It’s the most common question at open houses, back-to-school nights and parent meetings: “what do you want your child to be like?” As a School Head and a parent, I have been both the asker and the askee.
Pause for a moment. How would you answer? If you are like me, your responses includes the following: I want my child to be happy, well-adjusted, academically prepared, faithful, well-rounded, smart, and fulfilled.
Are these answers universal or do they represent the cultural biases of affluent suburban Americans of the early 21st Century? Recently, two cultural anthropologists attempted to answer this question. Carolina Izquierdo and Elinor Oches looked at an indigenous tribe in the Peruvian Amazon as well as thirty-two middle-class families in Los Angeles. Their reflections are documented in a wonderful article by Elizabeth Kolbert in last week’s New Yorker. Read here.
In her sometimes hilarious, sometimes scathing article, Kolbert comes to the sad conclusion that the one thing American parents do not want for their children is for them to be independent, self-sufficient or self-reliant. While six-year-old girls in the Amazon catch, clean and cook crustaceans for their families without any adult direction, no adolescent child in LA “routinely performed household chores without being instructed to.” Most often the LA children had to be coaxed, bribed or threatened before they would perform a household duty– including bathing themselves.
Raising children in times of great affluence is a prodigious challenge. We are torn between providing the greatest opportunities, learning activities, toys, digital tools and other by-products of American affluence on the one hand and teaching the values of hard-work, duty, responsibility and sacrifice on the other. Do we want to raise our children at all? If we wait until they reachadultescence, won’t they be able to raise themselves?
Kolbert relates the story of an exasperated parent of twenty-somethings. Sally Koslow, a former editor at McCall’s, bitterly writes in Slouching Toward Adulthood “Our offspring have simply leveraged our braggadocio, good intentions, and over investment,” They inhabit “a broad savannah of entitlement that we’ve watered, landscaped, and hired gardeners to maintain.”
Montessori education—and our friends at the Parent Encouragement Program—are outliers in the child raising conversation. Why? Because, more than anything, we emphasize life skills and unity of experience over isolated academic skills. When mainstream schools, pedagogies and well-intentioned teachers think about outcomes for students, they rarely mention self-sufficiency or independence. Maybe it is because there is no standardized test to measure self-reliance.
At Evergreen, we believe that children are far more capable, competent and resilience than they are given credit for. Let’s give them a chance to show us.
John DeMarchi is the Head of School at Evergreen School in Silver Spring/Wheaton. He is a regular contributor to Patch. Evergreen School is a 2 year old to third grade Montessori School. Learn more at www.evergreenschool.com.