I almost missed it during my low-tech summer, but even I couldn’t ignore the hubbub last month surrounding Madeline Levine’s viral parenting article in the New York Times.
In “Raising Successful Children,” Levine, a veteran psychologist, clinician, and educator, addresses a question I suspect many of us ask ourselves: we know that “helicopter” parenting isn’t ideal, but wonder, as Levine puts it, “Is there really anything wrong with a kind of ‘overparenting lite’?”
According to Levine, there is. The danger even in this kinder, gentler helicoptering is that we undermine our kids’ motivation. She writes, “The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing.” A mother of three herself, she admits how hard it is not to swoop in when we see our kids struggling, but cautions that when we do so too quickly, we are often meeting our own needs rather than those of our kids. Even worse, we are depriving them of the chance to experience the “successful failures” that are necessary for them to develop resilience and a sense of self.
Dr. Levine expands on these ideas in her latest book, Teach Your Children Well, published earlier this summer and now a New York Times bestseller. Teach Your Children Well is really four books in one: an indictment of America’s overwrought parenting culture that exhuasts the most traditionally academically talented and ignores the passions of the rest; an overview of essential skills school age kids develop at each stage; a look at how to teach our kids to find solutions, take action, and develop coping skills; and a call to arms for parents to challenge our broken system and start living the values we really care about.
I really enjoyed Teach Your Children Well. Levine’s tone is friendly and not overly didactic. She sounds like both a good mom and the kind of friend it would be fun to kvetch about kids and life with over coffee. As a parent of young kids and a former teacher, I loved her breakdown of what social, emotional, and interpersonal milestones kids develop during each stage of their school years. Given that my oldest just turned five and will start elementary school next year, I felt like I was seeing a preview of what peaks and valleys we will experience in the coming years.
But the greatest contribution of the book, I think, is Levine’s attack on contemporary parenting culture. Resting her argument on decades of research, she demonstrates how we’ve created for our children a narrow definition of success and a world where some kids burn themselves out trying to reach a highly unlikely target while others feel like their talents are valueless.
Teach Your Children Well was a definite wake-up call for me: even though my kids still aren’t in school, I have participated in this culture as a teacher at two elite New England prep schools. While reading the book, I thought about the absurd amount of homework I used to assign, the exceptions I made to allow middling students into my AP courses when I knew they couldn’t keep up with the demanding pace, the hours of extra help I gave to kids at their parents’ request so that they could avoid the indignity of a B or, much worse, a C, the time I spent coaching girls who were required to play an interscholastic sport even though their real talents lie in the dance studio or on the stage. I saw kids literally make themselves sick – or, worse, abuse substances to get an edge or ease the stress – trying to keep up with the expectations that their parents and we teachers set for them. I helped create and prop up a culture that taught that high grades and athletic achievement are more desirable than genuine understanding, curiosity, and good health, as long as they culminated in that fat college envelope.
In Teach Your Children Well, Levine has made me question the very system I was a part of and reminded me that the more of us who opt out – who say no to outlandish amounts of homework, extracurricular activities, prep courses, tutoring, and non-stop testing and who band together to exert a different kind of peer pressure – the easier it will be for our kids “to lead satisfying, meaningful, and authentically successful lives.”
So, who’s with me?
Harper/Harper Collins is offering a free copy of Teach Your Children Well to one lucky Motherese reader. Leave a comment below to be entered to win!*
Updated to add (9/17/12): Congratulations to Margot, the winner of a copy of Teach Your Children Well! The giveaway is now closed.
Disclosure: Harper/HarperCollins provided me with a review copy of Teach Your Children Well. The opinions I share about the book are my own. Harper/HarperCollins did not tell me what to say or how to say it.
* No purchase is necessary. Value of prize is US $26.99. Odds of winning are based on the number of entries. Entries will be accepted from 6:00 a.m. ET on September 10, 2012 to 5:59 a.m. ET on September 17, 2012. Winner will be notified by e-mail. Only one entry per person. U.S. and Canadian residents are eligible to enter.