Many years ago I read two articles on what parents want from schools as it relates to their children. Both studies surveyed parents, and the topic was this: Do you want your child coming home from school happy every day or do you want your child to be challenged, even if the result is that he may come home feeling uncomfortable? This was fifteen years ago, and a majority of parents wanted their children to come home happy. Recently, I reviewed a more general survey of parents, and 72% of parents would prefer that their child be happy rather than challenged.
Every parent, undoubtedly, has an interest in their child’s happiness. Yet might it be the case that focusing on happiness now could work to the disadvantage of both happiness now and happiness later, perhaps even happiness forever? A Heights education teaches young men, among other things, that happiness in heaven is the ultimate goal, and that there will be many times in their lives when their personal pleasures, conveniences, or comforts should be sacrificed to this ultimate goal. Ironically, the mere fact of sacrifice will not always sacrifice happiness.
At the risk of sounding old fashioned, I cannot help but encourage parents every year to reconsider the goals they set for their sons and to share these goals with their sons’ mentors. In that effort, it is helpful to all of us—parents, teachers, and sons—for these goals to be specific about what happiness will look like, what it entails. In other words, what kind of happiness are parents eager for their sons to achieve? As we take this on, we must remember that our view of our sons’ happiness must also provide for emotional strength. Failing to do this sacrifices both the baby and the bathwater; an emotionally resilient child is a happier one.
As with so many things at The Heights, our intuitive sense as teachers is often confirmed by more rigorous analytical research. On this topic, Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and a lecturer at Northeastern University, has written several books concerning the things mentally strong people do and don’t do. She has also written on raising emotionally strong children. Two of her books are 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do and 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. Morin has lectured on emotional maturity and toughness and has experience as a therapist dealing with mental maturity. If I may, I’d like to share some of her evidence-based suggestions here, along with my own view from the front of the classroom.
Victim versus Growth Mindset
Morin writes: “Parents do not let their children develop a victim mentality. Parents allow their children to make mistakes and coach their children on managing their emotions. Parents and children solve problems together to find solutions to the difficulty that facilitated the mistake. Parents let their child feel uncomfortable. Parents do not shield their kids from pain. They don’t make kids the center of attention. They do not take responsibility for kids’ emotions, or give them the power over themselves. Parents when dealing with their children keep their values in mind.”
How would the above ideas relate to a student in today’s classroom? What does a nascent victim mentality look like in a twenty-first century boy? Have you ever heard that “the teacher does not like me?” Or, “the teacher is picking on me?” Or “no one ever gets an ‘A.’” These complaints are natural to a young boy seeking an out. But the way we respond as parents will go a long way towards developing emotional resilience. A good response to such a boy might be listening attentively and then explaining, “You may perceive this but I’m sure the teacher does not see it that way. Could it be that the teacher is trying to help you develop a higher standard?”
Mistakes: Managed or Avoided?
“Parents allow their children to make mistakes and coach their children on managing their emotions.” Has your son ever forgotten his lunch? Or a project? What about a homework assignment? Perhaps let the boy deal with it—experience the consequences now when the stakes are lower—and sit down with him later to explain that, as a student, the responsibility belongs to him. That accomplished, consider helping him make a plan so the mistake is less likely to happen again. Having experienced the consequences, it is likely the boy will be disinclined to repeat the mistake. Empowered by playing a part in developing a solution, the boy will be motivated to fix the problem going forward by packing his lunch the night before or putting the project in the car, or the homework in the bag.
Parental or Student Discomfort?
“Parents let their child feel uncomfortable.” Has your son ever earned a detention and had to go late to practice or work, or asked you to call a teacher about letting him do a project or paper over or because he was disciplined in class? Students need to realize that their behavior has consequences, and natural consequences are what the child learns from best. A response in accordance with Dr. Morin’s view might be to listen attentively and then explain, “The teacher is trying to prepare you for life and give you an advantage when competing with others.”
“Parents do not shield their kids from pain,” writes Dr. Morin. Here, we can ask: does a student consistently come late to school because he does not get up early enough to be off earlier? Does a sniffle keep him home? Does he have other health complaints so he can stay at home? Obviously, there are occasions where rest is needed and good. Yet, undeniably, learning how to deal with pain is a lifelong pursuit, and, according to Amy Morin, kids being kept too safe stunts their emotional development.
This topic reminds me of a saying I’ll paraphrase from St. Josemaría: “Smile at the cross.” Can we love God through our pain and still be joyful? What a lesson to learn early in life.
Who is at the center?
“Parents do not make their children the center of attention”. If they do, the child will feel entitled as they get older. Perhaps the child should have chores and be a contributing member of the family. One of their chores is the effort they put forth in school. School is the job of the student and should be understood as such. Then the child understands he has responsibilities that are his and no one else’s, not even his parents’. Thus, trying one’s best in school is an act of justice to parents, who sacrifice to send their sons to a private school.
Punishment versus Discipline
Remember, punishment should be an uncomfortable situation trying to extinguish a specific behavior. Discipline, on the other hand, is teaching the child to make better choices. Both are necessary. Both take place at home and in school. When teachers and parents are working together, the child benefits greatly.
Staying after school for a high school student inconveniences that student, his family, and perhaps even his carpool. It certainly upsets the natural daily routine, but this is when the child is most likely to learn that he is part of a team larger than one. Others are depending on him, and he needs to see how his choices impact others: his parents, his siblings, his friends, and, sometimes most impactfully, his teammates.
But when boys (and those who depend on them) are insulated from the natural consequences of their actions, they have no “skin in the game.” The boy will stay as safe from consequences as he will remain ignorant of the better way. On the other hand, the student who has to face the music in school and then again at home will benefit tremendously.
Of course, this means parents must be willing to make alternative plans necessary for the “growing up” of their children. Admittedly, this demands from parents a flexibility and a willingness to focus on what’s best for the child to grow up, sometimes at the expense of convenience. We are so grateful to have partners as primary educators and not adversaries, as our headmaster says.
If the student can depend on parental intervention to bail him out, he quickly concludes that he is the center of the universe and that his mom/dad will always be there to rescue him at a moment’s notice. For the sake of the student, is it not better for the parent to support the school’s discipline and then sit down with their son to make it clear what the expectations are to be part of the team called family? It’s okay for the student to feel guilt or discomfort for having disturbed his family’s daily routine. Often these experiences teach that our responsibilities impact those around us.
In a recent podcast, Tom Royals encourages us to “avoid thinking of our children as projects and instead to learn to contemplate them as free persons. And in better understanding them, we are better able to accompany them along their paths, each of which has its own peculiar order.” I am intrigued by this “accompanying them along their paths as free people.” It sounds similar to Amy Morin’s ideas of “Parents allow[ing] their children to make mistakes and coach[ing] their children on managing their emotions. Parents and children solve problems together to find solutions to the difficulty that facilitated the mistake. Parents do not shield their kids from pain. They do not take responsibility for kids’ emotions, or give them the power over themselves. Parents when dealing with their children keep their values in mind.”
Admittedly, this approach of accompaniment, of allowing mistakes, of allowing children to solve problems and experience pain, is difficult for us as parents. We love our sons. We love our students. Yet, isn’t this treatment what accompaniment requires if they are, as we believe them to be, free persons? Free persons with all their faults and all their strengths. Free persons to be loved and guided. Free persons to be ready to enter heaven.
Beginning my forty-first year as a classroom teacher, I have seen and experienced many changes in education, some good and some not so good. I appreciate Amy Morins’ ideas and wished to share them with the community I teach in. Some of her ideas sound difficult to enact but, again, after forty years in the classroom, I can assure you that the investment in the boy materially, emotionally, and spiritually is so worth it.