Trophies, Homework, Memories of Junior High, and Happy Parents

I have written about homework before. I have written about parenting experts too. It is funny how, when the experts agree with you on virtually everything, you suddenly think they are great.

Last week, Madeline Levine gave a talk at our school. She is the author of The Price of Privilege, a psychologist, and a parenting expert. I’d read the book and joined a small discussion about it, hosted by a friend. So, though I typically do not go to evening lectures (that’s my busy time with the kids), I thought I’d make an exception.

I was glad I did. She was entertaining, admitted mistakes in her own parenting, and was logical and down to earth in her advice. I found her responses to questions both blunt and courageous, especially given that the audience contained two independent school headmasters, multiple teachers and parents. Several key points, with my post-lecture thoughts, include:

Trophies and Ribbons
One father asked about the practice of giving ribbons through tenth place and trophies for mere participation. I was a kid who got the participation trophy every year. While I thought my hard work on the team should be recognized, I knew the diminutive trophy was a sham. It was embarrassing to go up and receive it. And I certainly didn’t join the team again the following year for another one. I was on the team to be with friends, play outside and go to Shakey’s Pizza after the meets. So, when Dr. Levine said that this misled attempt to make everyone feel good about themselves has the adverse effect, I wanted to applaud. Self-confidence, she said, comes from achieving competence in something. And I would add that if a child is recognized for what he or she is truly competent in (rather than everything even if he or she is not), then they will carry that self-confidence forward in trying new things and enjoying things in which they may not excel. That is what we want for our children. Not trophies or purple ribbons.

The question that inspired the most texts to friends, emails, phone calls, and meetings with teachers…. How much homework should a third grader have, and if it’s too much, whose responsibility is it to advocate for change? Dr. Levine said that a colleague has collected nearly a hundred major studies on the subject, and they are nearly unanimous in their findings. For elementary school students, homework adds no value to their learning or education. She said if a school feels it has to give homework, they should keep it no more than 10 minutes per grade. The parents in my son’s third grade have shared their experience this year, and it includes “Mommy, you never let me play. I just want to play.”, “You are the meanest mom ever!”, decisions to skip that weekend in the mountains because the third grader has too much homework, tears at least twice a week, and “I am too tired. I can’t think anymore.” But then when these same parents say “okay,” the kids cry harder that they don’t want to miss recess, and if their homework is not done, they stay in from recess. Appalling. And parents don’t want to be the one to say anything to the teacher, because they don’t want their child to come across as weak. They also don’t want to be the parent who is failing to help their child overcome and succeed. And probably, given that we have made the decision to spend money to send them to private school, we all have this devilish voice whispering in our ear that this homework is what will get our children a leg up moving forward. It’s not the schools’ fault. It’s ours. The schools know why many of us have made the decision to be there, so they give it to us. Our kids may be academically prepared for the next step, but they never got a chance to play. Maybe, now that we know better, we need to insist on the time to play. Reverse the trend. It is our job to advocate.

Cutting and the Misery of Junior High
I learned in reading this book and attending the lecture that I am as naïve as I was when I was twelve. Cutting?! Apparently, adolescents are cutting themselves to relieve pressure, and it makes them feel better. Ouch! And junior high was miserable. Who knew? I was still blissfully ignorant in junior high. I had a great group of friends, creative teachers who we called by their first names, and three camping trips in eighth grade. I remember M&M soap operas, burning the edge of a flag for a collage on the 1960s, running for a touchdown on a class field trip, going to Roy Rogers after Drama on Saturdays, turning the clock ahead before the Latin teacher arrived, and hanging out with friends deemed The Mafia by one of the mothers. Dr. Levine asked the room of about 150 adults to close our eyes and think of a memory from junior high. Then she asked us to raise our hands if it was a good memory. I quickly raised my hand before realizing that no one else had. One other person raised her hand once mine was up. That was it. So thank you, Chris, Doug, Lonnie, Mr. Farquar and Kit, Mrs. Bralove, Mary, Brian, Charlie, Chris, David, and of course, my parents and sisters. Junior high was awesome. My boys are at the school where they are, hoping that they experience a few extra years of bliss too. Maybe that’s what gave me the confidence to survive the challenges of adolescence with mere tears (no cutting, puking, piercing, self-medicating, or as my sister likes to say, blue hair) later.

A Boring View of Adulthood
Two of Dr. Levine’s sons were athletes and played on Select teams that traveled to games on the weekends. She and her husband, hoping to support them in their pursuits, traveled with them. Their weekends were spent on buses or in cars, sleeping in cheap hotels, eating bad food, and watching the kids compete. They often split up so that both sons had a parent cheering them on. Looking back on those days, Dr. Levine said, “What a terrible picture of adulthood! Who would aspire to that?” She recommended that, as parents, we need to show our kids the joy in life, the happiness we experience as adults, the pleasures of our success. We should go out to dinner, pursue a hobby, invite our friends over often to laugh and tell stories. We need to show them a full life outside of theirs. Many parents do not feel as if they have the time between work and kids. But she reminded us that our kids want us to be happy on our own. They do not need the pressure of being the only thing that makes us so. And to want to succeed, success actually has to look good.



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