Parent Rap

          May 2006

Kids need to be keeping company with knowledgeable, skillful, interesting and strong-minded adults. They can only learn about grown-upness in the company of grown-ups. It all seems so obvious—and has been the basis for human civilizations as long as human society existed. No one ever imagined otherwise. Until recently.

Over the past half century we’ve invented something new. While the family has retreated as the educator of its young, the teacher of the habits of a lifetime, schools have replaced them. At least so we claim.

Meanwhile we’ve invented schools that occupy more and more of children’ lives, but in which adults are largely superfluous. Kids come to school to meet and mingle with their peers, plan their after-school social lives, exchange notes and gossip. The well-educated adults in school are merely passing anonymous entities—whose expertise rarely impresses the young. What it means to be a life-long learner becomes, as a result, largely rhetorical. Some kids are willing to play the schooling game and ostensibly do well by school, others lose interest; but almost none use the school to learn to be adults.  They simply don’t run into adults in ways they can learn from—unless, perhaps, they want to be teachers. A tiny enviable minority connect with the school’s adult community through after-school clubs, teams and seminar-like AP courses.

Meanwhile, another educational force—the world of advertising and the mass media—are engaged in an effort to win over the hearts and minds of the young, to help them become life long consumers. They have far greater resources—time, energy and drive—to influence the tight peer packs that our kids form—the small adultless “schools” they are immersed in. Even schools are increasingly part of the commercial market place. There are actually schools in this country that consider it their duty to curry favor with the world of commerce—in order to raise an extra buck. A 15 year old in Connecticut was expelled for challenging a McDonald’s representative on the quality of their food, another was suspended for wearing a t-shirt advertising a competing company. Menus sent out by the Boston public schools to all families are paid for by advertisements for junk food. Textbooks are covered by advertisements, courtesy the local school. The kids learn about the news of the world, sandwiched between Channel One advertising. A generation’s culture and values are being shaped. Fast-paced and reactive but rarely thoughtful.

Until we fix our schools, so that they are places where the elders are able to connect with the young in ways that can engage their hearts and minds, they are almost irrelevant. Kids are thus doubly abandoned. While parents need time to be together with their young, and the courage to drag them kicking and screaming along with them—they are often helpless to do so. They’re too busy surviving – and too intimidated by the media and the schools to rely on their own best judgment.

Parents (like teachers) are more and more asked to follow expertly designed scripts, to supervise rather than design the work kids do at home (as in class). We need to remember that we—as adults– are sufficiently expert at a whole lot of stuff that kids need—even those of us who are poor or disadvantaged. We need to remember that parents are not defective educators. Nor are educators defective learning machines. We just have our limits—re expertise and time. We shouldn’t imitate at home the didactic practices of schools. Quite the opposite—schools should be more like the home or like the familywhen we have the time and expertise to connect to our kids, one by one.

We need, in short, both strong schools and strong families—working together Because we have something that the world of advertising doesn’t have—us. Real versus virtual reality wins out if we give it a chance.

Fact gathering

Parents and teachers might look around and start counting how many adults the kids know well; at home and at school. Where and when do kids see adults interact, argue, compromise, and get the work of the world done? When and where do they get their cues about how to negotiate tough times, speak their minds, stand up for what matters—or hold back and regroup when necessary? How do they know how we sort out what counts and when—how we make decisions, when we call upon past knowledge (history), calculate the cost (math), look for alternate possibilities (science)? Little ones do this when they have a chance to play house—pretending they are grown-ups. But where do kids do it as they grow older?

Action steps

Instead of shipping the kids off to summer camp, maybe we can—with the support of the larger society– invent “camps” for kids and adults alike—where we indulge our passions and hobbies, and where they can do so too—in each other’s company. How might we organize communities so that kids join adult choral or musical groups, act in play alongside adults, build houses or mend fences together? Even as we watch the screen together, can we make sure that we carry on a running dialogue that links what we see and hear to the realities we know, joining our laughter and tears, and commentary, to theirs.. And in our spare time, we need to fight for a saner work schedule—shorter hours, more not less vacation. Back to the future: we need to fight for both decent wages and decent hours. Those two steps alone would do wonders for raising the next generation. (Plus universal health care.) School reform—even higher test scores– would naturally follow if we had our priorities right.

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