03 July 2008

The Kindergarchy

One of the things I like best about the internet is the diversity of readily available source material. I look at lots of information everyday from blogs to news items to Flickr pools. And while there is an author behind each piece who is trying to make some sense of a particular idea, from my "user" state, I get the fun part of seeing connections between the disparate pieces. And this week, it was an article in Newsweek (US) and the London Times (UK) that had the nice jive. In this case, both are about children and how adults (at least in western cultures) are reacting to them.

Newsweek poses the question Does Having Children Make You Happy? And the answer, which is likely not a surprise to anyone, is No. In fact, one study found that "no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."
Is it possible that American parents have always been this disillusioned? Anecdotal evidence says no. In pre-industrial America, parents certainly loved their children, but their offspring also served a purpose—to work the farm, contribute to the household. Children were a necessity. Today, we have kids more for emotional reasons, but an increasingly complicated work and social environment has made finding satisfaction far more difficult. A key study by University of Wisconsin-Madison's Sara McLanahan and Julia Adams, conducted some 20 years ago, found that parenthood was perceived as significantly more stressful in the 1970s than in the 1950s; the researchers attribute part of that change to major shifts in employment patterns. The majority of American parents now work outside the home, have less support from extended family and face a deteriorating education and health-care system, so raising children has not only become more complicated—it has become more expensive.
It is not a far stretch to assume that parenting itself has changed, as well as how we view children. We don't look at toddlers now and wonder how soon we can get them out doing chores. But the London Times thinks that we are treating our children too much like Little Emperors. Perhaps children are too much seen and heard these days. Now, there is a "backlash against the all-must-have-prizes culture that has produced children used to getting their own way. As parents, we are encouraged to nurture our children’s sense of 'self,' but are we unwittingly doing them more harm than good?"
It’s a wonder more teachers aren’t driven out of the profession by parents bombarding them with e-mails, phone calls and requests for meetings. “Students told me what they ‘felt’ about a novel,” he recalled. “I tried, ever so gently, to tell them no one cared what they felt. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to – but did not – write, ‘Too much love in the home’.”
Both articles are focused on home and family, but I wonder what the lessons are for schools. There are some examples of schools going overboard on self-esteem concerns (certificates for toddlers who sit still, school plays where everyone gets to be Snow White and no one has to be the witch, nursing schools which offer counseling in case it is stressful for students to come in contact with sick patients), but I have to think that these are few and far between. One hears or reads the odd story in the edusphere which supports this. Those are mostly limited to the rare helicopter parent or the awards assembly where everyone gets something. Kindergarchy tactics do not seem to have deeply infiltrated public schools. At least not yet. I'm not sure that in a standards-based environment that they will. No matter how much praise you give a child, if they can't read or do math, they're not going to graduate from high school...even if it hurts their feelings. Still, I have to think that educators---especially at the elementary level where most examples seem to be---need to be vigilant about what is reasonable for developing children.

1 comment:

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Good luck with this topic! :)

Part of the reflections on parenting [should] include, what the heck are we doing here, to begin with? What's the purpose for our existence?

My position is spiritual, not necessarily religious, but I'm thinking we have kids cuz we can, and to support the natural order of things, we teach them to be helpers of their fellow humans, and treat the Earth well.

It all gets more complex from that point. :)

If we raise a child that fulfills our mission, we're happy. If the child is a screw-up or worse, we're not happy.

I don't think any conclusions can be drawn from surveys that purport to reveal how we all really feel about having kids.

Of course, how parents feel about their kids does have a bearing on how we view children at school, but I think it says more about the parents than the child.

Bottom line: we need to deal with events and phenomena we can influence or control. The family in the community is beyond the classroom. We just have to get better at dealing with it. :)