Nicole, Graduate Student and Former Teacher, CA
“I think back to the one-on-one parent-teacher conferences that I had when I said, ‘Your child is reading below grade level, here are some flashcards you can do with him,’ instead of saying, ‘You know what? Your child is really compassionate. He always wants to help others and problem solve, and reading will come.’”
Imagine your child (or one you care about deeply) is now in their 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for them about their life? What would make it a ‘good’ life?
So I’m thinking of a former student who’s six years old. She’s incredibly bright, really strong willed. And so I know that as far as success metrics go, as far as checking boxes and what we think people should have when they’re successful, I think she’ll check all those boxes. But what I fear for her is this sense of self-worth that isn’t attached to her accomplishments. Like learning to love herself for exactly who she is, and not attaching her self-worth to what society says she should be, or what her parents says she should be, but truly who she is and how she’s wired and loving every single piece of that. So a good life for her would be anything that would allow her to intrinsically love herself, know her place in the world and follow the things that make her happy.
Ever since she was young, this student has been rewarded for her external accomplishments. It’s always been a big deal that she’s reading above grade level and doing second-grade math. And it’s honestly very disturbing because you see how kids internalize how their parents reward them. Now when it comes to me asking what she’s learning in school, she says, “I’m not learning anything because I know everything already.” So now I worry that she attaches her self-worth to those accomplishments, and when she does reach a point when she will fail—because we all do—that will destroy her. She will equate self-worth with what she can produce.
Do you think everyone agrees with you about what a good life is?
I think so. I think there are similar definitions of what a good life is, but it looks very different for each individual child and what they need. I think there’s this over-arching theme of wholeheartedness (to steal from Brene Brown) and this idea that kids are truly embracing themselves and they are happy and fulfilled. And then there’s all these different ways in which they can get there, different areas that they need to build up. So yeah, I think people do generally agree, but I think the ways people get there can be very different.
I always get back to this idea of values, and the fact that how a parent defines success is not how their child will define success. You don’t inherit success. I think there are core tenants that lead you to have an empowered and fulfilled life that we should hope for all people to have.
What role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
There are two things children could use. One is self worth, and two is empathy, feeling the emotions of others. My former student, for example, is quick to dismiss the accomplishments of those who aren’t as advanced as she is. I really think that school could send a message that it’s not about what you accomplish, but how you are. It’s about how you treat others, how you treat yourself instead of where you are in the hierarchy. In terms of self worth, I wish school would teach her that academic achievement isn’t the only thing that makes her special. What makes you who you are is how you encounter and deal with failure. I think right now that wouldn’t go well for her because she hasn’t had to fail. And I think I see the problems she faces as problems I had when I was younger, not because my parents pressured me, but because that’s so engrained in schools—the idea that the grades you get and how you compare to your peers is how you value yourself. That’s not natural for kids—it’s not. I rarely think that parents intrinsically want that, it’s the system that tells us that we should want that, even at the college and graduate school level. Even here at Stanford—Status opens doors for you. But what if doors were opened not by your accomplishments, but how you functioned as a person?
Do you think schools are currently playing that role/doing what they should (for you/your child and for everyone)?
I think some are; I think there are some good schools out there. I had a really great experience going to a charter school and an IB school that really focused on developing the role of the child. What I’ve noticed is that schools that need it the most are the ones least likely to have that whole-hearted enriching approach to education. Schools are ruining kids’ lives through this desire to extrinsically achieve. In low-income schools, my kids in kindergarten were totally tracked on their reading level and told at 5 years old if they were below or above grade level. And I was totally guilty of that. I think when I came into teaching I had this whole-hearted approach to education—that’s why I found education as this thing that could change the world. It’s empowering. But I got into my school and all of a sudden as a teacher I had these pressures for my students to achieve academically because if they didn’t, then they were essentially screwed. That’s what people tell you. And then all of a sudden your metrics for success are completely misconstrued. You think, “If I can get all my kids to read on grade level, I will save them.” And I feel really guilty because I was a really good teacher and I worked to build a lot of social-emotional skills in my kids, but I think back to the one-on-one parent-teacher conferences that I had when I said, “Your child is reading below grade level, here are some flashcards you can do with him,” instead of saying, “You know what? Your child is really compassionate. He always wants to be others and problem solve, and reading will come.”