notes from the talk

Some time ago, I had signed up to attend a talk titled, “Teach Your Children Well” by Madeline Levine. In hindsight, it was very unlike me to attend without having done some legwork on the author. But sure enough, the morning of the talk rolled around last week, and I glanced quickly at the title thinking, how nice! Little munchkin is learning new words now, so I’ll get some great tips on how to teach him well. Once Levine began to speak, I quickly realized how I was very much mistaken in my assumption.

On the eve of her book release, Levine stood tall at the front of the room with a large paper pad on an easel and some words jotted down on each page. (What a welcome break from iPads and slides!) She joked about how technologically un-savvy it was of her to present this way. From this, I got the sense that she was a no-nonsense and frills, get-down-to-the-message type. She opened up with a personal anecdote, which illustrated that despite knowing so much about child development, she is still amazed at how she (or we) can fall short. In her case, it was a funny and somewhat inconsequential story about her son, but as she was about to demonstrate, parents have the potential to raise children to fall short in very consequential ways.

Rather than recount the entire talk, which at this point has been a week ago (and in my mind feels like a month ago), I will review the most salient points to spark some discussion and perhaps interest you in reading Teach Your Children Well along with me.

  1. The premise. There has been a pattern of normalized parenting that has become damaging to kids. This has contributed to a sense of entitlement and lack of motivation to do the hard work it takes to learn and succeed. What is this pattern? Over-parenting and doing for your child out of your needs, not theirs.
  2. What does it mean to over-parent? Doing what your child can do for himself and doing what your child can almost do for himself. The former stifles curiosity and exploration. The latter stifles the space to develop resilience. Our children need to learn to be successful at failing too. This develops resilience. As parents it’s critical to tolerate our child’s unhappiness. We need to give them developmentally age-appropriate problems that have 50-50 chances of success. Research shows that they learn best this way. It is called the zone of proximal learning. I loved when Levine said, when a toddler is learning to walk and he falls, we say, “Get up and try again! You can do it!”. We don’t say, “If you keep falling like that, you’ll flip burgers for the rest of your life.” Yet, with older kids, we give them this threatening and damaging message.
  3.  What happens when we serve our own needs? Serving our needs violates psychological boundaries with our children and holds them captive to the choices we make for them. How is a boundary crossed? When a child does not fulfill the parent’s wish and there results a rupture in the relationship. You can see how this therefore, will only create more disconnection, isolation, and fears of failure, when children should be learning the skills to cope with upsets in life.

The take home message? Spend less time worrying about kids’ weaknesses; worry more about developing their strengths.

And for those interested in what the NYC parents asked, here are some salient points from the Q&A portion:

  1. Child centricity and sports. Despite today’s emphasis on sport specialization for success, Levine remarked instead on the physical and psychological consequences of specialization from repetitive injury to a suppression of risk-taking. Sports also separates family time on weekends, esp. with multiple children. In hindsight, she wishes she had not spent every weekend watching games but instead mixed it up with doing things like spending time with friends.
  2. Dealing with failure. Identify ways in which your child likes to cope (sports, meditation, art, music, etc.). This begs the question, do we even know how to cope? Hm… I need to figure out what my coping mechanisms are and hopefully they are healthy ones.

Before I conclude, I wanted to leave you with a quote from the introduction of Teach Your Children Well, which defines what Levine means by authentic success:

“While we all hope our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life. Our job is to help them to know and appreciate themselves deeply; to approach the world with zest; to find work that is exciting and satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal; and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to society. This is what it means to teach our children well.”

I am humbled by my assumption that Levine was going to teach me new techniques to help my child to perform well. Because I can nod at everything Levine says, I realize that it is not my intentions that need challenging. Rather, it is my lack of awareness of my assumptions that is particularly dangerous. Being a product of the “do well in school” mantra, I see that I have defaulted to this mindset despite my best efforts to have little munchkin “do well in life”. So I can keep nodding but until I have the courage to challenge the system, these lessons and the research behind them will be all but nice things to hear.

More to come on my critiques, questions, personal perspectives… I’d love to hear yours too. Please join this community discussion by leaving a comment!

photo source: marin independent journal
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