Roots and wings

Looking back, do you like the way your parents raised you?

Eight of my nine principal academic interests came from my dad: in alphabetical order we have editing, history, languages, law, maps, math, philosophy, and typography. We’re only missing computer science, and that didn’t really exist until after he died.

And what about non-academic interests, like model railroading, sports, and popular culture (television, rock music, and so forth)? Well, my model railroading interest also came somewhat from my dad, in that he set up a Lionel layout for me when I was a kid, but I went far beyond that. My sports interest? Non-existent. And neither of my parents was interested in sports. Nor am I. Likewise pop culture.

The passions that I got from my mom were not strictly academic: classical music, cooking, museums, and public service. But there’s something more important that she gave me. I remember to this day that she often told me when I was a teen that “the main duty of parents is to give their children both roots and wings.” That worked for me. I always had strongly rooted values, and my parents always encouraged me to fly on my own. Roots and wings.

This week there were two interesting articles on this very subject, one from mystery author Barb Goffman and one from Harvard professor Ron Ferguson. Goffman’s piece unconsciously mimics an aspect of my post from a couple of days ago: the interweaving of several apparently unrelated topics into a single thematic essay. Her piece is called “How the College-Admissions Scandal, Gilmore Girls, and My Newest Short Story All Tie Together,” a title that signals that the connections aren’t going to be obvious. But one connection is that apparently the character Emily Gilmore on Gilmore Girls has certain resemblances to the parents in the college-admissions scandal, not because Gilmore does anything illegal but because of the kinds of expectations she has for her daughter and granddaughter: she is what the Swedes call a “curling parent,” a phrase I had never heard until yesterday but that clearly means that she sweeps the ice in front of her children so that they will have a clear path, related to but not the same as what we call a “helicopter parent.” And apparently the protagonist in Goffman’s newest short story is of this type:

When friends read early drafts of this story, they thought my main character, Emily Forester, was crazy. Her priorities seemed so skewed.

But her priorities came not from the college-admissions scandal but from Goffman’s own past:

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s. I attended school in a (then) top-rated public school system. At age 15, my mother informed me my career choices were doctor (which she knew was a no-go as I can’t even talk about blood) or lawyer. Before I graduated from high school, my three siblings were all practicing attorneys…

When I was a teen, if I needed a tutor or an SAT prep class to ensure my future, I got it. If I had to participate in a gazillion extra-curricular activities to round out my college applications, I did it. If taking a bunch of Advanced Placement (AP) classes would help me stand out, I took them. I wasn’t atypical. This is how it was for many kids where I grew up, and likely many kids in similar neighborhoods nationwide. If you didn’t get all A’s you must not have tried hard enough. Failure was not an option. Success was expected, even though perfection is a pretty hard standard to meet–one I rarely did. (If you think I’m exaggerating, then feel blessed that you never brought home a test with a score of 97, the highest grade in the class, but instead of receiving praise, you were asked why you didn’t get 100.)

I am so glad that that was never my situation. Yes, I was given all the opportunities I needed/wanted, but never any pressure, and I had to craft my own success.

And that brings us to the second source author of this post, Ron Ferguson, a famous Harvard professor who has co-written a book called The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children. At this point you’re dying to know what the formula is. What are those secrets? Well, I’ll tell you. His research shows that parents should put together eight parenting roles, which I will quote in part but mostly will paraphrase and comment thereon (only slightly paraphrased, but you should read the entire article):

  1. Hook children on learning and problem-solving before they start school. Yes, my parents certainly did that.
  2. Monitor that the child is getting what he or she needs from the school and intervene, if necessary, to get it. Yes, although my mom and dad were never curling parents, they also took steps to intervene when I had two academically inappropriate teachers in middle school (more in another post, if anyone is interested).
  3. Make sure that no big opportunity is lost, not even for lack of resources. Although my parents were never rich, they provided me with everything I needed, from piano lessons to science enrichment to summer camp to private schools. (More on private schools in another post.)
  4. Show children the wonders of the world. Museums, libraries, Broadway and off-Broadway theater, concerts, and travel were all part of my life from my earliest memory.
  5. Help children find purpose (be a philosopher parent). “If 3-year-olds ask deep questions, the philosopher parents don’t just blow it off; they try to answer in a way that adds to the child’s understanding of life.” Absolutely part of my childhood, from both my parents — and my somewhat uneducated but very knowledgeable and wise grandmother.
  6. Be a role model that your children will emulate. Again, both of my parents did this — not in identical ways, but also not in contradictory ways, mostly in complementary ways.
  7. Teach a child to be respectful, to self-advocate, to defend his or her interests, and to deal with people who wield power and authority. Always things that my parents did.
  8. Be the “GPS navigational voice,” the parents’ voice in the child’s head after the child has left home, coaching the young adult through new situations in life. Finally, though my parents didn’t tell me what to do when I left home to go to prep school and then to collage, their voice was always in my head to help me through life — sometimes at the other end of the telephone line, but most often just in my head.

Reading this list, I am just so pleased that all eight of the roles in Ferguson’s formula are roles that my parents filled. Whether consciously or not, they did the right things in bringing me up. Thank you, mom and dad.



Categories: Teaching & Learning