Today was supposed to be the first day of fifth grade for my son.
Yet, just a few days ago, I found out his school wanted to move my sweet monkey boy Jackson to sixth grade. They were aware of his grades and his test scores, and felt he would be fully capable of moving to the sixth grade group and working with them. They felt he needed more of a challenge.
It was an interesting time for this to happen, having just read an op-ed by Madeline Levine in the New York Times entitled “Raising Successful Children.” Levine argues that many parents are pushing their children too hard, and helping them too much, in hopes they’ll be at the top of their class, perhaps attend an Ivy League university and be super-successful. The result? Depressed and miserable kids. Levine explains that, ” … it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.”
As I read the piece in the plane on the way home from the BlogHer conference in New York City, I worried. Am I one of the parents to whom Levine is referring? Am I pushing Jackson too much to satisfy some subconscious need of my own for his success? The last thing I ever want is for him to be miserable and depressed.
Sitting in seat 20D, I started examining my motivations, and whether I push my kids too hard. I’m not a slave driver by any means. I don’t cart my kids to and fro from a million different lessons and extracurricular activities. I prefer they each have one, if at all, and I want it to be something they enjoy. I do, however, have high expectations for them in school. Respect your teacher. Pay attention. Be as silly as you want at lunch and on the playground, but don’t goof around in class. Be responsible. At the beginning of every single school year, starting in kindergarten and including this very morning, I’ve always told them, “Every year counts. How you handle yourself and how hard you work matters every single year in school. Do your best.”
I also look for outside activities that will enrich my kids’ learning. That’s why this summer Jackson attended the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Emory University. It was a three-week long program from 8:00am to 6pm every day, which I admit is a lot for a ten-year-old kid who wants to sleep in, play Xbox, and hang out at the pool in the summer, gifted or not. Hell, it was a lot for me having to get up at 6:30am and drive four hours each weekday to take him and bring him home. He wanted to do it, he said, and I thought it was a great opportunity. But now I wonder, did he want to do it for me or for himself? Was it too much? Writes Levine, ” … pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting aimed at meeting the parents’ need for status or affirmation and not the child’s needs.”
Toxic overparenting. Shudder. Is that what I’m doing? God, I hope not.
Levine’s article led me to have a talk with Jack when I got home from New York. I told him I wanted to make sure he understood he didn’t have to attend a program like that in the summer ever again unless he really wanted to. I told him that, while I do care that he gets a college degree, I don’t care from which institution. I told him that I love him no matter what. I looked into his eyes and told him his happiness counts.
Then, just a couple of days later, the school principal calls: “We think Jack should skip fifth grade.”
Are you kidding me? We just talked about having fun. Not pushing so hard that it’s stressful. His happiness matters. And now this? Suddenly, instead of just a ruler and some graph paper for his math supplies he needs a calculator and a protractor. Instead of just notebook paper, a laptop may be in order, yet my kid doesn’t even know how to type yet. Do I say no? Do I give him the option?
I told the principal I agreed that Jackson could use the challenge, but I wasn’t willing for him to be locked into this plan. He could try it out if he wanted, and if he liked it he could stay, and if he wanted to go back to being a fifth grader he could do that no questions asked. She agreed.
Then I talked to Jack. I told him he was being offered the opportunity to move to sixth grade, but we were just as comfortable with him being a fifth grader. I told him we didn’t care, which is the truth. The idea of suddenly having my son home with me for one less year is not particularly appealing. In fact, I’m really sad about it.
I searched his face so carefully, looking for any flicker that he hated the idea. Instead, he started beaming. He loves school. He was excited. Nervous, but excited, and also glad he had the option to switch back if he doesn’t like it.
Today, my fifth grader is in his first day of sixth grade, and I’m worried, Madeline Levine. I want to do right by my boy, and yet I’m never sure what the rightest right is.
Photo credit: © Gennadiy Poznyakov – Fotolia.com
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