Today’s New York Times Magazine includes a very interesting article, found here, about how the heads of a Manhattan private school and a national charter school program are working to help their students develop good character traits as well as good study habits. The private school head feared that his school’s focus on testing at every juncture and encouraging students to excel academically above all else did not give them a full set of tools with which to lead a successful life. While the head of the charter school program, whose students are almost all Black or Latino and from low-income families, was less concerned about the effects of frequent testing, he was concerned that a number of his highest achieving graduates had trouble doing well and sticking it out through college (an oft stated goal for all of their students), and that the students who were graduating college were the ones with the stronger character traits rather than the best grades.
Both educators saw a real need to give their students the psychological tools to pull themselves through a crisis (academic or emotional), come to terms with their own shortcomings and to work to overcome them. The article details how they worked together with a University of Pennsylvania researcher to come up with ways to teach their students important character traits which can help them develop these tools.
We at GCP have had many conversations with African American parents who worry that some of our children who are being raised in comfortable homes, with many of their wants and needs met on a regular basis, haven’t fully developed the skills to deal with adversity in or out of the classroom. A comment in this article made by one of the officials at the private school sounds uncomfortably familiar: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens…[These parents are] overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character.” While GCP staunchly advocates active parent involvement in our sons (and daughter’s) schooling, we agree that parents who are focused on fixing each and every problem for their children can impede their children’s ability to fix things for themselves, which is a critical life tool. Moreover, it can make the children believe on a subconscious level that they are unable to fend for themselves.
Of course, no parent thinks it is a good idea to create spoiled, soft children. And as this article notes, parents from every economic strata have the natural instinct to want to give their children what they want and need, and to protect them from discomfort and harm. The struggle for parents is knowing when and how to step back and let the child experience adversity and figure out how to make things better on his or her own. GCP will be exploring this issue, and how it particularly pertains to our community, with parents, teachers and experts. Stay tuned.