A Mother’s Dream

A Mother’s Dream

As parents, we have dreams for our children’s futures.  We dream that they will be extraordinary — that they will write novels, become virtuosos, or gain the civic and political knowledge necessary to change the world.  Every child should dream of being president, or a movie star, or a world-class athlete, or a famous novelist or composer, or a wildly successful entrepreneur.  Every child should not just dream of the presidency or the Super Bowl or of being the next Lin-Manuel Miranda or Steve Jobs: every child should have access to an education that supports rather than hinders his or her quest to become the best version of the person she or he has the capacity to be. 

But standardized public education has little hope of nurturing passions or encouraging dreams.  Standardized education limits possibilities, and narrows curiosity.  Children who spend all of their times trying to find the right answers to other people’s questions learn to stop asking their own questions — and without questions, curiosity withers and dies.  I read so much about the goal of education being to prepare my child for college or career: but what those articles never drill down on is, “What career?”  Reading between the lines, however, the college or career preparation today’s education reformers imagine is limited in scope: our kids should be, they say, marching in lockstep toward the STEM careers of tomorrow.  

My kid doesn’t dream of a STEM career programming computers in a dusty cubicle.  Is that really the extent of what my child’s aspirations should be?  My child dreams of being the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.  My child dreams of curing cancer.  My child dreams of opening her own interior design firm.  My child dreams of being a prize-winning journalist, exposing corruption and explaining policy issues to the voters whose ballots can influence our futures (or at least of being the next Valerie Strauss).

Providing our children — ALL of our children — with educations that do not standardize them, that do not shut down those dreams before they begin — that is a noble purpose of public education.  Providing our children with the tools necessary to be informed and conscientious citizens — that is a noble purpose of public education.  I dream of public education for children — for ALL children — that equips them with the tools to be thoughtful citizens, and with the encouragement to follow their hopes into the future.  I dream of a public education that imbues children — ALL children — with the tools they need to make a meaningful impact, hopefully for the better, on the world.  

I dream of a world in which public education opens endless possibilities, not of a world in which creativity and passion are sacrificed to the false gods of standardization and faux-rigor.  This weekend is the Network for Public Education’s 3rd Annual Conference.  I arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina a little while ago.  This weekend, what I look forward to is spending time with hundreds of adults from across the country, all of whom share big dreams for our children, our future, and for the possibilities of what public education can and should be.  This weekend, I won’t be dreaming alone.

Homework Rant

My family is fortunate to live on one of those old fashioned blocks that is truly a neighborhood.  There are about a dozen families on our street with elementary school aged children, and during their free time, the children run in a pack around the block with the big ones looking out for the little ones.  Their games are incredibly creative: I’ve seen these kids write a script to film a movie, engage in elaborate games of “family” and sword-fighting, climb trees to fantastic heights, and design amazing obstacle courses.  They have their arguments and spats, but overall the culture we’ve watched them create is one in which everyone — from the child with autism to the nerdiest of the nerdy — is accepted.  My girls are glad to have a street full of brothers they know will have their backs.

What I cherish more than anything about this neighborhood is that the kids are able to run around independently.  There are adults around in the afternoon — a combination of parents and babysitters — but once their homework is done, the kids are pretty much on their own until dinner time.  This year, however, my older daughter has not been able to join the gang much at all after school.  That’s not because I over-schedule her: after school she has a half-hour trumpet lesson once a week and religious school on Wednesdays, but rather because homework has become a monster, devouring childhood.

My kids’ schools have a late start (late bell is at 9:20 a.m.) and a late finish (they don’t get off the bus home until about 4 p.m.).  We are an all-choice school district, so many kids on the street have significantly earlier schedules, which admittedly compounds the problem.

E leaves for school at 8:15 three mornings a week because the school band practices before school starting at 8:30 a.m.  By the time she gets home, she’s already had a seven and a half hour day, and she’s understandably tired and worn out.  But there’s that pile of homework, staring her in the face.

Last night she got off the bus and did not finish her homework (plus 15 minutes of trumpet practice) until 9 p.m.  The only concerted break she took was a half hour for family dinner.  She did, of course, take lots of small breaks that she created herself as mini-rebellions I’m not sure she’s even really aware of — she wanted to direct her little sister on how to clean up their toys, or discuss the distinction between hermits and homeless people with me, or go to the bathroom — but again, looking at the totality of the circumstances, those breaks, as frustrating as they felt at the time, were the only rebellion she could muster against homework demands that are simply too much for her child’s body and child’s brain. All in, this kid put in a 12 hour day yesterday.

As a practicing lawyer, I know how fried I feel after a 12 hour day, and indeed, one of the great perks of the job I have now is that I rarely have to put in such days anymore.  Why are we demanding this of our children?  Is it to teach them Grit?  Resilience?  Is this what Rigor looks like?  It seems to me that it’s going to backfire: demanding too much of our littlest children is ultimately going to inspire them to cheat or rebel.  As Peter Greene says, Grit is nothing more than a big old Poop Sandwich.

I can almost hear the teachers reading this now.  They’re fuming at me, asking why I haven’t reached out to my daughter’s teachers to address the issue.  Trust me, I did.  The full text of my email is below — the only changes I’ve made are to take out names and other personal information.  The entirety of their response appears below my email to them.

Dear Mrs. _______ and Mrs. ________:

E is having a very good year this year, and I’m glad to see that she’s working hard.  I especially appreciated the cell project.  She is a conscientious student, and I think she particularly appreciates that classroom management seems to be less of an issue this year than in years past.  Plus, you’ve got a really sweet group of kids in that class.

That said, it seems like the homework load (tonight in particular) is a lot to ask of 10 and 11 year olds.  E is a hard-working and conscientious student, and I’m sure she takes more time on her assignments than is strictly necessary, but she tells me that today she got off the bus, had a snack while she worked, and then worked straight through until I got home at about 6:15.  It was only her and her sitter (also a student with homework to do) in the house for that time, so I don’t doubt that she was probably working pretty steadily during that two hour block, and when I got home the ELA work was pretty much done.

She continued working (admittedly with more distractions) until we ate dinner around 7 p.m.  She was back at work at 7:30 to start her math homework, and I found myself getting frustrated with her because she was getting ridiculously easily distracted, but that doesn’t seem unreasonable when she’d already put in an 11 hour day at that point (band practice starts at 8:30 a.m.).  She only finished when I started this email to you, around 8:50 p.m., and she still needed to practice trumpet for another 15-20 minutes after that.  Her bedtime is 9:30 p.m.

As I understand it, the homework tonight was TWO ReadWorks assignments, the ELA worksheet with the terms to be associated with each word, the worksheet to determine the places at the table, and 2 pages of long-division math problems.  As a working parent, my time with my kids is pretty limited, and so I ask that you please be aware of the homework load that you’re giving these kids, both from a developmental perspective (E had no time to run and play at all today because of homework) and from an awareness of how such a heavy homework load impinges on family time.  Frankly, tonight’s load was unacceptable, especially because I had been counting on E’s help to get the house ready for Thanksgiving.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I am happy to discuss further.  Please feel free to reach me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

And here’s the response I got, in its entirety:

Good afternoon Mrs. Blaine,

Thank you very much for voicing your concerns.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

-_________ and _________

I know that we have a problem in this country: parents vilify teachers, and teachers vilify parents.  I do not want to jump on the teacher-bashing bandwagon.  I by no means think my kid is perfect, and like I said, I think that the four hours the homework actually took easily could have been compressed to two hours if E had been fresh when she sat down to begin her work.  But a feature of nightly homework is that our kids aren’t fresh when they begin it: they begin their homework after a 6 or 7 hour school day (plus commuting time).

Teachers, we parents want to be on your side.  We really do, and in large part the reason I started writing this blog was to help parents and teachers find ways to speak to each other, and to reasonably voice our concerns.  But when your responses to our legitimate concerns amount to nothing more than what appear to be, when We the Parents read between the lines, perfunctory and polite f– yous, we get upset.  And we get angry.  And we feel like we’ve had enough.  And the divide between parents and teachers grows rather than shrinks.

How can parents and teachers find ways to have meaningful conversations and dialogues with each other?  How can we find ways to listen and really hear what we are saying?  How can we find ways to work collaboratively with each other, rather than alienating each other?  I know that email gets in the way, but it’s also almost impossible for me to address these issues by telephone, as you’re busy teaching our children.  I am all for high standards and a demanding education.  But when I watch demands for more rigor and increased grit undermine my children’s childhoods, I get angry.  There is no excuse for assigning hours of homework to 10 year olds.

I’m a former teacher.  I know that, at best, the jury is still out on the efficacy of homework — especially at the elementary school level (see here, here, and here).  As a parent, I’m not opposed to all homework.  I think it’s important for our kids to have routines, to have parental oversight of some school work to ensure that they’re holding themselves to high standards, and I think that well-designed and thoughtful homework helps to improve the school-home relationship.  But that’s not what I’m seeing this year.  Rather, the bulk of what my kid is bringing home is hours of worksheets.  Test prep.  It is work for work’s sake.  And it impedes my ability to parent my child as I see fit.

I’ve worked hard to make sure that E is a conscientious and careful student.  But I worry that she’s become conscientious and careful at the expense of a childhood she won’t be able to live twice.  After 42 years, I’ve realized how precious childhood is, and I’m a firm believer in the idea that no one on his deathbed wishes that he’d worked more.

It’s really hard to parent a child in our achievement-driven culture.  On the one hand, I’ve got an excellent student on my hands, and I don’t want to stand between her and a highly-selective college or university someday.  She wants to please her parents and her teachers, she wants to succeed and do well, and she is an ambitious kid.  But on the other hand, I want her to live her childhood as a child.  I want her to run around the neighborhood playing with her friends, even those who are younger and/or get out of school an hour or two earlier than she does.

Teachers, I want you to partner with me in helping to educate and raise my kids.  This is a team effort, and I’m willing to pull my weight.  However, teachers, you can’t begin to help me if you won’t hear me, honor me, respond to me in a substantive way, and respect my concerns about what today’s version of public education is doing to our children.  My kids deserve no less.

I have no interest in playing gotcha or getting you in trouble or running this up the chain of command or even second guessing  your teaching in the court of public opinion.  But if you won’t engage, you leave me no choice.  As I tell my kids, there are battles I expect them to fight themselves, and I won’t rescue them from their own mistakes.  But this is a policy issue that is far beyond 10 and 11 year olds.  And when it comes to bad policy in our public schools, I will fight you until my kids graduate and beyond, especially if you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns. Welcome to democracy in action.  Oh, and by the way: Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

P.S. My daughter arrived home from school.  She said that her English-Language Arts teacher pulled her aside to tell her to “make sure to tell her mother” that the reason they had two ReadWorks assignments last night was that “they” were talking in class and so the class couldn’t finish the one they were doing as classwork.  E, an honest kid, admitted to me that she was one of the talkers, but again, if you’re consistently pushing kids beyond their limits and expecting them to behave like automotons, they are going to rebel in the little ways available to them.  And don’t even get me started on the propriety of using my kid as your messenger rather than addressing my concerns yourself.  Finally, I thought the purpose of homework was to support pedagogy, not to serve as a punishment. I’m not sure how children are supposed to learn to love school if schoolwork is equated with punishment.

Addendum (1/5/16): One of her team of teachers — and, incidentally, the more flagrant assigner of work for work’s sake — did call me about a week after this incident.  We spoke for awhile, and it was a decent talk.  I expressed my concerns, and she did give me the option of pulling the plug on the homework, but not with a reassurance that doing so wouldn’t affect my kid’s grades (i.e., as I understand it, my kid could still “lose points” for not completing assignments even if I write a note explaining the issue).  I do think she understood, however, my anger and frustration at her decision to use my kid as a go-between when she had no way to know whether my kid was even aware that I’d emailed about the issue, and I am hopeful that she won’t repeat that mistake.

The homework load was lighter between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it was unclear to me how much of that was because of the natural ebb and flow of the school year (the marking period ended during that time, and we were all busy with winter parties and concerts and whatnot).  Last night, however, the homework load was back — and just as extreme.  I’ve instituted a new policy of not allowing my kids to start their homework until I get home from work: that way they have about 2 hours in the afternoon to run and play and be kids — and when they do sit down to work, they’re fresher and more focused from having that time off.  But my big one worked from 6 p.m. until I pulled the plug a little before 9 p.m. last night, with only a break for family supper.  And even my first grader spent about 90 minutes on a combination of homework and reading.

Please, teachers, especially elementary school teachers, please be thoughtful about the work you’re assigning, and don’t assign work unless you truly believe that its worth is more than the worth of the precious family time we working parents cherish with our children.  Teachers, I will bend over backward to support you and your role in raising my children, but please also remember that respect and support are — or at least should be — a two-way street.  Thank you.

Those Terrifying Teachers

  1. Those who control education policy in this country these days are obsessed with getting our kids college and career ready. They want our kids to succeed. But their narrow definition of success is bankrupt of humanity. The implicit assumption in a goal of “college and career readiness” is that it is the job of schools to prepare our kids for getting into the most highly-selective colleges so that they can go on to have the most financially lucrative white-collar careers. The college and career readiness mantra leaves no room for the satisfaction of a master craftsman, a choice to pursue service over money, or even the stereotype of the starving artist. The college and career readiness trope is about measuring success by measuring bank accounts.

As a child, I grew up in a wealthy community in which the overwhelming value transmitted to children by that community was that success meant the acquisition of material wealth. In particular, the message that was drilled into me, over and over again, was that success meant achieving top grades and participating in activities that would make me attractive to highly-competitive colleges and universities. Attend one of those highly selective colleges or universities, the message went, and I would never have to worry about material wealth, or achieving success as my community defined it.

I always had a hard time explicitly swallowing this message, but I nevertheless internalized it. I attended a highly-selective college, although I had to fight with my parents about my choice, because attending one of the small, liberal arts colleges that comprise “The Little Three” wasn’t as instantly impressive to strangers as it would have been if I’d attended a name recognition giant like Harvard or even Cornell. My small-scale rebellion was to choose to apply Early Decision to the small liberal arts college I thought would be the best fit for me instead of waiting to hear from the better known colleges my parents would have preferred.

My micro-rebellions continued, even as the internalized values of my childhood predominated. For instance, I felt drawn to the kibbutz movement, although once I spent a few months volunteering on a kibbutz after college, I quickly realized that theory was swell, but practically speaking, the kibbutz movement — and commune life more generally — was not all it was cracked up to be.

After college and my return from a post-college year of volunteering in Israel, I took some time to get my bearings waiting tables before I ended up at a master of arts in teaching program and eventually in a rural Maine classroom. As I’ve written before, I was young and naive and I’m sure I was not nearly the teacher then that I think I could be now. But I contributed something positive to the world, and overall I think that my classroom time in Maine was a net-positive for my students and their community before I returned to New Jersey to be closer to my mother, who was, by then, six years into a cancer diagnosis. Some day, I’d like to return back to a high school classroom.

Back in New Jersey, I applied to law school. And again, I got sucked into the definition of success that had been drilled into me as a child, as this definition was once again reinforced in law school. The message about success in law school was that success was about achieving the highest grades and getting job offers from the most prestigious law firms. Again, I sort of bucked the system, but not really: I went to a large New Jersey law firm with high salaries and a good reputation, but because I was married and gave birth to my first child before I graduated from law school, I turned down offers from more prestigious New York law firms. I knew that I couldn’t be the kind of parent — and daughter to my still cancer-fighting mother — that I wanted to be if I needed to bill large law firm hours and manage a Manhattan commute.

I spent seven years at that large New Jersey law firm, although the last year or two were spent in a crisis of conscience as I tried, among other things, to square my internalized notions of success with the idea that I didn’t want to — and wasn’t — doing what it would have taken to try to “succeed” there: i.e., make partner. And to be honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how miserable I’d be now if I had done those things. As it is, I regret that I spent much less time with my mother than I wish I had during the last year of her life, because I was so worried about making a good impression during my first year at that law firm.

If I had overcome my conscience and values enough to stay, I would have grown more and more miserable as my kids advanced through our good but far from perfect local public school system, which has been rocked by education reformers’ attempts to make it an exemplar district for suburban education reform. That law firm was a home base for so-called education reformers: many of its clients were hedge funds and private equity funds, and so we were subjected to propaganda from the high-performing charter schools, and indeed, Democrats for Education Reformer’s new president, Shavar Jeffries, became a partner there shortly after I left. I would have not just worn golden handcuffs; I would have been wearing a golden gag.

So for the past three years I’ve been on a new path, a path in which the partners at the small, woman-owned law firm where I work now know, because I’ve told them directly, that I have no interest in killing myself to convince them that they should make me a partner. Rather, I cut my hours back to three-quarters time so that I have more time for my family, friends, and the causes I care about.

I am fortunate indeed to be able to work only three-quarters time without great financial stress. While I appreciate that I am privileged to live a comfortable life, I’ve stopped coveting the multi-million dollar mansions up on the hill. Let the Stephen Colberts and the Audible.com CEOs and the private equity fund managers live in those: frankly, I’m much happier in my house on a lot measured in square feet rather than acres. Here I have the good fortune of living on a close-knit street with neighbors who have become dear friends. Our children develop independence by running in a pack from noon to nightfall, a rare phenomenon these days.

For me, success is realizing that I have enough, and that time is a far more precious commodity than money. I’m successful because while my time still seems limited, I know that I’m able to be a better mother to my children because work doesn’t keep me family dinner and reading to my children. I’m successful because I’m able to cultivate friendships, and be flexible, and take my kids for a five day camping trip on an island in the middle of a lake. I’m successful because I have a spouse who supports me in these things, and doesn’t insist that I continue working at a job that was killing me, just so that we acquire more stuff.

I don’t live in one of our town’s fancy mansions. My furniture has been torn to pieces by our cats and kids. I can’t justify joining the country club at the end of my block, with its lovely pool and golf-course that my husband would enjoy. I don’t get to donate thousands of dollars at charity galas, or jet set off to Europe or a tropical island any time I’d like. My wardrobe is a far cry from being fashion forward.

But I look at my life, and I’m pretty content.

I have time for some activism in the education world.

I have some time to write this blog.

I have a husband, family, and children who mean the world to me.

I have the opportunity to offer my cousin a place to live while she attends a local college that would otherwise be out of reach for her.

I have the best neighbors I could possibly imagine, and I know the close-knit community of our street is only possible because our properties are small enough that there’s the density needed to ensure that our kids have a pack of built-in friends.

I have strong friendships, many of which have lasted for twenty or thirty years or more, and I have time to nurture those friendships through phone calls, email, and yes, even Facebook, as well as in-person visits.

I have a best friend whose joy in his daughter brings me delight every time I see them together.

I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m able to make a small but nevertheless meaningful contribution toward moving the education conversation in this country in the direction in which I think it should go.

I have the opportunity to send my children to good schools, with diverse peers who will teach them more about the world than I could ever hope to do on my own.

I’d call each of those things a hallmark of success.

Given all of that, what do I teach my children about success in this dog-eat-dog world?  It would be easy to fall back on what I was taught as a child: that success is attending the highest ranked school and then getting the job or starting the career that will earn the most money. But I don’t believe that anymore. These days, I believe that success is not so easily measured. Success is not the biggest bank account or the most prestigious job. Success is building a life filled with meaningful relationships, opportunities for service, outlets for creativity, and the self-awareness to find contentment in enough.

The college and career readiness trope lacks humanity. It misses the point that many of us don’t want our children’s schools to set our kids on a path toward internalizing the idea that success is defined as having the most stuff.

So these days, I try to teach my kids a broader definition of success than the one I internalized as a child. I try to teach my kids that success is living a life that values kindness, service to others, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong: I have talented children, and I want them to have the opportunity to attend amazing colleges, and to pursue rewarding careers. But I also don’t want them to sacrifice their happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of material gain. What frustrates me as a parent is that current education policy forces our schools to shove the narrow definition of success that characterized my childhood down my children’s throats.

And do you know what? I don’t think the best teachers want our children to give up kindness, service to others, compassion, or creativity either. I don’t think the best teachers define success as narrowly as education policy says they should.

These days, we live in a world in which the ultra-wealthy — through their minions — set education policy despite having little or no experience in public school classrooms.  The ultra-wealthy toil away in their Greenwich, CT hedge funds or Manhattan equity funds or Silicon Valley venture funds or their hugely-endowed philanthropic trusts, and try to bring some meaning into their lives by devoting some free time and excess cash to tinkering with our education system. But their measures of success are barren: they inundate the policy environment with claims that college and career readiness can be measured through test scores, but I notice that they don’t even attempt to measure what it means to provide an education that identifies and nurtures each child’s unique gifts and talents.

Career teachers scare the crap out of the ultra-wealthy. Career teachers scare the crap out of them because comparing the life of a career teacher to the life of an ultra-wealthy hedge fund manager demonstrates how empty a life spent in pursuit of money and power truly is. Career teachers scare the crap out of the wealthy tinkerers, because career teachers are adults who have eschewed the temptation of the private sector in exchange for the opportunity to be of service.

The ultra-wealthy attack teachers because a choice to teach is a choice to say that there are things more important than money and material success.

The ultra-wealthy are terrified by those who make the choice to teach, because a choice to teach is a choice to value service over greed. Career teachers, merely by their existence, are living critiques of the lives the ultra-wealthy have built.

The ultra-wealthy try to motivate teachers with merit pay and career ladders. But career teachers ignore the lame financial incentives and bogus career ladders, because career teachers are about measuring success by the humanity they’re able to infuse into their classrooms, not by the size of their paychecks.

So the ultra-wealthy respond by attempting to de-professionalize teaching.

The ultra-wealthy try to strip away teachers’ benefits.  The ultra-wealthy try to transform teaching into a glorified temp job by devaluing teacher training and teacher experience. But the career teachers aren’t going to stop doing what’s best for children without a fight, because the career teachers are there to serve children and communities.

The ultra-wealthy — and their minions — attack those who choose teaching as a career. They do it because teachers are the people who have implicitly voted with their feet against living lives devoted to the unregulated pursuit of greed, money, and power. And somewhere, deep down, the ultra-wealthy know that the career teachers are right to reject these things. You know those teachers: they’re terrifying indeed.

Guest Voices: On Sending My Kid to Sleep-Away Camp for the First Time by Jen Freund

This is a piece by a friend of mine, Jen Freund, about the decisions (and sacrifices) we parents might make — if we are fortunate enough to have the resources to do so — to ensure that our children can access the educational experiences outside of a classroom that will shape their lives and their identities.  I’m also a parent who spent 8 weeks of 7 summers of my life attending traditional sleep-away camps, so I can very much relate to the emotions Jen chronicles here, as my husband and I struggle with whether we can — and whether we want to — send our daughters to sleep-away camp.


Jen holds an MSW.  She is a school counselor in an alternative high school, where she works with students who have a wide variety of social, emotional, and behaviorial challenges.  Prior to working in the schools, she worked in the camping industry as a counselor and later as an assistant director of the 92nd Street Y day camps.  As a child, Jen spent 7 summers in sleep-away camp and now spends a great deal of her time trying to convince her husband that sleep-away camp is an incredible learning and growing experience for their daughters. — Sarah 


by Jen Freund


It was February 14, 2005 and my husband was driving the slowest, and most cautiously he ever had.  We were on Pleasant Valley Way headed toward our home in Montclair, NJ. I remember everything about that day: the other cars, the radio being off so my husband could fully concentrate, and me in the back seat, holding the tiny hand of my new favorite person.  We were driving our first child home from the hospital, for the very first time.  We had precious cargo. 

 

And in a blink of an eye, ten years later, I found myself on a very similar car ride.  This time I was sitting in the front, while in the back was another favorite person, born three years laterAnd this time, which was June 27, a few days ago (3 days, 12 hours and 16 minutes to be exact), my husband was driving extremely slow again.  We were back on Pleasant Valley Way, headed to the parking lot of the Livingston Mall to bring our daughter, that same baby whose hand I held likten minutes ago, to meet a bus that would take her 75 miles away.to another state….for seven weeks.  She was headed to sleep-away camp for the very first time.  

 

My husband did not want her to go.  I agonized over the good-bye, over not seeing her, not feeling her, not hugging her, not hearing her for so many weeks.  We all agonized over this.  Well maybe not so much our younger daughter who kept replying, “I want to go too, “ to the older one’s “I’m going to miss you.”  

 

He drove slow….real slow.  

 

Sleep-away camp is a foreign concept to many. It does sound utterly insane to send your young child away for so long with such limited contact.  But for those who went to camp as a child and experienced the wonder, the spirit, the bonding, the independence, the community, the traditionthe outdoors, the songs, the inside jokes, the customs, the friendships, the creativity, the raw fun, the energy, the love and the culture that is camp, those people have camp in their blood.  And when camp is in your blood, you get it.  You get why sending your precious cargo off to a camp 75 miles away is a good thing.  

 

I have camp in my blood.  My husband does not.   But just for the record, I did tell him before we were married that our future kids were going to camp.  How could they not?  If they didn’t want to, that’s one thing, but if there was any desire, then how could we deny them such an extraordinary experience?

 

My husband thinks he went to camp.  And to be clear, he did go to music camp (actually more like a program) for one summer, for one month.  Not the same thing….right, camp people?  It’s just not the same as going to the same camp with the same people, summer after summer.  He still says he’s not on board and if anyone asks him, he’d say he wants his girl home with him.  

 

So the decision to send my first born to camp was an easy one for me and while he didn’t like the idea, he did not protest (too much).  What’s not easy is being a parent who had to say good-bye to her good natured, sensitive, innocent love of a child, one who cuddles, who chats, who shares on a daily basis the thoughts, feelings, fears, and concerns that live in her amazing brain and enormous heart.  That was slightly heart-wrenching.

 

Oh please, you must be saying…she is not going to jail.  She is healthy (knock wood), she is there to have fun.  Yes, but just how parents cry and get all nostalgic when their babies go off to college, this, I believe is a little worse on the parenting nostalgia scale.  

 

All milestones are bittersweet.  Letting go that first day of pre-school, saying goodbye to your kindergartener, end of elementary school, middle school graduation, high school graduation…college goodbyes.  All these milestones are beginnings and endings.  And as parents, while happy, we are also sad that an era has ended, that our babies are that much more independent and more detached from us.  And while college is a good eight years away, I imagine it will be the most intense of milestones, for that is really it.  The end of the era of childhood.  

 

But this is why I think the sleep-away camp goodbye is more gut wrenchingyou can text, call, or even visit your child whenever you’d (or they’d) like when your child is in college.  You can hear how they don’t like their roommate, hate their classes and got lost on campus.  You can communicate.  And they are self-sufficient.  They have credit cards.  They can drive.  They can vote.

 

In the world of sleep-away camp, we get two phone calls with our child (once she has been there for a week), one visiting day and old-fashioned letters.  I’ve written six so far and received none.  Tomorrow is day 5 she’s been away.  Where is my freaking letter?

 

I have no idea what is going on with my 10 year old.  Well I know she’s playing soccer and cooking because I see her in pictures on the camp’s website, but that is secondary to what I really want to know.  I find myself intently staring at her smile, and expression in these pictures to really try and know how she is feeling.  Is she comfortable?  Does she feel connected, included with the girls in her bunk?  Is she happy?  I got a check in” phone call on day one saying she was “all smiles,” but is she still smiling, and is it genuine? Only my husband and I know her that well to know. 

 

On the night before she leftmy mind raced with things I should have talked to her about or re-talked to her about:  don’t forget to clear your mess from the dining hall, remember to wear a tank top under certain shirts, do you really understand how to put a fitted sheet on a bed, remember to brush your hair, remember to keep your planters wart covered, when you audition for the musical, you should sing one of these songs, remember to put on sunblock, don’t feel bad that you can’t do a cartwheel but embrace the fact that you cannot, if you fart, own it and make a joke, if you feel left out, don’t try too hard to be included, know that you are an amazing, funny, smart, sweet, caring and special kid that always makes great friends, but sometimes it can take time.  Remember you may miss home and that’s normal, remember to make others feel good and always be inclusive, remember to not eat too much dessert, remember to write your sister, and remember to try new things.  And know that you may not love camp at first, or at all and that’s ok. 

 

Having your kid away like this magnifies every fear, every concern a parent may have.  Is she the tallest in the bunk and is she feeling awkward?  Will her developing athletic skills, (um, not so good) shake her confidence?  Is she brushing her hair or will she come back with dreadlocks?  Is the knee pain she started feeling recently gone or should I have taken her for an x-ray before she left?  Will she be quiet or outgoing?  Will she get to shine?  Will she have one of her right before bed-time existential crises about death and want to discuss her tear inducing fear that the world will one day go on without her in it?  What if she gets hurt or gets a tick bite and no one notices?  Because really, who but a parent sees the small things that need to be checked out? What if she loses a tooth?  We still do the tooth fairy.  Damn.

 

The scene at the mall parking lot could have been an opening scene to a Judd Apatow film about camp.  There were coach buses everywhere and parents clinging to their children while small talking with other parents.  It was raining and not a ray of sunshine was in the sky, yet 98% of the mothers were wearing sunglasses, myself included because I got strict orders from my sister-in-law to not cry in front of my daughter.  Sunglasses were a must.  

 

There were kids in tears and older kids boisterously reuniting with camp friends.  Fortunately, my daughter was excited and not feeling nervous or sad.  During my last hug to her, it was hard to speak.  I told her to have the best time and that I loved her so so much and she pulled my sunglasses off to see if I were crying and when she saw my eyes, we just laughed.  She got on the bus and my husband, younger daughter and I stood there waving for twelve minutes to a blackened window where she was presumably sitting until the bus pulled away and then I quietly lost it.  

 

And just like that she was off.  For seven weeks.   Part of my soul was on that bus.

And here’s the thing that I know as a former camper, and as a past camp counselor, and as a mental health professional, and even as a motherI know that even if she has her feelings hurt, fails her deep water testdoesn’t get a part in the play or feels homesickshe will come through it all stronger and more resilient.  She will have tough days, I know this, and she will learn to navigate them without me by her side and for this she will gain something I could have never given her myself.  As our camp director profoundly told us new parents, “at camp, we can give your children a kind of confidence, autonomy and independence that you, as parents, cannot.”  And for this, I hope she comes home with camp in her blood.

To Love Me, To Civilize Me, and To Keep Me Safe

by Sarah Blaine

I think we all, whether explicitly articulated or not, indeed, whether we are parents or not, have a parenting mantra.

As my neighbors will attest, I regularly ask my daughters: “What’s my job?” Their canned response, developed as a family over time, is: “To love me, to civilize me, and to keep me safe.”

I truly believe that about sums it up.

My job is to love my children: wholly, unconditionally, and deeply.

My job is to keep my children safe: and by safe I don’t mean wrapped in a bubble, free from injuries, but rather safe to explore, safe to take risks, and safe to push the boundaries of their worlds as they grow and change.

And finally, my job is to civilize my children. That is, it is my job to ensure that they learn to value kindness, to be considerate of others, and to learn to effectively navigate the shoals of growing up in the contradictory and confusing culture we call — sometimes without noticing the irony — western civilization. Civilizing them also includes teaching them not to fart in public and that locking the cat into a “cat haven” under the bed is a recipe for laundry, not entertainment.

Civilizing children is transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next. Teachers and parents need to be partners in this endeavor: neither can cede responsibility to the other.

My family developed our mantra over time, and I imagine it’s not done evolving. When my oldest was still an only, only the civilizing part of the mantra had evolved, and we used it as a party trick. I’d ask, “What’s my job?” and my daughter would pipe back in her two-year old lisp: “To civilize me.” My friends would chuckle. Love and safety didn’t need to be explicitly stated. For her, they went without saying.

But the concept of civilization became a powerful force: discipline (both positive and negative) became about encouraging civilized behavior, and discouraging uncivilized habits. It started as a joke, but the tool worked. Discipline stopped being as much of a power struggle and instead became an attempt to guide my daughter into channeling her self-centered, selfish, animal impulses into a more nuanced, adult, and, yes, civilized view of the world, one where everything wasn’t ME ME ME NOW NOW NOW. One where she was a willing participant in civilizing herself.

But then my little one, my younger daughter, my pixie as my neighbor calls her, came along. And eventually, she learned to talk. The waters run deep in that one, and it’s a magical experience to discover the corridors of thought her mind explores. They could not be more different than my own.

It’s easy for me to figure out what the big one is thinking: it’s usually similar to what I’m thinking.

But the little one is contemplative, and full of little quirks and notions, and sometimes dark thoughts, and always full of questions. She cannot be hurried. She has fears. She is also anxious to a fault, and I work hard to help her examine and keep her anxiety in check.

My little one was the one who evolved our party trick into a mantra: the words were not these, but the intent was clear: all discipline wasn’t just about civilizing her, she pointed out; sometimes it was about teaching her how to keep her body and her soul safe. So we evolved our saying into mommy’s (and daddy’s) job being “to civilize her and to keep her safe.” It went along with a parallel mantra: “What do mommies always do?” I’d ask. She’d answer, “Come back.”

My little one is the most affectionate, generous child I have ever encountered: she is full of “hug alerts” and “I just wanted to give you a kiss” and constant snuggles. Her gift is for giving. She made it clear that parenting wasn’t just about civilizing her and keeping her safe: it was also about loving her enough to recognize and adapt to her unique spirit, which I love and cherish, even though it is so very different from my own. And she needed me to state my love. Explicitly. My job is to love her.

So our mantra evolved — again — into its current form: our job as parents is to love our children, to civilize our children, and to keep them safe.

Parenting children and especially, for me, parenting two very different children, has stretched my soul and, I hope, given me a little insight and humility concerning my character and experience. One thing parenting has certainly taught me is that parenting is an expansive and evolving endeavor: it isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

I can be as judge-y as the next person, but I try harder these days to refrain from indulging in that cathartic exercise in superiority: the decisions I make for the youngest are sometimes so different than the decisions I make for the oldest that I’m sure an outsider would judge me out of my mind. But my children are so different, and one-size-fits-all does not meet their needs, nor would it help them develop into their wisest, kindest, and most civilized selves.

My oldest thrived on learning to sound out words at age 3. At pick up on her first day of kindergarten, her experienced and gifted teacher looked me in the eye and said, “I see we have a real reader here.” And we did: she came into kindergarten reading Magic Tree House and other chapter books, and during “book buddies” with the second graders, she discovered that she was a more fluent and accomplished reader than her second grade buddy.

My little one will be 6 this fall. She hasn’t started kindergarten yet, but I know that her sister’s entering-kindergarten reading fluency is far-off. However, from the time she could talk, she has wanted to know about skeletons and bodies. We google images of animal skeletons together, and my iPad is full of apps about biology and the human body because of her. She once spent about forty-five minutes detailing — for my somewhat stunned cousin — how to dissect a rat, which, I hasten to add, she learned from an iPad app aimed at high schoolers, with the eponymous name “Rat Dissection.

As parents rather than full-time educators, it is hard to feel that we can have a meaningful voice in the education policy world. I think that many parents sit out these debates not because they don’t have thoughts and concerns and ideas, but because they worry that they are non-expert participants in an education world that teems with experts, both actual and self-anointed.

Who are we? We are just parents. We defer to those in the know.

But we parents do have insight, and we need to have a voice, because we do have some wisdom, wisdom that is worth sharing, wisdom that can add richness and perspective to a debate that is often sadly lacking in both.

That is why Louis C.K.’s comments about his daughters’ math homework, standardized testing, and Common Core were so powerful. We have heard so few parents weigh in on this debate.

And that vacuum is why I read this Success Academy teacher’s response to Louis C.K. as so tone-deaf:

So instead of throwing in the towel, what we must teach alongside these more difficult—yet completely achievable—standards is grit. Parents and teachers have to work together to model and reinforce perseverance both at school and at home. A few tears shed over homework or a test is simply not reason enough for us to balk at meaningful, thoughtful math that will better prepare all kids for a changing and more dynamic workforce. When we as adults complain that the bar is too high, we send students the message that we don’t believe they’re capable of greatness.

Of course, I empathize with Louis C.K.’s frustrations to a certain extent. This math looks very different. The worksheets his daughter brought home might not have been the best quality—indeed, teachers are still figuring out the new standards, too. And nobody wants to see his child upset. But a Twitter tirade doesn’t help anybody, least of all students.

For my older daughter, this teacher’s comments are spot on. For her, occasional tears shed over math homework are character-building exercises in resiliency: academics come so easily to her that it’s a powerful lesson for her to learn to persevere when she does hit a stumbling block.

But for my younger daughter, the same tears might be a devastating watershed that could undermine her future academic success. And what is most upsetting about this slippery critique of Louis C.K.’s parenting by a teacher is that it’s a call from a teacher to shut out parents’ voices, to shut down the conversation: well, that’s not the kind of teacher I seek out for my children. Plus, she’s wrong. I bet Louis C.K.’s tirade did help two small people: his daughters, who experienced a powerful lesson from their dad’s empathy.

One thing that parenting has taught me, viscerally, in a way that classroom learning and book learning and even my experience as a teacher could not, is how different children truly can be, and that one-size-fits-all assembly-line education does not — and cannot — fit all of our children.

My youngest will enter kindergarten this fall. I have no doubt that my youngest is full of insights and connections and intelligence and deep thoughts and wisdom and imagination. In my experience, Common Core and its related standardized test preparation have not been significant stumbling blocks for my oldest. But I fear that squeezing my youngest into the standardized, common mold is not going to be effective. It’s not going to contribute toward civilizing her.

I hope and pray that my youngest will thrive, and I will do my best to differentiate and provide support at home, but my primary fear about where we are headed as a country is that we’re attempting to impose one-size-fits-all education on infinite-unique-needs-they-each-have individual children. And we have a movement that attempts, as the Success Academy teacher did, to drown out parents’ voices when those voices are raised in protest.

I am all for high standards; I am not for standardization.

My little one says that she’s a witch, she’s a wizard, she’s a secret agent, she’s a fairy, she’s a kitty, she’s a cat. But there’s one thing she never identifies herself as: a widget.