Why Do Grownups Have to Take Over Everything?
–A Seven-year-old Boy
Reading parenting talk from “experts” online, it seems parents are either over-involved or under-involved, either over-protecting or neglectful, tiger parenting or laissez-faire liberals. American “parenting” is either too “slow” or too fast.
It is an issue of critical importance. There is plenty of evidence that American children are not being properly prepared for an increasingly challenging, diverse, complex, and changing world.
But most of this pendulum conversation misses the point. The more educators (parents and others) get the message that we are falling down on the job of raising the young, the natural thing is to try harder. What is required, however, is not for us to work harder, but smarter. The resolution of the pendulum conversation is not to find a balance between two polar opposites, but to look elsewhere.
Are we overparenting or underparenting? We should be asking a different question: Who is taking responsibility for what?
The reason we should be careful about who takes responsibility is that whoever takes responsibility wins.
My friend and colleague Janet Lansbury who works with parents of babies made this point in her latest piece “The Curse of Respectful Parenting.” In my article “Are You Over-Parenting?” the punchline comes from a seven-year-old: “Why do grownups have to take over everything?”
Seventh grader Malcolm kept getting into enough trouble for him to be sent to my office, and I called in the parents. In the conversation I found myself saying, “If you care more about it than Malcolm, it absolves the him of responsibility.”
His father said: “So you are telling me to back off, right?”
I said, “No, I am saying you need to change the quality of your involvement. It’s not more or less.”
“What do you mean?” one said.
“I am suggesting that you stop trying to change him, and make room for him to take responsibility for changing himself—to learn from his mistakes. Right now, he doesn’t have to do any learning, because you are doing all the work. Your anxiety is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Many parents and teachers think responsibility is something they have to teach because it’s not something that kids naturally want to take. But that’s not true. Kids want to take responsibility, because their very being knows that whoever takes responsibility gets the ability, and ability wins. The adult challenge is to create the conditions in which children can show us what they can do.
In May of 2011 when I visited the Academy for Global Citizenship, an inner city charter school in Chicago, all 200 students from kindergarten through third grade were busy at their academic work, even though this was the next to last day of school. Last week I visited again. AGC now has 350 students kindergarten through 6th grade in two buildings. I saw the same busy, businesslike climate in each classroom. All 350 students were working; the thing is, it seemed no one was making them.
What was going on? The difference between schools that educate and schools that interfere with children’s education is whether or not the students are respected as full fledged human beings who have a purpose and want to make a difference. The difference between a good school and a bad school is whether the students feel ownership or not.
The difference between good and bad parenting is not whether the parents are more or less involved, but whether or not the child is respected for having his or her own genius. Are they seen as creators and scientists researching the world and their place in it? Are they decision-makers with a purpose? Are they subjects or are they objects? Respecting another human being is seeing them as primarily an origin of learning rather than a recipient of instruction.
Whether parents are trying to be tigers, neo-hippies, helicopters, or balance-seekers my advice would be to stop trying; just be a learning parent. That will be good enough. As school approaches, there are lots of voices answering the question “How can you prepare your child?” There are lots of good ideas, but the key is remembering who’s going to school. Homework may become another challenging battlefield until parents remember to ask the question, ”Who Takes Responsibility for Homework? What is the Parent’s Role?”
Making sure that children and students take responsibility does not mean that educators should not take responsibility, it means they must learn the uncommon disciplines of how to take responsibility without controlling.
Yes, kids have minds of their own. Don’t we actually want that? Both in and out of school, the mistake we grownups tend to make is not the mistake of taking too much or too little responsibility, but rather not respecting children as whole people trying to self-actualize, and not understanding that self-actualization starts at birth.
So, my Seven-Year-Old Friend, the answer to your question of why grownups have to take over everything, is that they love you and feel responsible for you—which is a good thing. Perhaps you can help them learn how to take responsibility without needing to control you. High responsibility/Low Control. That’s the ticket.
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