Book Club: Chapters 3, 4 and 5 in “Teach Your Children Well”

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Unwrapping the Bubble Wrap Kids

My sons are nine, six and two, so my eyes should have been on chapter three, “The Tasks of the Elmentary School Years.” But that chapter didn’t grab me as much as the other two, on middle and high school. As I read through Part Two of Teach Your Children Well, flying through the pages with intense absorption, several times my tears wet the pages of the book and stuck them together. I couldn’t stop thinking of my sons as they are right now, dressed in their small clothes, appropriately prepared for their carefree lives, the ones where deciding whether to have cereal or yogurt after school (and of course, who gets to the fridge first) is their most pressing concern. Yet Part Two reminds us that more lies ahead for our kids; they are going to change, and struggle, to grow up.

Growing up is so simultaneously painful and beautiful, and reading this section, which lays out a pretty good map for what’s going to happen on our kids’ road to independence, is a reminder that the yogurt/cereal quandary will only be with us for a short while longer, then it will evaporate, like t-ball stands and training wheels, into the ether. From the anxiety-riddled piece of my brain – the one that’s screaming please don’t ever grow up! – what’s left after reading the parts on “The Middle School Years” and “The High School Years,” is nothing less than a quiet panic.

It could be my own growing up that causes me to want to lock my boys in a well-stocked closet for a few years – especially for, say, grades 6-7-8. What’s strange is that my growing up wasn’t so painful: I had great parents, great brothers and sisters, good schools, close friends – the works, really, and I couldn’t be more grateful. And yet alongside all those things, I felt outside and alone, awkward and completely misunderstood – things that I now understand are developmentally appropriate for the age. Yet that does not stop me from wanting to hold a cast iron shield between middle school/high school and my sons, to protect them from all that messy uncertainty and confusion. While reading, I had an almost visceral reaction to wanting them to not have to go through it – to not have to be a witness as they break apart (as I did in front of my parents) because they get rejected by someone they adore, or because they can’t make algebra work right, or because they were last to be picked for a team in gym, or because they are confused how to dress, how to act, how to be themselves.

Yet Levine assures us that learning to deal with and understand these very feelings – I’m alone, I’m different, who am I?, what matters to me? – is what strengthens kids’ coping skills. As a veteran high school teacher told me recently, “The kids these days come bubble-wrapped, complete with parents who want to be sure that nothing bad ever happens to them. But life is so complicated for kids today, I can’t really say that I blame them.” I want to be the parent who offers up my kids to the universe – hell, to middle school – without the bubble wrap; but I can’t say that I’m going to enjoy it.

It is perhaps anxiety-filled reactions from moms like me that encouraged Levine to write the book – that we do our kids a disservice by focussing solely on the importance of academics and ignoring the social and emotional growing up that will also determine the course of their lives. That we shouldn’t approach these years with panic. That that might be a bad thing.

After all, Levine does seem a little relentless in her assurance to parents that it is all going to be ok. My favorite passage from “The Tasks of the Middle School Years” says of the ups and downs of adolescence: Think of yourself as a sociologist. Keep your distance. Observe. Resolving the vast majority of high-drama crises that unfold over the middle school years is exactly the kind of challenge that your youngster needs to strengthen confidence in herself.  I find this passage so clarifying, so reassuring, because I think my natural reaction would be exactly the opposite of that. (!)

Levines says, Our system of education for this age group (middle school) is largely a misery, and the middle schooler’s well-documented needs for adequate sleep, flexible study time, multiple breaks, and quiet, restorative time are ignored. Add to this a stew of hormonal and brain changes. And just a few pages later, she writes, With all the push on kids to grow up quickly, there is evidence that they benefit from an extended childhood rather than a precocious adolescence.

Tonight’s talk: What Levine is asking we parents to do is basically the opposite of what’s culturally accepted and has become the norm for how we treat our kids – like the cast-iron shield I was thinking of buying. So, how do we un-bubble wrap our kids?


5 thoughts on “Book Club: Chapters 3, 4 and 5 in “Teach Your Children Well”

  1. When I think of un-bubble wrapping our kids, I think a lot about the bullying phenom – or epidemic – and wonder why it’s gotten so bad. I find myself oscillating between thinking that we have all gotten more callous and unfeeling and thinking that maybe bullying hasn’t changed, but how kids react to bullying has changed. Is it possible that kids are less able to handle kids who bother them? I remember kids I grew up with who were definitely bullies (some of it was even aimed at my awkward self), but I remember not taking too much stock in what they said – at least after I’d cried it out in the bathroom by myself. How do others see the current bullying situation? Has it gotten worse?

  2. I think bullying has always been present, but electronics are playing a much bigger part in the issue. Facebook, texting, kids with their own cell phones and unsupervised use of all of the above, plays a big part in the phenomenon. We had one phone in the house where our mother could hear everything that went on. Yes, there were neighborhood squabbles that we were expected to work out. There were incidents at school, but they were usually handled quickly by teachers and stopped. Teacher’s hands are much more tied today which is sad.

    • Yes, I guess that bullying now comes home with you via your devices; in that way, the bully kind of never goes home, never leaves you alone. One of the big points Levine makes in the chapter on middle school is to put off all the electronics – being connected on Facebook, smartphone, etc. – as long as you can possibly hold off. She said a lot of this stuff can go away as kids get more mature and are able to handle it better.

  3. Unfortunately, many children have their own cell phones, computers and ipads in elementary school. Parents think it is necessary for them to have them to “keep up” with everyone else, but they are given the devices without supervised use. The temptation to misuse these devices is great, and evidently there are times when parents participate in the bullying of another child which is totally unacceptable. Students also bring their cell phones into schools and class which causes distraction for everyone. It’s just another thing for teacher’s to deal with.

  4. The problem with technology is that teachers and parents have been unable to help kids see technology as primarily a learning tool and not a social one.

    Bullying – there are bullies that have their unsolved problems and needs to be addressed. Zero tolerance does not teach lagging skills and address concerns.

    There are the more sophisticated type of bully who uses intimidation to socially control other kids. If schools were more about community , cooperative learning and solving problems in a collaborative way , these kids could use their skills more adaptively and become leaders. Unfortunately , character education in schools is more about getting kids to meet teachers’ expectations than meeting kids needs. This is where – see my comment on How children succeed – Kohn , Paul Tough gets it wrong

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