Parenting in a crazed age… undoing the spells that work on our minds as parents

Great River Families,

Student conferences are upon us at the end of the month - a time when we plan for students in years 5 through 12 to present their work to their families. Guides and adults support students in that presentation. In years 1 through 4, parents and classroom Guides meet without students present to discuss work and role in the community. Want a summary? See a reference document on student conferences for families here.

I received an email last week from a parent who was taking the 3B bus downtown for a meeting. Specifically, the parent rode along with a large number of Great River students heading from the west toward school. After the students got off the bus, and had departed - leaving a much emptied vehicle behind them - I can only imagine the bus was quieter, less crowded, and carrying only the few commuters who ride down Front avenue toward the capitol. The parent writes

“[I was] meeting downtown this morning and took the 3 with a large group of GRS students. After they got off at school, I heard the driver and a passenger talking about the students. The driver said the students are so nice and respectful and that this is the best school run he’s ever had. I had heard at least ten of the students say thank you as they got off the bus.”

I am extremely proud of our students, and most often it is this kind of feedback that offers the biggest demonstrations of our work as a school. Our students have formed skills they take into the world as civil and thoughtful people. We are fortunate to share this school and this time with each other. These are the life skills that are part of what I know our students bring into the world as gifts. This is an example of what I know will grant our children the resilience,

And, as you hear me - from my Head of School role - conveying the glorious impact of our social and emotional learning at Great River... I want you to know that I am a parent, I do live in the world, and I am deeply concerned about the state of things between adults in our modern-North-American-globalized-economy-culture. I believe the ‘state of things’ casts a spell upon my thinking. This spell shows itself in some ways subtle, and in many ways a deafening blare. In a world where less and less appears assured each day, the invitation to come to terms with the mysteries of parenting and loving children with abundance is upon my doorstep. The insidious temptation for me is to want my child to somehow demonstrate through their success and stability that things are working out in a way that may allay my concerns about the ‘state of things’.

“Assure the very best for my child” could be one chant of the spell. “Fulfill their potential to the absolute fullest” could be another. “The world is an unassured place, and my job as a parent is to give my child every possible resource to succeed” is another.  These phrases are so user-friendly, so tenuously perched upon the concept of winning, and so absolutely crazen What I mean by spell is that my ability to perceive is so shaped by repeated drone of “this is what’s necessary and important” that I am caught unaware that the spell shapes how empathetic I can be with my own child if they are struggling, challenged, or overwhelmed. And, my desire to love my children by wanting assuredness often causes in them anxiety that rightly belongs to me, as the adult and parent who is the sole proprietor of the fence that may yet hold out adult concerns for the state of the world and allow a childhood that produces ripe ground for wonder, a love of learning, and a zeal for living that can buoy a heart through trouble.

The ‘way things are’ is a topic that arises as the ostensible proof & foundation for many answers that I hear parents (myself included) offer children about work, money, economy, and why things are so busy, or expensive, or inequitable. I’d like to challenge that spell, and I often find the first step is noticing when I’ve jumped onboard with a full-paid ticket of my assenting to the enchantment that “it’s this way, always has been, and always will be”.... And that’s the reason houses are so big in some neighborhoods and so small in others - or that’s the reason that we work for pay - or that explains immigration globally- or that’s the reason why you have to do things that are inconvenient or harsh…

And so, I found myself asking a seemingly innocent question at conferences two years ago, about my own children, “Do you have any concerns we should know about or work on at home?” It was fully a year afterward that I noticed that the root of that question about my 8 year old was founded in my own personal need to know that I was doing ok as a parent - which is a lot of pressure for me to bring into the conference belonging to my daughter, and asking a lot of the teacher who received my question.

I’m reflecting more on how that spell enchantingly casts itself upon my parenting mind. “Ensure I’m loving my children into their fullest potential so that they can go into the world prepared and protected.” It’s a sometimes spooky spell, that awaits in my fears and cravings for assuredness. Here’s a little snippet from the internal dialogue I catch in my own mental meandering:

I want to know that my kid will not only be “ok” in the future, but also that they will have what they need to thrive. This concern that I have as a parent is reinforced on the daily cycle of the news or frankly in comparing the challenges and pitfalls of our society with how I’d like to assure safety, security, and a verdant future for our children.

And here’s where the wheels hit the pavement on the road to parent-teacher conferences: I’d really like some assurance from their classroom teachers that my kid is demonstrably living out indication that they are not only “ok” now, but thriving!

And frankly, if the teacher or someone could have some glossy photos of that happening, and perhaps some exemplars of the potential already achieved by my child, and perhaps just a short video (it’s ok if the sound quality is low) assuring me that my hopes and need for proof of “ok-ness” is really just a craving on the path to a full feast of assenting rewards that I can expect to reap as a successful parent of a successful grown child…

can I see a score and an indicator that it’s all going to be ok?

And also… this is foolish. I can dull the overt and craven nature of this foolhardy approach by joking about my own parental anxiety, and then fully igniting it in a blaze of questions for you, the teaching adult who spends more waking hours than I do with my kid 5 days a week?

I know, perhaps a bit overstated once it’s written or read aloud. And, perhaps a bit over the top to share on this forum. And then, however, this is exactly the dialogue that leads me to make a joking approach to the very request for self-assuredness from the teacher at my own child’s conference just two years ago.

I say, ostensibly lightening the mood,

“Ok ok ok… all this report on the role of community is wonderful - but is my kid going to be ready to apply Ivy League in 10 years?”

{Laughter at seemingly excessive question of parental control and influence follows…}

And then it comes out of my mouth - “Do you have any concerns we should know about or work on at home?”

My child’s guide, ever graceful, answers “Oh, I think we’ve spoken about everything - your child is centered, and really working on knowing what is their job to fix and what is other’s, and that’s a good work for life.”

And in deepening the conversation back into a human-centered life skill, my child’s guide deftly and expertly reminded me that my joke about Ivy League, and likely my concern, is an ego-centered, not human-centered achievement. And that regardless of the place my kids continues their education, the skills of relationships and boundaries are essential to their humanity in the rest of their life on this blue sphere. It’ll take me a year to realize that my question about ‘concerns’ also betrays that apparently I didn’t know the etiquette for trust also includes that my child’s teacher will absolutely tell me if there are ways I can work with my kid at home to reinforce what’s happening at school. And, if I can develop the capacity to listen, I likely would hear that.

It’s a courageous thing to be parenting in the state of affairs that is our contemporary culture. And I’ve been challenged to consider that my professional experience and my life tells me much more about how children grow through adolescence to be successful as adults than my parenting lens offers. My experience demonstrates that people aged 17 to 25 are much more sane, self-assured, and capable of enjoying their life when they have an internal measure of wonder and appreciation for the world around them. Rather than working for a better tomorrow, these self-assured young people are working for a better day today - in their relationships, in their want to understand justice and fairness, and in their desire to contemplate a way they can contribute to meaning, rather than just their own sufficiency or personal stability at the expense of others.

There’s a deeply unsettling implication in this story for me to realize: I do best as a parent when i am concerned about supporting my child’s health today, rather than seeking indicators of their thriving in the future. And I do believe the sheer volume of pressure on me, as a parent, to cultivate an assured future for my child - at the expense of hearing what’s going on with them today - is a common pressure shared by many of us parenting. That pressure is at the very heart of why it’s a challenge to role model community values in a time that is increasingly pressuring self-everything. It’s a challenge that I’m thankful to have graceful educators to support me in thinking through, and tolerating when I have fallen prey to a spell that is much more about me than the child I’m asking after.