Failing Our Children

The little boy slid a despairing look at me as he and I sat for our weekly tutoring session. His mother stood behind us. My heart ached for him as she ranted on, her voice getting louder and more strident, the angry words falling over him like jagged rocks as he hunched his shoulders in vain hope of protecting himself. Still those sharp words cut into his soul.

Apparently, he had come home from school with a worksheet that was less than perfect—an 80 percent, if I recall correctly. He’s 10. With all A’s and B’s on his last report card.

I taught in the local public schools for 15 years (longer than most principals, I discovered) and now tutor children privately. When the scandal broke about wealthy parents paying to get their kids into elite colleges, I wasn’t surprised. I have despaired for years about the damage being done to children by well-meaning (or perhaps merely misguided) parents and educators. Kids are drowning in a society with its sights set on goals with little merit.

For parents, this mindset seems to begin with anguish over which pre-school their child will attend. The process involves personal interviews and administrators sniffing like hound dogs for deep-pocketed parents.

The longer I tutor, the more I see kindergarten teachers sending home notes about 5-year-olds who are “failing” as early as October. Parents are frantic to get the kids back on track before the poor children have even had time—or enough instruction—to locate the rails. It’s heartbreaking and pointless on so many levels, from the standpoint of educational theory and basic humanity.

Failure is part of the learning process. If parents throw pillows in front of their kids at every step, those children receive powerful messages. First, we communicate that someone will always be there to soften life’s blows. We also communicate that they simply cannot make any missteps; learning from one’s mistakes is not an option for these parents. Not their children. The bar of achievement is so high, it’s lost in the stratosphere. Kids learn quickly that no matter what they do, it won’t be enough.

My daughter, now in her mid-30s, is fulfilling her dream of living in a Central American country, with a successful internet-based business of her own to support her lifestyle. I don’t recall ever hovering over her to make sure she did her homework. She played sports, but she knew her grades came first. As her parent, I believed—and still do—that she has to find her way. That means accepting the consequences of her choices. If her grades slipped, off came the athletic shoes, because I had set those ground rules from the beginning. And she knew I meant it.

As an educator, though, an irony I’ve witnessed is that despite parents’ willingness to “hover” over their children’s every assignment, every test, every report and, yes, pay for access to a particular college, they refuse to spend any quality time with them otherwise. I often go into the homes of parents who obviously don’t lack for money, and I don’t see one piece of reading material. No books, no magazines, no newspapers. When I inquire about reading habits of the parents, I get either empty explanations about how busy they are, as they run off to their wine club, or they tell me they read on hand-held devices. Literacy is taught, but it’s also strengthened when shared. And who better to do the sharing than the most important people in the lives of kids, their parents or other adult role models?

So we have parents in this country who have the means and see nothing wrong with buying their kids’ way into a particular college. Like so much in our society at the moment, the boundary between right and wrong has become so smeared as to be nearly invisible. There’s irony in it, too. The parents involved in this duplicity on behalf of their children apparently don’t know (or care about) the following:

 

• About only 30 percent of Americans have a college degree from any college, much less a prestigious institution like those involved in the “pay-to-sit-in-that-coveted-seat” plan.

• The majority of employers don’t ask about GPA or what college you went to. I found this to be true, as do most job-seekers today.

 

In light of this, what’s really going on? It seems it isn’t about the result, is it? It’s about simply getting in the door. Which takes us full circle. If parents prepare their children well from the beginning, there is no need to buy a seat in the classroom; the kids can earn it themselves. Helicopter parents aren’t doing their kids any favors. In fact, they’re trussing up their children’s wings, preventing them from becoming self-reliant and capable adults.

Is that what we want for our society?

Ripples of this scandal touch related topics, namely a lack of vocational training for those young people who aren’t equipped or interested in a college education, as well as the lack of respect for vocations in general.

Those I ache for in this sad story are the young people who didn’t know their parents were writing huge checks to complicit coaches and admissions reps. They thought they got into that pricey college on their own merit. And those who did know? We reap what we sow, and the cycle of dishonesty will continue as they mature and have families of their own.

We have serious decisions to make as a society. This issue may seem unimportant those without children at home any more, or those who never had to worry about college admissions at all. In reality, though, the questions—and answers—define life for all of us in this country, both in positive and negative ways.

Who do we want to be as a people? What do we value and want for our children? And what are we willing to do to get those things?

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Hansen, an author and educator, has lived and worked in the Jacksonville area for more than 30 years. Her work can be found at debhansen.com.

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