As the school year came to a close for two of my daughters, and as graduation approached for my senior, I found myself reflecting on the experiences each has had that didn’t involve memorization of facts, but rather the learning that happened, when as parents, we stepped back and watched them take risks, experience failure and learn self-advocacy in the school environment. If we really pay tuition for the opportunity for our children to be in a safe environment where they are known, challenged, and loved, then taking full advantage of this environment should prepare them well to tackle the next chapter in life.
Our philosophy and parenting may be different for each of our three children, but the goal is still the same: to be brave, independent, responsible, and full of experiences they can refer to throughout life when they encounter difficult situations.
I first began this way of thinking when my oldest, who came to Randolph in 8th grade, was in the 3rd grade in St. Louis. She had come home from school after being harassed by a boy in her classroom. We had known his parents since the children were in kindergarten, and my first instinct was to call his mom and tell her what had happened. Instead, we asked our daughter to make an appointment with the principal and share her experience and her worries. We role-played. She went—nervous, but prepared—to the meeting, which included the other student. The kids resolved it, they are great friends to this day, and the issue didn't create a rift between parents.
Kids make mistakes, and out of this conflict we had our first real experience with self-advocacy. Later that year, she witnessed bullying among some of the girls at the school, so we used a Girl Scout meeting to role-play and come up with strategies to help them stop the negative behavior.
As Middle Schoolers at Randolph, my children had opportunities to take risks, experience failure, and practice self-advocacy. In addition to their core classes, which included a foreign language, they took band or choir, played sports, participated in the school plays, and one, at a teacher’s suggestion, even joined the Science Olympiad team. With all of this activity and an increase in homework, we reminded them that organizational strategies, time management, and keeping up with schoolwork was their responsibility. They learned it was hard to sign up for everything. We have had some not-so-great grades and a lot of failures, but deciding that these were their failures and not ours as parents was important. During these years, they also came to realize that not every member of the team will get a trophy, that they may not make the cut for best parts in the school plays, and that there are other kids getting more playing time in sports.
We were thankful for honest teacher feedback, especially one comment on a paper along with a poor grade—“You went into this game without warming up”—which showed that my child was known and delivered a perfect message about lack of effort and preparation. When one child expressed difficulty managing band, sports, and homework, we told her she needed to have a meeting with the dean and the teacher to discuss it. RAP and Middle School athletics taught them the responsibilities and commitment of being on a team and time management to juggle school work.
I stopped rushing to school with forgotten lunches, assignments, and uniforms.
[Noted child psychologist Dan Kindlon addressed this parental urge to make rescue runs in a well-known anecdote from his own family life, which he shared at Randolph in 2012; you can hear his entire talk through this video playlist.]
We learned that your grade goes down in PE when you come to school wearing Chacos instead of tennis shoes. And with Middle School came academic notices, and we have had a few! We sometimes discuss them in a family setting because we’ve learned that sibling experiences, tips, and feedback carry a lot more weight. In the end they need to come up with a plan to execute, and I expect them to report progress against the notice. Only if there is a pattern of problems will I email the teacher and ask for a phone call. When one of my children wanted to move up to honors classes, I had her put her arguments together to advocate her own case with the dean. Middle School is the perfect time and place to try out all of these new skills.
The opportunities to practice these things in Middle School provided my children with experiences that help them navigate new challenges and choices in Upper School. I began to see a shift during the high school years, from role-playing and talking about how to address a problem to them telling us how they solved it themselves, both in academics and with sports. When I look at my children’s report cards, they are true reflections of their work. I am thankful for teachers and coaches who expect better out of my kids and continue to challenge them to move out of their comfort zones. I am thankful for the relationships they have formed with a few specific faculty members who have become their go-to people when they need to talk. I know having these types of relationships with faculty will help them as they seek out similar relationships in college.
When we spare our children from the natural consequences of their own choices, we are actually impeding their growth. Instead of running rescue missions for my children, here are some things I do as a parent that I believe will make a positive impact:
- I encourage my kids to be involved in activities outside of the classroom that require commitment, sacrifice, and planning. I share these commitments with them. When my child signs up for band, theater, or sports we have become part of a team. Know the calendar of expectations and commit to it as a family. We plan vacations, SAT and ACT tests, etc., in light of these commitments.
- I make sure they understand that Dad still has to go to work when he has a headache. Sometimes you just have to push through it.
- I make sure they see me do my part to support the team. When I am at these events, I am present. I work gate and concession shifts, and learn and work in-game needs like scorebook, scoreboard, line judge, or the chains. I sign up for team snacks.
- Refrain from talking to coaches about playing time or about other players.
- Encourage frustrated kids to follow the proper order of discussion (coach/teacher, AD/Advisor/Dean, etc.) before getting involved. Role-play to work through feelings and facts.
- At teacher conferences, I ask about real areas for improvement. All children have room to grow. Encourage the teacher to give constructive feedback without defending the actions of the child.
- We work on plans together. (K-8 student-led conferences conclude with the student, parent/s and teacher setting goals together). I ask teachers to alert me on big swings in progress.
I am thankful for all of the things that weren’t perfect
I hope that your child has one really bad grade, a teacher she doesn’t like, lets a group down on a project, or is part of a team project where other kids don’t contribute. I hope that your child sits on the bench because of lack of effort or a bad attitude, is called off the bench to play a different position, loses a championship game, misses the “party of the year” because she has a game, experiences difficulty in a friendship, walks away from a negative friendship or group, experiences heartbreak, and feels stress and anxiety at times.
When these things happen, as some or all of them will, what I really hope is that you don’t intervene, because navigating these things will prepare your child to tackle the next chapter in life.
Julie Gold is the mother of two Randolph students and one alumna. She serves the School as a member of the Randolph Community Network (RCN), as a member and former chair of the Athletic Ambassadors, and as an Admissions Ambassador and new family mentor. She and her family moved to Huntsville from St. Louis, and joined the Randolph community, in 2011.
Photographs by David Brown: 4th graders travel across the Devil's Backbone on the Oregon Trail, the end of the 2012 state soccer championship. Illustration by Danielle Lioce '15 depicts Time-Management Skills for a Graphic Design II project related to this post.