Though our kids typically take the bus to school, not long ago I was one of the many 4th grade parents on the elementary school campus.
Parental chauffeuring was necessary in order to safely transport book projects from home to school. As I walked down the hallway, I was treated to an eyeful of lovely, highly-decorated, well-designed dioramas. Sophisticated and polished. Ones that looked NOTHING like the one Lilly had made.
Hers could not compare. Her diorama was so ordinary that it looked as if a child had done it. Almost embarrassingly so. Until it hit me; it’s SUPPOSED to be childish. Because it was done by a child. Shame turned to pride because it was so clear that Lilly had done the entire report and project by herself. Accepting no help from me or my husband.
It’s really hard to sit back and let our kids be… kids. They are not actually extensions of who we are. Or who we wish we could have been at that age. Or who we are today. In a society of over-achievers parented by Tiger-esque moms, isn’t it time that we step back and let our kids succeed on their own?
At what point did it become so commonplace for parents to do their kids’ projects? Sure, there were always one or two kids who turned in a California Mission project that was clearly designed and executed by someone with a master’s degree in architecture or city planning. But those were the exceptions rather than the norm. Looking around the room, the majority of those rickety replicas bore the stamp of their amateur creators.
But no more. Amateur hour seems to have been declared passé with more complex and expertly-crafted projects submitted in their stead.
Which leaves me wondering: what message do we teach our children when we interfere with their work?
The Rabbis in the Talmud understood how important it is for us to instill our children with a strong sense of competency. Among the obligations outlined, some sources included the responsibility to teach one’s child to swim. Taken literally, this instruction can mean the difference between life and death. If a child is not taught how to swim, there is a very real chance that he or she might, God forbid, drown.
Our tradition pushes us beyond the literal understanding of the text. Figuratively, the compulsion to teach our children how to swim can be understood as empowering them to become self-sufficient. To excel on their own merits. To attempt things and accept responsibility and–yes–even fail.
My very first swim lesson, at the tender age of 4, remains one of the most petrifying moments of my life. To this day, I can recall the terror I felt as the teacher tossed me into what felt like the deep end of the pool. It took me years to overcome that introduction to aquatics and, I believe, is the reason that I am a very hesitant swimmer.
When the Rabbis tell us to teach our children to swim, I do not believe they intended for us to toss our children into the deep end and hope for the best. A slower, step-by-step method is more effective at building their self-confidence and their skills. So too do we take an incremental approach when empowering our kids to do their assignments without our interference.
(Full confession: there have been occasions in my parenting history when I was far too invested in the final outcome of projects. A certain clothes-pin replica of an immigrant ancestor comes to mind–among others. But in my defense, the assignments were far beyond the capabilities of our son, who has Asperger’s. And sometimes it was just easier to do the damn thing than try to explain (again) to the well-meaning teacher why the particular task was beyond his current abilities.)
It isn’t that I don’t care about my kids’ grades. Or that I don’t want them to succeed. It’s simply that I have a goal that coexists with the teacher’s goals for each of these assignments; my kids need me to let go a little more with every project in order to gain necessary life-skills.
To be frank, I wanted to be a little more involved. Especially when Lil’s grade was a B+. She lost points for spelling. She always loses points for spelling. And had she let me proofread her final draft, that wouldn’t have happened. I could have corrected her mistakes and she would have gotten a higher grade. But she wouldn’t have earned it on her own. Perhaps this experience will teach her that some parent participation can be a good thing. Or to use a dictionary. Either way, she knows that she earned every single point on her own. And that’s a pretty powerful lesson.
Lilly, by the way, had the following to say about the subject: “You know, the parents already passed the 4th grade. Now it’s our turn. They should really be doing something else instead of doing the projects for their kids. Like making dinner.”