The overprotected child

The author’s 5-year-old son, Gideon, playing at the Land playground in North Wales. (Hanna Rosin)

Overprotective, safety-obsessed parents have “stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer,” writes Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic.

The “adventure playground,” which gives kids a chance to explore and challenge themselves, is growing in popularity in Europe, she writes. She visited The Land, a Welsh playground.

“Playworkers” keep an eye on children, but try not to intervene. Parents usually don’t come.

It’s still morning, but someone has already started a fire in the tin drum in the corner, perhaps because it’s late fall and wet-cold, or more likely because the kids here love to start fires. . . . Nearby, a couple of boys are doing mad flips on a stack of filthy mattresses, which makes a fine trampoline. At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the younger kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets—just for the fun of it, or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure.

. . . there are . . .  no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek). . . . the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.

A generation ago, mothers were more likely to be at home, but less likely to arrange playdates or drive the kids to swim lessons, Rosin writes. Children had free, unsupervised time. They figured out what to do with it.

On weekdays after school (her mother) just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. In 1971, 80 percent of British third-graders walked to school alone, a study found. “By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.” (When I started kindergarten in 1957, two generations ago, my mother let me walk with the other kids — no parents — from the first day.)

Children need to explore, argues Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education in Norway.  “When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience.”

Paradoxically, Sandseter writes, “our fear of children being harmed,” mostly in minor ways, “may result in more fearful children .”  Children who injured themselves falling from heights when they were between 5 and 9 years old are less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18, a study found.

Erin Davis has made a documentary about The Land.

‘I will not check my son’s grades 5 times a day’

I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day  vows Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic. Her son’s high school lets parents access information on their children’s academic progress, attendance and grades.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us appraised of anything we need to know.

More than 80 percent of parents and students who can access student information remotely check in “at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day,” Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, tells Lahey.

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

“We just talk to our kids,” responded Elena Marshall, mother of eight.

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings, Lahey writes.

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. -Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.”

Let’s assume that crazy parents will use the access to feed their craziness. But there are sane parents who aren’t sure how well their kids are doing in school and would appreciate a heads up before it’s too late to save the semester.

The Ivy rat race

New York City’s “most ambitious, wealthiest parents” start the college-admissions process by hiring a consultant to get their toddler into an elite nursery school, writes Lacy Crawford.

Then come tutors, learning specialists, resume-polishing internships or exotic community service and a recommendation letter from a trustee of the first-choice school.

Finally, after 15 or so years of parents managing every variable, there comes the time when a student is expected to do something all by herself: fill out the actual application. Write an essay in her own voice.

Not really. Parents hired Crawford, an independent college admissions counselor, to help their kids craft Ivy-worthy essays and applications. Her new book, Early Decision, features an “application whisperer” who helps helicopter-parented kids get into Harvard.

In Personal Statement, Jason Odell Williams satirizes the Ivy rat race. As a hurricane heads for Connecticut,  students converge on the coast to win humanitarian laurels that will look good on college applications.

Colleges teach workplace social skills

To help graduating seniors find jobs, colleges and universities are teaching the social skills of the workplace, reports the Hechinger Report.

After final exams are over, MIT students will return from their holiday break to experience something different from their usual studies—but almost as important.

It’s the university’s annual Charm School, offering instruction in everything from how to make a first impression to how to dress for work to which bread plate to use.

Other colleges have started teaching students how to make small talk, deal with conflict, show up on time, follow business etiquette, and communicate with co-workers.

Employers complain new hires don’t know how to act professionally. “This is a generation with an average of 241 social media ‘friends,’ but they have trouble communicating in person,” said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

“Students don’t really know what’s meant by professional dress,” says MIT’s Hamlett. “Most students just roll out of bed in whatever it is they want to wear. There’s this ‘come as you are’ about being a college student.”

At Wake Forest University’s business school, master’s candidates are required to wear business attire to class, and be in the building from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

. . . MBA and law students at the University of Iowa learn table manners at an annual “etiquette dinner”—where to rest their silverware between courses and on which side of their settings to return their water glasses.

“Helicopter parents” haven’t taught their entitled children what the real world demands, says Aaron McDaniel, author of The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World. He also blames universities for letting students slide by without working hard. In the workplace, McDaniel says, many graduates “expect that, just for showing up, they’ll get credit, just like they used to get at school.”

Mommy’s college boy

Helicopter-ed kids in the classroom

At 50, after a successful career selling magazine advertising, Rod Baird became a high school English teacher at an affluent high school near New York City. Counterfeit Kids criticizes education fads — Baird thinks the “sage on the stage” makes a lot of sense — but the book’s real target is overprotective, esteem-boosting, college-obsessed parents.

Baird’s privileged students don’t like to read books, think or learn. Victims of the “cult of college,” they’ve been pushed by their parents to earn good grades and get into a “good” college. Nothing else matters.

In his first year, he taught non-honors English to 11th graders — B and C students — who’d figured out they’d already lost the college race.

“A palpable contempt had set in, they way they slouched in their seats, the way they openly cheated. . . . they no longer cared.”

Thanks to their parents, they had way too much self-esteem to blame themselves for their lack of success, Baird writes. Instead, they assumed the system was unfair.

Teachers are too student-centered, Baird writes.

We are trying so hard to teach that we are accepting their responsibilities. With all of our elaborate rubrics and review sheets and methodologies and layers upon layers of special education services and ever-changing pedagogies and assessments, we are smothering them, preventing them from learning the basics, from how to think for themselves, to self-discipline, to English grammar, stunting their growth . . .

Students who’ve been told they learn by doing believe they have no obligation to listen or read, Baird writes. Group work — “collaborative learning” — teaches them to follow the group leader, who does most of the work. “We love group work,” a student tells him. “Usually you don’t have to do anything until the teacher comes around with her clipboard and rubric. Then we pretend we are doing what she asked us.”

His students are good at following specific directions — if there’s a grade to earn. Asked to think for themselves, they flounder.

Baird shares his techniques for jolting students out of their complacency and getting them to think.

We need more helicopter parents

It’s fun to make fun of helicopter parents, but we need more of them, writes Brink Lindsey in The Atlantic.

Today’s hyperventilating “helicopter parents” are comic fish in a barrel. Playing Mozart to their babies in utero and dangling Baby Einstein gewgaws over their bassinets. Obsessing over peanut allergies, turning school science fairs into arms races of one-upmanship, and hiring batteries of private tutors to eke out another 10 points on the SAT.

But better too much parental attention than too little, Lindsey writes.

College-educated parents are spending significantly more time with their children then they did before 1995. Less-educated parents spend more time too, but the “parental attention gap” is growing.

There’s also a class divide in parenting styles, according to sociologist Annette Lareau.

 Among the poor and working-class families she studied, the focus of parenting was on what she calls “the accomplishment of natural growth.” In these families, “parents viewed children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they were provided with comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support.”

College-educated parents have taken on a much more ambitious role – one that Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” “In these families, parents actively fostered and assessed their children’s talents, opinions, and skills,” Lareau writes. “They made a deliberate and sustained effort to stimulate children’s development and to cultivate their cognitive and social skills.”

In addition, college-educated parents are much more likely to marry before having children and much less likely to divorce.

As of 2011, 87 percent of children who have a parent with a bachelor’s or higher degree were living with two married parents. The corresponding figures for high school grads and high school dropouts were 53 and 47 percent, respectively.

. . . since the ’70s, divorce rates among the highly educated have fallen significantly; among non-college grads, by contrast, they have stayed high. Specifically, only 16.7 percent of women with at least a college degree experienced a marital dissolution within 10 years of a first marriage between 1990 and 1994 – a 31 percent drop from 20 years earlier. For other women, though, the marriage breakup rate in the latter period was now 35.7 percent – 6 percent higher than 20 years before.

So most children of the college-educated — about a third of the population — grow up in stable, child-centered families with two parents determined to cultivate “the skills they will need to thrive in today’s highly complex knowledge economy.” It’s not really the violin, karate or Kumon classes that give them an edge. It’s Mom and Dad.

Mad dads and moms, sleepless kids

Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortés’ Go the F**k to Sleep, a father’s anguished plea to his child, has made all the best-seller lists. On Slate, Katie Roiphe sees the quiet desperation of yuppie parents.

Are our enlightened, engaged, sensitive parenting practices driving a certain segment of the population insane?

. . . The odd, rageful, beautiful little book’s inspiration lies in the commingling of insipid bedtime story rhymes with the inner monologue of the wildly irritated parent: “The owls fly forth from the treetops./ Through the air, they soar and they sweep./ A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love. / For real, shut the fuck up and sleep.” The stylish parody relies for its humor and frisson on a certain level of frustration, an over- the- top, pent-up fury toward one’s children, because without that fury, it’s simply not that funny.

The sleepless child’s parents are trying to watch a video and eat some microwaved popcorn, notes Roiphe. “The precious adult time (the father) is desperately fighting to preserve is so paltry, so modest, so barely there.” No wonder he’s ticked off.

Go the F*ck to Sleep book cover.

Parents who raise their children to see “the whole world as an expanse of devoted maids and butlers” have themselves to blame, Roiphe writes.

Likewise, if we can’t manage to hire a baby sitter and get out of the house, if we have made of the conventional nuclear family structure something stifling, airless, it can’t really be the fault of a 4-year-old, resourceful and mischievous as he may be. We are, after all, to blame for our own self-sacrifice, and if we are being honest and precise, it’s not exactly self-sacrifice, tinged as it is with vanity, with pride in our good behavior, with a certain showiness in our parenting, with self-congratulation.

. . . But if those sweet-faced children, so gorgeously drawn by Ricardo Cortés, could talk back would they say: “Put on a fucking dress. Have a fucking drink. Stop hovering over us. Live your own goddamned life.”

My stepdaughter and her husband, parents of an infant and a two-year-old, think the book is hilarious. On a recent solo visit, my husband offered to babysit so they could go out to dinner. They turned him down, saying he wouldn’t be able to handle it if both kids woke up at the same time. (John: “I raised three children!”) After negotiations, they’ve agreed to let both of us babysit on our July visit so they can go out together for a few hours.

Prof: Students can’t tie their own shoes

In recent years, college students have lost the ability to tie their own shoes, writes Jerry Weinberger, a Michigan State political science professor, on City Journal.  Without their helicopter parents, students lose syllabi, break appointments and can’t find the final exam. They don’t buy the right books — and as many as 20 percent don’t read the books, Weinberger believes.

Before 2004, his final exams would pose essay questions like “Compare Hobbes and Nietzsche on the question of religion” and “What is the difference between Marx and Locke on the origins of private property?” That’s impossible now. Too many would flunk.

Students demand “study guides” before the midterm and the final exams. They want to know “the important chapters” in the reading and “the important points” in the lectures they missed. Above all, they want to know what’s going to be on the final exam.

I then asked them if in high school they’d been “taught to their tests,” especially standardized ones, and provided with study guides and PowerPoint summaries that, in essence, gave them the questions and the answers. My query elicited a sea of nodding heads.

When I gave the exam, some students groused when they saw questions that could be answered only by having read the texts. . . . After grades were in, an excellent student with a 4.0 GPA who earned an A-minus in my class e-mailed me: “It is honestly the first class I have had to work for a grade much since I have been in college. College is full of courses handing out study guides nearly identical to exams, and I thoroughly appreciated this challenge, and actually having to read the material and come to class.”

There’s nothing new about students asking: Will it be on the test? But college students of yore didn’t expect a detailed answer.

Weinberger blames high school prep for standardized tests, but teachers can’t spoon-feed answers to tests they don’t write themselves. Michigan State students earned A’s and B’s in high school. It sounds like they did projects that didn’t require much reading, got detailed study guides for exams and used extra credit to raise their grades.

Teachers, what do you think?

‘Snowplow parents’ bully schools

Pushy “snowplow parents” are afflicting schools, writes Ole Jorgenson, head of a  private school, in the San Jose Mercury News.

Gen Xers orchestrate every move of their preschoolers, from perfect play dates and obsessively healthy diets, to instructional flashcards and hypoallergenic socks.

Once school starts, Gen X parents may become upset to discover other students doing more advanced work than their own, demanding a meeting with the principal about why the teacher is “letting their child fall behind.” Of course the parents have done their research, identified the problem, and it’s clearly the school’s fault that their child is “underperforming” — in kindergarten.

“Helicopter parents” hovered. “Snowplow parents” knock  “all potential obstacles out of their children’s paths to pack their young résumés with successes,” Jorgenson writes. And that may mean bulldozing the teacher or the principal.

In the mid-1980s, when he was a young teacher, most parents would cooperate with the school in dealing with a child’s problem behavior. There was a home-school partnership. Now 75 percent of parents resist.

Jorgenson is head of Almaden Country School, a respected private school in San Jose that charges $15,710 tuition at the middle-school level. It has a “whole child” philosophy, but also brags about high test scores. I wonder if affluent private-school parents are pushier than affluent public-school parents.