In addition to a number of engaging conversations and emails in response to my recent post on praising and supporting children, I, just today, had several other experiences that got me thinking about this very subject yet again. The first was a discussion with a German friend whose eldest son is wrapping up the college admissions process; he's deciding between two universities, both in Europe and both with undergraduate programs of no more than 3.5 years. Though he did well in high school here, he was rejected by many of the US schools to which he applied and was both baffled and stung by that. Knowing I've long worked in admissions at a top American university, my friend and I were hashing things out, and at one point I inquired about her son's extra-curricular profile. She admitted that was his weakest link, and I commented that the lack of heft there might very well have tipped the scales against admission. While I think she had some sense of the import US schools place on who an applicant is extra-academically, she was emphatic in her disdain for activities as an integral part of the admissions process and her assertion that the extra-curricular "thing" was a uniquely American phenomenon in that realm. In her view, education is primarily about academics (and thusly, admissions decisions should be based mostly on one's academic record), and by extension, college should not be a time of taking a smorgasbord of courses to see what you're interested in -to find yourself- but to focus, learn, prepare and graduate.
I adore this friend -and lucky her, she looks like Helen Mirren- and good-naturedly told her that in this instance, we were on different sides of the coin. If I hadn't had time to "find myself" academically in college, I'd be a miserable, probably not terribly good, scientist of some sort. If you know me at all, the thought of this will surely leave you scratching your head in dumbfounded wonder.
Long story long (again), this conversation turned to that of parental support versus parental assertion, and this was super interesting. My friend and her husband are pushing their son to attend one of the European schools because they're less expensive, shorter and you decide on an academic track before matriculating. The idea of floating around, partying here, trying some courses there, is appalling to her, especially in light of how much tuition is at most private schools in the States; I told her it was her Germanic pragmatism at work, but in all seriousness, there's also a different mindset regarding the expectations parents assert and the "freedoms" they value. She and her kids have a great relationship and she supports them completely, but they know that certain things are their responsibilities, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Support means something a little different in this context.
Have you read Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner or read/heard of the new book, Bringing up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman? I've read the former and heard much about the latter, both of which to varying degrees discuss the differential experiences of motherhood had by American and European moms. In this morning's New York Times, a reader wrote in response to a recent book review of Bébé to say that the real difference isn't American versus European but rather pre-1970 ways of parenting in America -parents weren't their kids' friends; they expected children to fit into their already established lives instead of moving heaven and earth to constellate their lives around their kids; parents led rather than "chased"- versus present-day parenting. In other words, there was much less coddling and much more "this is the way it is." Interesting. Perhaps what we see as the "Euro" way of parenting today is really just what we've moved away from in the past few decades.
I think I fall in the middle of this spectrum, which is, by and large, what I was articulating in that last post on this subject and what I came away with from my talk with my friend today. I want my kids to have every opportunity, but while I can provide or facilitate them, they have to earn and take advantage of them. They have to put in the work, make the mistakes, learn from failures, rise to challenges. I will be beside them every step of the way, but I won't do the work for them, and I will, when I think it's educational or valuable, let them falter and fail.
In reading applications from transfer hopefuls right now, and in assessing undergraduate apps for many years now, I see again and again that some of the most interesting, most accomplished (in many different ways), most engaged and generous kids are those who've had to struggle in some way or at some time. Rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, domestic, rural, urban, international...it's what they've done with and in their own contexts that makes them interesting and the kinds of students who will be real assets in their classrooms, as peers and ultimately as citizens of the post-college world.
I think about this a lot when I read about kids who have really had a tough time of it but who are nonetheless determined to get an education and be successful; and conversely, kids who have had every opportunity but whose parents have done such a good job of not spoiling them, have made them appreciate what they have, have made them want to give back because of that. I think about it again when I guide, discipline and try my best to teach my kids. From challenge comes meaning, from doing something by yourself comes pride, from practicing something again and again comes respect for effort and perseverance, from helping others comes a sense of community, from failure or error comes humility.
If we shield our children from the gritty work that is life, even if that shielding comes only from the intense love we have for them, we do them a disservice, a mighty one I think.