Nine Tips for Parenting in a Broken Education System

The time is finally here for my daughter to start kindergarten. How did we get here so fast? Wasn’t she just a baby in my arms last week? Did time speed up once I became a parent? I can’t seem to wrap my head around how she’s already going to school.

One of my friends’ husband said regarding their terminally ill son that “life is over” when kids start school. I keep having that conversation in my head, and I’m worried he’s right. School is about learning to line up, conform, and memorize. Being “good at school” does not guarantee that a person will be successful in life, and yet, that is the formula we have been taught to believe and teach our own children.

We are told from an early age that if we do well in school and get good grades, then we will get into a good college, get a good job, make good money, and be able to retire at 62 years old and enjoy the rest of our lives (with an exorbitantly overpriced cocktail of medications). But the formula is broken. The notion of the gold watch is out—most people aren’t going to stay at a company that long. The jobs that will be available to my kindergartener don’t even exist yet.

Technology is changing how we interact with the world. What is the point in memorizing facts and figures when you can research the answer in seconds? Wouldn’t it be much more pertinent to learn how to interact with the world than to engage in tedious rote memorization? Why are kids still memorizing math facts when they could use a calculator and get to more complex math concepts faster?

As a counselor, I’ve been asked numerous times by a multitude of children, “Why do we have to learn this?” and I don’t have a good answer. I suppose I could tell them the history of the industrial revolution and discuss the need for workers who would serve as a cog in a machine. But instead, we discuss the need to do hard things that you don’t necessarily want to do because you need to be able to prove that you can get things done. To some degree, that is true, not everyone knows how to show up and engage.

A friend of mine who served as a manager in a major retail chain told me that it was tough to get people to show up to work regularly and on time—that roughly 70% of the job was just “showing up.” This notion of just being present is not uncommon. I toured a car manufacturing plant that had a strict attendance policy because the assembly line wouldn’t work if everyone didn’t arrive promptly for their shift and stay for the duration—they would lose thousands of dollars for each second the line was down, so they needed people who would “show up.”

The jobs at the manufacturing plant looked tedious and mind-numbing. There was no craftsmanship or nuance to their work, it was almost 100% rote. The work of the assembly line seems so far removed from that of the tech giants with their mantra of “move fast and break things.” I imagine they would be super mad if you “broke things” in the manufacturing plant.

Here’s the thing, I don’t want my kid to be the kind of person who just “shows up.” I want her to be a thoughtful sentient being who takes ownership of her learning. I want her to have a sense of agency. I want my daughter to be the kind of person who is curious and thoughtful and knows how to be more than a cog in a machine.

A few years ago, I read a story about a couple who took their children sailing for a year and “homeschooled” them on the boat. But it wasn’t that they were teaching their kids with workbooks, they found a way to show them through real-life experiences. When their son became interested in fishing, his dad bought him books about fish and allowed him to go deeper into the subject than a traditional classroom setting would have ever been able to accommodate. He learned math and biology by weighing, measuring, and dissecting the fish he caught. The boy never had to be coaxed into learning; he was hungry for the information.

My husband gets motion sickness, so I don’t see us hopping on a boat to homeschool our kid anytime soon, but I want that kind of learning experience for my own child, and I feel confident that it isn’t going to happen at school. So, how can I make this kind of learning happen on my own? I have a few ideas that don’t require money or an aptitude for the sea.

Ask Lots of Questions

I’m going to ask my daughter lots of questions. When she asks me, “How are rocks formed?” instead of responding right away, I will pause and put the matter back to her with, “What do you think?” This probably seems infinitesimally small compared to the guy on the boat, but I think it’s big. I could just rush in and share my knowledge, but I don’t want just to fill her brain with information, I want her to use deduction skills to consider the possibilities. I want her to make connections with other areas of her learning and form new ideas on her own.

Praise Effort, Not End-Results

Instead of praising a good grade, I’ll appreciate the amount of effort she put forth. Elementary school was such a struggle for me despite my best efforts, but my parents were smart never to push grades, only effort. The real world won’t give you a grade, and your boss won’t pat your head when you do a good job. Your child needs to be able to feel good about a job well done, even when the project doesn’t turn out the way they’d hoped it would; they can be proud of the effort they put in to make it work.

Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

There is a sign in my office that reads, “Not everything will be okay–but some things will.” My daughter needs to understand that part of success is failing. I want her to know that her task or project might not work out right away, but with more effort, attempts, and thought, it might. Help your kids here with the comparison monster. Your kid will want to compare themselves with the “end result” of their favorite writer or artist, but don’t let them. I regularly have to explain to my daughter that my handwriting is better than hers because of years of practice, not some innate ability.

Be Patient

My daughter loves Curious George, but I swear if I were The Man with The Yellow Hat, I would have lost my patience a long time ago with that messy little monkey. I know that I need to have more patients while she figures out how to tie her shoes or wash the dishes. I can do pretty much everything faster and better than her, but it is worth slowing down and allowing her to try it herself and make mistakes without fear that she will be in trouble. Y’all, it’s messy to parent this way. I cleaned a crack egg off my stainless-steel dishwasher yesterday along with four other messes, but I know it will pay dividends.

Learning is NEVER a Punishment

We can discuss the difference between “punishment” and “restoring the balance” later on, but I will never assign my daughter reading or writing as a form of punishment. Seriously, that’s bad news bears. One of the smartest kids in my grade school was regularly in trouble, and his father would make him copy pages and pages of the dictionary for his transgressions–the kid hated school with a fiery passion. In my opinion, it’s just too risky to associate learning with punishment. I want my kid to be hungry for knowledge and not see it as drudgery that it to be avoided.

Be a Role-Model

My daughter told me last week that she wants to drink coffee and read books when she’s grown up. Guess who drinks coffee and reads a lot? Yep, she’s watching everything I do whether I like it or not. My husband and I are acutely aware that she is modeling our behavior, which is why he practices the piano every night. We make it a point to practice what we preach, and we “preach” the importance of learning in our house. Our kids will value what we show them we value, not what we say we value.

Go Deep

A few years ago I had wanted to return to school, but I wasn’t able to make it work logistically or financially, so, I went with a new plan; I busted out my old library card and let myself fall down the rabbit hole.  I would read a book and pick out authors or other texts that were mentioned and read those next or I’d look up the authors on YouTube or listen to podcasts.  I let my curiosity lead me to my next topic, and my quest for knowledge has never been dictated to me by a teacher, but I did look up the syllabi to a few classes that I’d wanted to take and read many of those books as well.  When I was a kid, looking up anything was a tedious process that required a physical trip to the library or the purchase of an expensive encyclopedia set.  Now, all the information is at my fingertips.  I’ll teach my daughter how to research and source the information she consumes; I’ll help her learn more deeply about her interests.  

Be Grateful

Feeling gratitude always seems to soothe my anxiety. Unlike millions of other children, my daughter can safely attend school to be taught by trained professionals. Is it a perfect system? Not even close. But I will remember to be grateful because it is not about the opportunities, but how one maximizes the opportunities presented. We have more gifts than most and we will honor the ordinary.

It’s Going to Be Okay

Being a parent is tough work. I remember when I had my daughter that I felt my heart had been taken out of my body and placed in another person who was able to be out in the world without me. A few years later, I read a quote by Elizabeth Stone that described having a child as having your “Heart go walking around outside your body.” All that time, I had thought that I had a unique parenting experience, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Our fears and hopes are universal; we all want the best for our children. At the risk of sounding hokey, perhaps The Beatles are right, maybe “all we need is love.” If our kids feel our love, hopefully, everything else will fall into place.