achievement to the exclusion of group considerations. One reason this is now in vogue is because our schools seem to be lagging behind the rest of the advanced nations of the world and failing to properly prepare children to get the jobs that a new economy offers. Some people are now calling the key to producing the desired corporate automaton (my characterization of the being this approach would create) the trait they refer to as grit. Seriously? A term, one of the meanings of which is a sandy or stone-like irritant with sharp edges?
I like to think instead along the lines of persistence and intellectual courage, a well trained and optimistic mind. And yes, it can be taught. But how best to do that? Not the way it is being done in the educational trends of the 2010’s. I talked a bit about this in a recent post. Do we really need to harden minds and toughen children in order for them to succeed in the post-modern job market? Is the answer to our school failures introducing children earlier and earlier to what some are fond of referring to as the so-called harshness of life? There is a movement afoot to push children to the limits of their ability in such a way that failure is emphasized, so they can be inured to it. This is so ignorant and frankly, appalling.
One thing you learn by sitting in a courtroom for a month — yes, week five starts Monday– is the meticulous and painstaking manner in which attorneys have learned to present evidentiary or factual material, ideally to enable a jury to render a just decision. Every single scholar and writer should be taught this method.
Instead, for those of us who have had the privilege of higher education, we are left to figure out a method for doing this largely on our own. And the result is, for example, that we have a lot of educators stabbing around and concocting theories out of their own heads with no empirical foundation whatsoever. One unintended consequence, in the US at least, is an educational system that is a hodgepodge of ideas that grab the public’s imagination and become enacted in the classrooms of countless schools unquestioningly (and certainly without reference to any form of investigational proof) — especially the charter schools whose performance across the board has been shown to be mixed at best and subpar on average and the point of which is to justify a new version of segregation and to take down the public school system.
Personally, I would not send a child I cared about to a school where the teachers are allowed to come up with any curriculum they want. I would only trust a lesson plan system founded on a true understanding of child development. I would start by using the principles of probably the greatest child development scientist of all time, Jean Piaget who studied children properly and constructed a theory of cognitive development that stands to this day. Piaget was the Einstein of the field.
This gets to the core of the topic that I believe to be at the center of every challenge human beings face as we mature: what makes a successful adult and what type of social system contributes best to the desired outcome.
A couple of weeks ago or so, I read these two articles and reacted to them strongly:
In a nutshell, every parent and every teacher want a child to succeed. What does success mean? Getting out into the world and standing on one’s own, getting a job, keeping oneself afloat through adulthood and secure retirement. When you define success largely in those terms, then, Tiger-momism and Gritty-kidism make sense to you. No wonder people have grabbed onto these faddish and false notions. They are easy! The striped bullet. Yay! Just do these things and voila, done and done: a perfect human being.
Uh, not so much.
Who was it that said, ‘nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come’? That is really the key principle behind success in human development. And let me also say, no one of us can predict what that success will look like for any individual. At birth, no parent or pediatrician or psychologist, much less attorney, politician or even educator can tell you who that child should be. It will unfold from that individual naturally and be realized in full, some time around the age of 21 and it will look different for each person, especially if you equip each child with basic, muscular and flexible traits such as a love of life, trust in the world around them, the ability to make wise decisions, and most of all the freedom of mind to recognize goodness and the courage to act on it as circumstances change. That is not likely to happen if you teach them to believe, too early, that the world is a difficult place in which to live and that they must fight their way through it to survive. Keeping a child on edge will produce a neurotic or psychotic adult.
The miseducation of the tiger mom
How do you then herd people together and teach them if everyone’s development is so varied in each individual person? How can you teach a group of children sitting together in lit boxes for eighteen or more years? By the way, I say 18 years because children as young as six months now are abandoned to day care, which is their second group environment — the first being their family — and since it is a separation from their mother, that environment creates an experience for a baby that is akin to being on their own. Something that ideally would not happen until they are 7 years old, as shocking as that may sound to 21st century sophisticates.
I once saw an ad for an astrology class that read, ‘There is a plan for your life, astrology can help you find it’. Well, I would phrase this a little differently, saying ‘there is a plan for our lives, human science can help us find it’. There are places where the correct and empirically verified principles of human development are employed to form the basis on which a curriculum is designed and where every teacher is rigorously trained in these principles and expected to teach accordingly, at every grade level through the end of secondary school. Two countries that come to mind are Switzerland and, famously now, Finland. If anyone is interested in the Finnish success story (top in the world in the STEM subjects, for example), they can get hold of a copy of Finnish Lessons, from Amazon.
The fact that our school system is failing children has led to all kinds of wacky theories and initiatives that are sure to make for some miserable adults down the road. It started with the feckless and failed “No child left behind” program, meant mostly to exclude public schools from Federal funding and divert taxpayer dollars to private companies that greedily snapped up money, with promises of better educational outcomes. These were based on test scores, skewed to favor advantaged families. Largely discredited, people like Michelle Rhee, early advocates of the corporate approach to education, have at last been booted to the side (not that she is penitent for the damage she caused in D.C. schools and nationally by her misguided and ignorant philosophies and practices).
I could go into great and tedious detail of why and how a child development approach, based on proven research, should be the basis for the curricula in every school from nursery through 12th grade, but that information is easily found elsewhere. The point is, as the article above on the infamous “tiger-mom” points out, that if we want to produce a nattering, driven, self-absorbed, materialistic, neurotic adult, emphasize competition and economic rewards, and a hostile world. Drop that baby off with strangers earlier and earlier. Heck, just park them with a service right after birth and merely come back to check that their progress matches the unrealistic universal benchmarks that people like those cited in the articles above promote. Make sure you or your surrogates teach him or her that the key to success in life is jumping ahead of your neighbor, sneering at anyone who isn’t driven and ambitious, stoically enduring any amount of suffering as early as possible, to teach him to toughen up and pilot through the jungle (the ‘real world’ as these people are so fond of saying) like a nervous prowling cat.
I think the Jack Lemmon character tells us all we need to know about that outcome. Better Tigger than tiger; better A.A. Milne than Disney. Better a properly raised, slowly simmered human being than one rushed through childhood simply to aggrandize an ignorant ideal of financial advantage that is not founded on science or what is best for a cooperative, joyful society, but merely ego, bigotry and selfishness. Is it any wonder that we are spawning more and more fiercely competitive school-age bullies with ideas like these?
Images: imdb.com, amazon.com
I openly express my admiration for this post. How ironic is the fact that a society that now preaches the need for “grittiness” in children is the creator of that alleged need in the first place, the proverbial self-fulfilling prophesy, if you will.
It would be so simple for Anglo-American jurisdictions to simply adopt the best practices of the most successful nations, when it comes to childhood education. The fact that we seem to adopt the ideological pedagogy du jour is a testament to the hubris of those educational policy makers and “academics” who could not be bothered to first determine if their policies and theories had merit before unleashing them.
Perhaps most impressive is your identifying the importance of reasonably significant maternal presence in a child’s life for the first seven years. In this, you have committed a great heresy against ideological feminism, and I salute you for it.
Empiricism must reign over ideology.
P.S. I’ve read that one should limit post tags to 15 or less on WordPress. Have you come across this advice before?
Well, last things first, lol. No, I haven’t read that. Clearly, I strike out on my own, sometimes with no tags, others with many. Is there a reason for the restriction to 15? I am unaware of it. I just do my own thing, but certainly could eliminate the nail polishes — I was giving them a plug. 🙂
As for the rest: thank you for the supportive comments.
Mothers should be with that baby for at the very least 12 months, all the time. It pains me to see little children in day care, I don’t care how good it is. And, I will say from experience, I remember being in nursery school at three years old and feeling apprehension at having to be on my own, even with very nice women and other little children from affluent, WASP families. It is remarkable how those memories have stayed with me and now, after a lot of education on this topic, I know why.
The problem is our economy makes it almost impossible for the average couple to pay their overhead on one middle class salary of $50K. The courage to have a less comfortable life, would be my suggestion, but no one will agree with me. People are used to their two car, multi-media, closet-filled, restaurant-going lives. Likely, they would not know how to cope if a woman stayed home.
Women easily lose their identities when home, if they are not strong personalities or marry the wrong man. Society treats “housewives” like idiots. So, it is a huge dilemma, but that sacrifice at least for one year, is one I would suggest women make, no matter how unfair. Life is not always fair, but when you decide to be a parent, you put yourself second.
You are preaching to the converted here, Beth. Yes, our economies make the traditional single income family a challenge, and the growth of materialism doesn’t help at all.
As for women losing their identities as individuals when they stay at home with their children, I would agree with this as a valid concern and express sympathies in this regard. We need to do more in building healthy communities, and this would include more mutual social support and socialization for mothers caring for their young children.
This is an area where I suspect a “top-down” approach is likely to fail, whereas an encouraged “bottom-up” approach might have a reason change for some success.
On the tags:
“However, you don’t want irrelevant content showing up on the topic listings or search, and neither do we. That’s why we limit the number of tags and categories that can be used on a public tag listing. Five to 15 tags (or categories, or a combination of the two) is a good number to add to each of your posts. The more categories you use, the less likely it is that your post will be selected for inclusion in the topic listings.” (http://en.support.wordpress.com/posts/tags/)
Ah! Gracias! Merci! Obrigada! Taks sa mycket.
A pleasure to have been of service.
I love that phrase – a properly raised slowly simmered human being. You can’t speed up the raising of a child (like time lapsed photography). Sadly I have seen the results – smart kids who do well in school but are mega-stressed by the time they hit puberty. Like hamsters on the wheel that never stops turning but goes faster and faster. Some may get good jobs and earn $$ but they will be miserable, hollow beings wondering ‘why aren’t I happier?’ And their parents will be thinking they did a good job raising them.
I’ll go one step farther: how many of them end up making big money? It takes more than just brains and ambition to be financially successful, it also take a high emotional IQ, stability over time. We shall see. Judging by the number of tattoos and piercings I see, I think tiger parents are in for a hard time. Thank you Vera, as always for your insights.
Beth, I absolutely agree with you. I cut my teaching teeth on Piaget. Teaching for me began to go downhill with NCLB and I could see the handwriting on the wall. There is no learning, thinking, character development. There is no looking into the eyes of students to ascertain who they are and what they need. There is only teaching to the test. When America has the courage to admit they are wrong and look to other countries who have it right (that’ll be the day!), we just might enter the global community of learners and begin to gain the respect of a global economy who bests us in every subject.
It is going to be quite awhile, because public education and public school teachers have been so slandered and vilified since Reagan, that recovering from this will take another 30 years, even it we could reverse the trend right now. We have to be rid of the liars in our government and media before that reversal takes place. We will not see it likely in our lifetimes. Thank you so much Susan for your continuing helpful comments.
It’s truly sad. Teaching was such a passion of mine and the last few years I was really was in agony. It was extremely difficult to teach in ways I knew were right because of the micromanagement of administration, and fears of parents who didn’t know any better.
There were more and more students who fell through the cracks because they were outside the “norm,” and of course, were “left behind” because they didn’t learn the way the NCLB mandated we teach.
More students were left behind by No Child Left Behind than any program I was ever forced to teach under. I thank my lucky stars I’m not teaching now under the new programs. I think I’d take my students out of the classroom, lock my door and run for the nearest park! And probably get arrested for kidnapping!
I’m with you on this Susan. I could not do it. Also, you can’t even look cross-eyed at someone these days without them crying harassment or abuse. Parents either trust teachers too much (and thus ignore what is going on) or question every move they make. Not for me!
“children as young as six months now are abandoned to day care, which is their second group environment — the first being their family — and since it is a separation from their mother, that environment creates an experience for a baby that is akin to being on their own. Something that ideally would not happen until they are 7 years old”
I couldn’t agree more with this! We push them into the school system far too early. The idea of full-day kindergarten still freaks me out, but it’s been the trend for decades already. hell, I didn’t even attend kindergarten, or pre-k – just started first grade when i turned 6 and was fine for it.
Aside from that, I can’t get too into conversations about the failures of education when I’m still IN it. It’s too frustrating and I’m not ready to quit (my current job yes, education no). I simply cannot delve too much into the frustrations and challenges, it’s all too overwhelming and makes it too difficult for me to continue. Perhaps when I retire I can engage more!
Oh, of course — I recognize that; being in it makes it hard to criticize or grapple with the shortcomings. You are right to keep a positive attitude and I agree with you and I would do the same.
I am a fierce supporter of education in this country, which is why I hate seeing lawyers (like Tiger Mom Amy Chua) or corporatists like Angela Duckworth, defining education out of ignorance and with no training in the field whatsoever. I want properly trained educators teaching children and making policy decisions, so I am in no way criticizing educators. I am angry at George W. Bush and his corporate cronies for making decisions based on profit, not on what is good for children.
I also didn’t attend kindergarten — it was simply day care back then, even though it could have been worse — it could have been a place like it is now where parents want the teachers to get their kids ready for Harvard by pushing computers and math and science on them too early.
I am in it too, still, by dealing with testing and parents and children with problems, so I feel the frustration as well and have a hard time not throwing in the towel altogether and going to work as a bagger at Costco!
We are usually on the same wavelength on these things – thank you for corroborating my ideas again! 🙂
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Interesting reading and very informative for a person from the U.K. I guess if I had been a mother, I would want my children to grow up with true characters and if a child came into the world with less, not more, with learning difficulties for instance I would have looked for things that education can’t give, kindness, laughter and peace of heart for them. Money, careers, position, power are only for this world. We can’t take them with us when leave it. Very altruistic, I know. Happy Easter, Beth.
Happy Easter to you, too. Altruism is the core of Christianity and humanity, imho. We need to make sure children are raised in environments of love and unselfishness, if we expect to see them treat other people in like kind. Ambition and greed have no place in the proper development of a truly good human being. Thank you for your insightful and supportive comment!