This phrase from President Obama’s State of the Union message (and now being offered on t-shirts,) is meant to sum up our basic American contribution to significant progress in many areas. A main point being made is the way this relates to the education of our children. But it also makes me think more about Amy Chau’s indictment of American child-rearing – a most important part of our children’s education.
In last week’s post I referred to our child-rearing as reflecting our values, among them individualism, self-expression, and the right to question authority. How do these values get translated into the way we respond to our children? In many ways, large and small. Observing in nursery schools, I have many times seen a child marching to her own drummer in a way that runs counter to what the teacher is doing. Often the teacher will then say, “What a good idea, let’s all try that.” Instead of being criticized, the child has now made a contribution, feels her ideas are valued, and has new interest in what the teacher is doing.
Some may react to that by saying, “Yes, but children also have to learn to listen to what the teacher wants done.” That is certainly true. But a child who feels her ideas are valued is better able to listen to someone else’s ideas. When the next time the teacher instead says, “We’ll try your idea later, but we are going to do this first,” it is likely this child will be with her.
Along these lines, mothers post their children’s art work and home made cards on the wall or refrigerator. This is another way that children are told that their work and they are valued. The artistic creativity of children has often been noted. It is not that all or most young children are art geniuses. Rather, when children are not worried about “staying within the lines”, the product of their self-expression is not only often quite beautiful, but can lead to a readiness to explore other materials and ideas.
We are often concerned about children needing to learn to do things the “right way”. We think they won’t succeed unless they follow the “right” method. It is true that there are time tested ways of achieving mastery in certain areas. But children also learn when given the freedom to try out their own ideas.
A mother at a school where I am a consultant, made the most amazing end-of-the- year book of her son’s art work. The most interesting thing was to see the growth and development in the child’s work, which was not the result of doing what the teacher wanted, but of just having the freedom to use his own imagination. It is not surprising that this kind of freedom gives rise to the kind of creativity and innovation that we are trying to promote now as a country.
Of course, questions about authority and freedom are part of our history. Our country began with rebellion and revolt against authority. On the other hand, we learned during the ‘60’s what can happen when parents and authority figures, like teachers, seem to let go of the reins. As parents we have a history of conflict about authority; we didn’t like it when we were children, would like to have it as parents, but are not sure we should.
Most of the concerns I hear from parents have to do with children “not listening”, and with struggles around meeting parents’ expectations. Too often, parents feel out of control, as though the children, not they, are running things. I think we have not quite recovered from generations past with their “spare the rod and spoil the child” mantra. Grandparents seem to have been assigned the role of delivering that message now and mothers report feeling criticized by their own mothers – or mothers-in-law.
It is this feeling of being out of control that leads to thoughts of – and perhaps a wish for – the Chinese mother’s methods. The contemporary struggle – perhaps more universally than just for parents – is in finding the right balance between freedom and authority. The challenge is, where do you draw the line?