A middle school teacher in the US makes a very good point in a piece in The Atlantic magazine about the importance of failures in a child’s life. Jessica Lahey recalls a case of plagiarism in which a student’s mother turned out to be the main culprit. The mother defended her writing a paper — consisting largely of material lifted from websites — for her daughter to hand in because daughter had been stressed out, and mother did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.
In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.
While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.
Noting that teachers today frequently swap stories about mounting levels of “over-parenting”, Lahey notes that it is not common types of over-protectiveness (a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater) that worry her. She reckons children recover from these as they grow up. No, the real problem parents are those who won’t let their kids make mistakes, take responsibility for them and so learn from them.
These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.
I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.
It’s good to hear this from a teacher, don’t you think?