The Fix is In for 12 More Years

By Michael

There’s a chapter in my new book about the way we keep score in life and our tendency to shift the comparisons in ways that work against us. The chapter concludes with the suggestion, “If you’re going to fix a fight, fix it so you win.”

In most cases, we can opt not to play a crooked wheel or we can choose to set our expectations in ways that give us a chance of winning. In one very important game, however, not only is the outcome rigged, but we are required by law to participate.

Worse, we are required by law to enter our children as contestants in this battle.

The arena is school and it doesn’t matter whether it’s public or private. From the time we walk them into kindergarten until they graduate from high school, the rules and standards will be artificial, institutionally beneficial and frequently biased against many sources of lifetime success.

I like school. I think education is a great thing. I’ve spent as much time as anyone worrying about my daughters’ grades and helping with homework. At the same time, I’ve come to recognize the substantial disconnect between success components for school and success components for just about everything else we’ll ever do.

Schools grade students regularly on their performance against certain standards that are so consistently applied for so many years that we can forget how limited they are.  

Students are taught in specific ways—theoretical rather than experiential, for example—study subjects selected a century ago, and study in fixed time increments that seldom vary between courses. At the same time, students are rewarded and punished for specific social skills and behavior that might or might not be a source of success outside PS 142.

As adults, most of our learning is experiential, not theoretical. We learn about different subjects than history or literature. The time devoted to a project varies with the project, rather than being fixed to a class schedule. As often as not, the class clown ends up as successful an adult as the valedictorian.

I’m writing about this after a conversation with a friend of mine who is concerned about his child, a teen who is bright enough, but not particularly motivated by anything recognizable, including school. We ended up talking about the threat to long-term success, self-confidence and overall well being that can be created when we fall into the trap of judging our children solely in light of an institutional standard.

It’s not that school isn’t important. It is. It’s not that we shouldn’t push our kids to learn how to work within whatever culture/world/institution they inhabit. We should. It’s not that our children have the wisdom to choose how and when to teach themselves. They don’t.

And it’s not about jumping into the principal’s office every week to negotiate a special program or subject or set of rules for our little darlings. Ultimately, that can be more harmful than anything the institution can do to them.

What we must do, whether our sons and daughters are straight-A students or continually challenged, is offer the full perspective. School is a big part of their lives, but it’s not all of their lives. It’s a tool for learning and success, like any other, and it will serve us as much as we demand of it.

Most important, let them know there’s no permanent record. Their first boss won’t ask why they got a check mark in deportment when they were in third grade. Their future father-in-law won’t refuse to bless the marriage  as a result of a C-minus.

And let them know, always and unequivocably, that there is someone in this world who believes they have the ability to succeed in life, even if it isn’t clear immediately how and when that’s going to happen.

Michael Rosenbaum is 5 Minutes for Parenting’s first dadblogger. He is a business consultant, playwright and author of Your Name Here: Guide to Life.

Michael blogs on life issues at Your Name Here Guide to Life and manages the Adult Conversation discussion group on Linked-In.

4 Responses to The Fix is In for 12 More Years
  1. Hillary
    December 29, 2009 | 1:50 am

    Very well said! I think we put way too much pressure on kids to be perfect students. When they don’t meet our high standards, their self-esteem fails. I wish we could pass on the lesson you just explained to some of those students.

  2. edj
    December 29, 2009 | 10:28 am

    Excellent post! I think education is super-important, but I do try to give my kids the broader perspective as well.
    One thing they’re learning at school is organizational skills that will help them greatly later. And it never hurts to know history and literature–esp since one of mine plans to be a history professor 😉

  3. Michael
    December 29, 2009 | 12:55 pm

    It’s a funny thing, though not necessarily in a ha-ha way, that I’ll talk to all kinds of parents about the disconnect between what they learned in fourth grade (coloring inside the lines? jumping jacks?) and what they’re doing now. Most of us aren’t doing the same things as adults that we studied in college, if we went to college.

    But when we talk to our kids, we make it sound like this is how the rest of life is going to be.

    There’a a balance point, if we can find it, where we explain how important it is to succeed in this environment, while also advising that there will be other, self-selected environments later on.

    (Also, unless you’re living in St. Louis, check out my weather rant at the Your Name Here blog.)


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