Alumni Column: Over Parenting



Mel Damski

As parents and teachers, have we gotten too soft?

My wife thinks so. She teaches third grade and recently two of her fellow grade school teachers visited La Conner. Sitting on our deck looking out at the Swinomish Channel, they talked a lot about a trend that they see in their classrooms: parents over-indulging their children and pressuring teachers to do the same thing.

The parents say it’s about promoting self-esteem in their children. Their motives are pure: they want to spare their children the vicissitudes of academic and peer pressure. Their message is to go easy on their kids – sure they make mistakes now, but they’ll eventually straighten themselves out.

What they don’t need, according to these parents, is any kind of negative feedback from educa­tors. Their kids need cheerleaders, not critics, and with greater self-esteem, their kids will be better fortified in facing life’s challenges.

This trend is not just happening at the elementary level. Recently, I taught for two winters at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Professors were encouraged to make “A” the default grade: if the kid shows up every day and performs in an acceptable manner, give the kid an A. The chairman of my department told me of many instances of parents calling on him to explain why their child was given anything less than an A – the underlying message was that “my kid was an A student in high school, we’re paying $50k a year to send him/her to school here and we consider anything less than an A an insult.” My fellow professors admitted to me that they felt compelled to give the parents what they wanted because they got tired of angry confrontations with disappointed parents and students. Teachers without tenure felt especially vulnerable to any kind of negative feedback. In fact, ask any teacher at any level and they are likely to recount many instances in which parents have asked them to go easy on their kids, whether it’s for academic failures or behavioral misdeeds. I’m not an expert in this field, and my own life experiences only add up to anecdotal data, but it seems to me that by yielding to this pressure, we are promoting mediocrity. And we are not preparing our children for what has become an extremely competitive world economy.

When our kids were small, we would go out to dinner with another couple and we would spend two full hours talking about where we wanted our kids to go to school. A lot of us college-educated parents felt our kids were little geniuses and had to get into the genius program at the local elemen­tary school. The term was tossed around so much that I started call it the “G word.”

Now our little geniuses are young adults, and they are struggling to live up to our often unreal­istic expectations. And I can’t help but feel perhaps we were unwitting enablers because we wanted to protect them from any kind of unpleasant experience.

We thought life should be like AYSO soccer: Everybody plays and everybody gets a trophy.

We clearly obsessed on our children in a way that our parents had not. When my parents went out with their friends, they talked about pretty much anything except their kids. Having lived through a depression and a World War, they had a tougher world view and thought their kids needed toughening to succeed. Several years ago, the people at the Princeton Review, faced with plummeting College Board scores, decided to add 100 points to everyone’s score. So a 950 combined score would become 1050. The problem is that in China and India and Germany they aren’t buying into our new math. A B is a B and not an A. 950 is 950. And trophies are very hard to come by.