Monday, June 25, 2012

The over-achieving parent: It could be you!

I had a scary experience recently at a park in the inner-west of Sydney while I was out with one of my daughters, her husband and two of their children. This was a time for all of us to play and have fun together. To climb on everything that could be climbed, dig sand with the mechanical shovel, pretend we were warriors defending our stone fort, trying desperately to keep the marauding hordes at bay (my grandson Sam and I were the warriors, and the hordes were, well... the local pigeons!). It was also a time to see how fast we could go down the slippery dip (that is, the kids plus my son-in-law), and for my grandson and me to ramble along the shore nearby to collect some sticks (vital to create arrows, never destined to be fired), look at emerging mangroves, discuss the wind turbine, talk about the difference between light rail and heavy rail trains, read a sign that spoke of re-vegetation near the water's edge and discuss how mangrove trees grow in water. We also discussed how people were being kept off the site, talked about the working harbour across the bay, peered at distant buildings and Sydney's great bridges and so on. There was even time for an ice cream. All the while we were there we were talking, telling each other stories, occasionally bursting into rhyme, song and laughter. It was a wonderfully enjoyable and rich time of learning.

And then something scary happened. My daughter and I noticed a woman talking VERY loudly on her mobile phone. She was there with her 7-8 year-old son who had just finished a game of Australian Rules football on an adjoining oval. It was one of those conversations that was difficult not to hear, or not to listen to, as painful as it was. I kept wondering (as did my daughter), is this lady serious? We eventually left the sandpit just near where she was sitting, led by the children to the next fun 'station'! But each time we came back near the sandpit, she seemed to be still talking loudly to the same person about the same content, and her son was still playing by himself. I'd estimate that her phone conversation lasted for over 30 minutes, most of the time they were at the park.  The following is the mum's side of the conversation. It reflects the rough record of the encounter hastily written down later on my iPhone. The conversation of course is not continuous, but it would seem that it was rather repetitive and cyclical, so it seems almost linear:

"I'm worried about his school work."
"He's under-performing, because he's deliberately not putting in the effort because he's scared he's going to lose."
"He got 73% in maths, but that was the bottom 20 in year so he got a pass..."
"It's hard for me because I'm not in classroom. I can't control what goes on there."
"He needs a, you know, what do you want to achieve with each task. So in spelling it would be every word correct, all sentence structure complete..."
"They need to tell him, now look at your portfolio and set a goal. Don't necessarily aim for 5 [i.e. I assume the reporting uses a 5 point assessment scale]. But 2x 4's and the rest 3's...."
"That will be enough to say he's succeeded this semester."
"Then we make them harder goals next semester."
"Just like in his AFL, we need to measure success. He may not win the game, but set goals, this game.. I may lose 8-20, next game 8-16."
"I'm not going to let you bench yourself because you can't 'win'."
"He needs mental toughness."

Now, I have to say that I wasn't using listening equipment, nor was my daughter. This was an animated conversation you could hear across the park. I need also to stress, that this mother no doubt loves her son and wants to do the best things she can for him. But I found this a scary conversation because I suspect that what she is doing is not in his best interests at all. Why? Let me give you just five reasons.

First, here is a parent for whom the judgement of the worth of her son's life seems to be shaped in a major way by the need for him to be successful as assessed on a limited range of academic attainment measures at school.
Second, here is parent who cannot accept that her son might not outperform the majority of his age cohort.
Third, here is a mother who wants to control her child's life so much that she almost cannot cope because she can't be in the classroom directing it.
Fourth, here is a mother who is failing to grasp that her son has worth that cannot be measured in the way she and the school is trying to do it.
Fifth, here is a mother that has missed the chance to have a variety of rich experiences with her son that she would struggle to have in many other ways.

What had both the boy and the mother missed out on? The boy missed an opportunity to learn in a manner that isn't common in most schools. The mum missed the chance to interact with her son informally at a much deeper level and to enrich his knowledge and learning at the same time. Both missed the opportunity to strengthen their relationship, listen to each other and grow in their understanding of one another. This was a significant missed opportunity.

My encouragement to readers of this blog is that if you find yourself drifting in the same direction as this mother, take a 'chill pill', to quote some of the residents of my college. Then reassess your own expectations and ask yourself, "what is driving my expectations, and what might be the consequences if left unchecked?"


Sarah B-D said...

Thanks for this post Trevor. I really like the issues you've raised. I overheard a similar (in many ways) phone conversation while in a shop earlier this year. The mother was loudly discussing her daughter's failure to take school seriously, her lack of commitment, detriment to her future etc. I assumed the daughter must be in Year 12 and almost choked when the conversation ended with "she may only be in year 4, but you can never learn these lessons early enough." Good Grief! Meanwhile, I'm off to parent/tchr interviews tonight - wish me luck! sarahx

kylieford said...

Sadly, this scenario is all too common as I talk to parents during parent/teacher interviews….unfortunately as our reports are written with 'common grade scales' and now, class ranking, I fear this will be on the rise….

Jackie said...

Learning takes place within and outside of the classroom. I love that you acknowledge and promote that within this post.

Trevor Cairney said...

Glad the post struck a chord with a number of readers. Although, that makes it even more scary. I see the signs of over-zealous parenting everywhere. Obviously, I'm not the only one.