I used to work in a troubled, overcrowded inner city elementary school. Some terrific kids went there, but even the brightest and most industrious weren't learning much. There were usually 30-35 students in a class, with an overwhelmed, burned-out teacher. Fistfights in the classroom weren't uncommon, and talking, yelling and throwing things were unremarkable.
I wondered initially why parents didn't band together to protest this unfair treatment. After a few years of parent conferences, I was amazed that some parents were actually able to muster the energy to support their children. Many were immigrants, intimidated by an incomprehensible bureaucracy and often impeded by an unfamiliar language. These parents tended to work several low paying jobs, leaving their children in unlicensed afterschool programs or in the care of equally overwhelmed neighbors. Other parents were disabled by drugs and/or alcohol and unable to be there for their children.
These problems occur in middle class homes, too, of course. But when middle class kids come to school dirty and exhausted, or covered in welts, someone usually notices. And kids who are simply emotionally neglected at home often find solace in a peaceful, high functioning school. That wasn't possible at my school. Individual staff members cared, but the road was entirely uphill. And inevitably many students lost whatever motivation they had come in with and lapsed into lethargy or misbehavior.
This experience informed my parenting style, and not in a constructive way. Ben had ADHD and an organizational learning disability, and often forgot about or lost his school assignments. I was terrified that he would fail out of his selective schools and end up at a school like the one I worked in. Once when I was furious at him for failing to take a summer school assignment seriously, putting himself at risk of having to repeat a grade, I yelled at him that if he kept going that way he was going to end up at some horrible school where he would be beaten up and bullied and there wouldn't be anything I could do about it. It was a low moment in my parenting history and one I sincerely wish I could take back.
I have been thinking about all of these experiences because of these two recent articles, the first about campus suicides and the second about a young woman who was convicted of hiring hit men to kill her parents after they punished her harshly for academic shortcomings. (Warning: for reasons I still don't understand completely, some commenters object to clicking through to Jezebel; that is the source of the second story). In both cases, extreme pressure to succeed is thought to be a major contributor to student distress.
Obviously, it is important to find a middle ground between too-low expectations and crippling ones. Children need to learn that academic failure (or any failure) doesn't cancel out their worth as a person or their ability to lead a good life, yet we need to communicate to them that their futures are important and worth investing in.
Our family lucked out; Ben found himself through music and science and is thriving in college. His classmates and friends now include musicians who are much more accomplished than he is, and his response has been admiration and a desire to work with and learn from them, rather than self-doubt and despair. But I'm aware that things could have gone a different way, and that I could have become one of those over-the-top parents who, with the best intentions, ruins her child's life.
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