In a magazine piece I read about a Kenyan school that holds its classes in a shady grove outdoors, the headmaster, who had helped plant the trees as a child, recalled an African saying: “When you plant a tree, never plant only one. Plant three – one for shade, one for fruit, and one for beauty.” On a continent where heat and drought make every tree valuable, that’s wise advice.
It’s also an intriguing educational insight for a time like ours, when vast numbers of children are endangered by a one-sided parental approach that sees them solely in terms of their ability to be fruitful – that is, to “achieve” and “succeed.” This pressure is destroying childhood as never before.
Naturally, parents have always wanted their children to do well, both academically and socially. No one wants their child to be the slowest in the class, the last to be picked for a game on the field. But what is it about the culture we live in that has made that natural worry into such an obsessive fear, and what is it doing to our children? For many, the trend toward fast-track academics makes school a place that they dread, a source of misery they cannot escape for months at a time.
Even though my grades were rarely exceptional, my parents cared far more about whether I got along with my peers than whether I achieved an A or a B. They assured me, especially when I didn’t do well, that there was a lot more in my head than I or my teachers realized; it just hadn’t come to the surface yet. Such encouragement is only a dream for many children, especially in homes where academic failure is seen as unacceptable.
My mother used to say that education begins in the cradle, and few parents today would disagree. But the differences in their approach are instructive. Whereas women of her generation sang their babies to sleep just as their mothers had done – because babies love the sound of their mother’s voice – today’s parents tend to cite studies on the positive effects of Mozart on the development of the infant brain. Fifty years ago, women taught their toddlers finger games as a matter of course, purely for the sake of a good time spent together. How often do we set aside time for nursery rhymes now, despite endless discussion about the importance of bonding and nurture?
Mothers can and should be the best defenders of the sacredness of childhood. As the Spanish proverb goes, “An ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest.” But parents today hear a louder message, telling them they must constantly crack the whip in order to keep their children ahead of the curve. Something is wrong with a culture when it informs a mother that her children’s success rests on her ability to push them, or when it tells a father that good grades are the only measurement that matters.
To me, it’s frightening that so many families have fallen into this trap. Now the results are beginning to trickle in, from teenagers and young adults who barely survived the strain and pressure, who missed the formative years of just being a child, and who never found that beautiful child-to-parent relationship of trust, acceptance, and encouragement.
True, some survivors of this approach admit that without this parental drive, they wouldn’t have such a successful career or make as much money as they do now. But what is the true meaning of success? What experiences in humanity and interaction were missed? We have to consider the next generation of children, and what they will learn from parents who never had a childhood.
Children also need a chance to learn that failure often teaches us more than success. Everyone goes through hard times, and these can be crucial for the development of a child’s moral character. How else will they learn that the greatest triumph is the one that follows a defeat?
In his classic Basics of Education, German educator Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster argues that the comforts of contemporary civilization have cushioned life so completely that many people grow up without the capability to deal with anything that makes demands on them. Faced with the simple unpredictability of life – not to mention pain, suffering, hard work, or sacrifice – they helplessly succumb, Foerster writes, “as if to hard blows....They do not know what to make of frustration – how to make something constructive of it – and see it only as something that oppresses and irritates. And though these very things provided earlier generations with the experiences through which they gained mastery over life’s challenges, they are often enough to send the rootless modern person into a mental institution.”
There are wonderful things to be learned from trying, failing, and trying again. If a project is not up to standard, a good teacher can help a child think about improvement and inspire him to do better. But that lesson is lost if the parent has completed the project for the child. And what message does that communicate? At some point, the child will need to face a challenge without a parent at his side. Will he look around for someone to take over, or will he step up? If his parents praise his half-hearted efforts so as not to threaten his “self-esteem,” will he ever know the satisfaction of a difficult job well done?
Granted, children ought to be stretched and intellectually stimulated. They should be taught to articulate their feelings, to write, to read, to develop and defend an idea, to think critically. But what is the purpose of the best academic education if it fails to prepare children for life?
This article is excerpted from Arnold’s book, Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World.