Parents Are Scared (At Least I Am)

Posted on February 5, 2013


The following was written for the Alfie Kohn and Pasi Sahlberg Blogathon as I have a lot of respect for the work of Alfie Kohn (and probably would for Pasi Sahlberg as well once I learn more about his work).


I think parents are scared.

At the very least I know that I’m scared.

I get scared when I discuss education with colleagues who have older kids. Almost universally they talk about a class that is too boring, where their child is acting out and the teacher is complaining, or of excessive amounts of homework leading to fighting in their homes and a sense that their kids are stressing out too much. They talk about friendship concerns when a friend of their child begins to express a disdain for school or of parents who have approached them because the situation is reversed and their child is becoming a bad influence on the friend.

I get scared by the thought that my daughter may become disinterested in school, possibly doing well in school as I did, but never really connecting with the learning, simply getting a grade and moving on.

I’m really scared of the possibility that my daughter could develop the idea that she is “bad at math” or that girls don’t do programming. I hope my influence in these areas will be enough to prevent this from happening, but it’s a lot to ask parents to effectively combat the patterns that a child sees as truth in the world around them.

Mostly I’m scared of a system that will be difficult to work with. I’m scared that my daughter will come home with a great deal of homework and I’ll tell her not to worry about it because I know, thanks to the work of educators such as Alfie Kohn, that hours upon hours of homework after a full day of school is not an effective use of her time. It won’t help her learn significantly more, can prevent her from getting the rest and recuperation she needs to internalize the learning from school, can prevent her from exploring the extraordinary amounts of learning and activities that schools don’t offer, and, maybe most importantly, can prevent her from having some time to just be herself, to reflect, and dream, and let her mind wander. But if she doesn’t do her homework, what does that mean for the teacher and for her time in the classroom?

Even if I can win the homework battle, I’m scared that the rigidity of most school systems will lull her in to a sense of complacency, where she is better off just doing the assigned work then exploring something of interest or trying to make too many decisions for herself. Looking back this was my biggest issue with the 19 years I spent in formal education. I just wish I had that time back to explore more. I am now 32, have a child and numerous financial responsibilities, and I feel like I’m just getting started.

I’m scared that my confidence in her ability to learn without any homework, grades, or requirements will not be welcomed by just any school system leading to numerous battles with teachers and school administrators.

At the same time, though, I’m scared of removing her from the main stream educational system. Although I know at an intellectual level that thousands of students have gone through extremely progressive educational systems such as Sudbury Valley or Summerhill, it still scares me to death that having my daughter go through such a different childhood experience as the vast majority of her peers could be wrong, that she may not appreciate such a decision later in her life, that such a decision may close future opportunities to her.

I become frustrated when I speak to parents about progressive school systems, hearing them agree with the idea that we children need more time to play, to express themselves creatively, and to explore without boundaries and bells going off every hour. They agree that we need to allow students greater opportunity to develop hypotheses about the world around them and test those hypotheses, learning from failure, being persistent, and iterating toward better solutions.

I become frustrated because these same parents will agree with all of this, but then, when I ask them if they would feel comfortable with their child not receiving homework or grades, they immediately shut down. They’re just not sure if that is the right thing to do. Maybe they’re just as scared as I am.

I can’t speak for why exactly they feel that way, but I do recognize in myself a deep nervousness about stepping off the beaten path. It’s one thing for me to step off the path because I have chosen such a path for myself, but it’s another thing for me to choose such a thing for my child. The unbeaten path is unbeaten for a reason. It’s challenging and it’s difficult to feel confident that, while you may be introducing significant benefits, you may also be increasing the chances that something goes very wrong. At the end of the day I’m scared of something going wrong. How can you not be a little bit nervous about sending your child down a path that you yourself did not go down, that you have little to no experience with or insight into?

I’ve chosen to put all of my professional efforts in to moving society away from homework, grades, requirements, and maybe most importantly, excessive authority and control within education. I strongly believe that students can and will learn an enormous amount even if we do not force them to do so, that our society would be better off if students truly enjoyed school. But I can’t say confidently that there will not be unintended consequences if such thoughts are widely adopted. And I certainly can’t claim that I’m not scared, as a parent, to have my children progress through their education, either as it is today or as I am hoping it will look in the future.

Luckily students, and people in general, are incredibly resilient. They are capable of adapting to numerous environments and finding happiness within a wide range of circumstances. In the end my daughter will likely be fine, even great, looking back on her education positively, regardless of how it plays out. I hope I can affect some change to help ensure that she walks away from her formal education with her love of learning intact, but I really should practice more of what progressive education preaches and recognize that she can handle this. That as long as she has unconditional love and support from her family along with the basic resources that an upper middle class life provides then she is more than capable of creating a great life on her own.