8. Education In and Out of School – Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less

8

Education In and Out of School

If the pregnant/newborn phase kicks some parents into an intense pursuit of perfection, the school years propel that pursuit toward an entirely new and dizzying height. The meandering toddler schedule gives way to the more structured routine of school, and with it comes a whole new category of things to worry about and “get right.” Choosing the soundest educational philosophy, competing for slots in the best school, populating future college applications with accomplishments beginning in kindergarten, worrying that one’s kid isn’t “keeping up”. For some, it’s a madhouse of anxiety with the added wrinkles of public comparison and one’s own childhood baggage.

Since when did educating one’s kid turn into a breakneck sprint from infant enrichment classes to high school graduation? Are our kids really in danger of failing adulthood if they don’t get straight As at a top school? Are the fear and worry really necessary? (Chapter summary: NO.)

In this chapter, we’ll put forth our minimalist approach to your child’s education. We’re not talking “minimal” education—letting the chips fall where they may and hoping for the best—nor are we knocking parental involvement. Our approach widens the definition of education beyond schooling and lengthens the time horizon beyond the college years. A minimalist take on the school years allows for individual differences in interest and temperament, both yours and your kids’. More importantly, it recasts the educational choices you’ll make over the years as exciting rather than scary, because there’s always wiggle room. There are so many ways to get it right, because your goal isn’t to raise a successful student. It’s to raise a successful adult.

Embracing Continual Learning

In the case of our first key of Minimalist Parenting—make room for remarkable—we mean making room for a bigger definition of education. Unlike enrollment slots in a prestigious school, learning isn’t bound by scarcity. Embrace the abundance of learning and the peace that comes with it. Once you’re confident that your child is learning all the time, you’re no longer on the hook to find the “right” or “perfect” school or approach.

Besides, “perfect” is rarely the best setup for learning to occur. Challenges, both academic and of the sort that happen under less-than-ideal circumstances, can often create the most fertile environment for learning. (Getting comfortable with challenge is different from ignoring a bad fit between kid and school; we’ll talk about this more later in the chapter.)

Life Is a Classroom

Kids’ brains are wired to learn from the first moment they arrive. Every new experience, every bit of exposure, every experiment—whether it’s a baby trying out different facial expressions to test which get the biggest reactions to a toddler touching a hot stove to a kid digging in the sand on summer vacation—everything is learning . . . including (especially) the stuff that doesn’t look like learning.

As you begin to toss these sorts of experiences into the pot along with formal school day academics and call the whole mess “your kid’s education,” you start to realize how big the pot really is. It can hold a lot.

Take a moment to recall your most vivid learning experiences, either as a kid or as an adult. Did some of these moments happen outside of school? Did they involve overcoming an obstacle—and stumbling toward an answer? Are you still learning new things right now?

Mirabai’s biggest learning memory so far was when she asked to leave organized swim classes at the local pool so she could teach herself to swim (she was seven years old at the time). Even now, she recalls that experience and the confidence she gained (and the power of trusting her own gut) when learning something new.

Leslee of cr8zygrrlceramics.etsy.com, via the Minimalist Parenting blog: I had a brilliant teacher for high school anatomy and physiology—Donna Mae Huberman—who gave pop quizzes called “Four Sixes.” She would bring six students to the front of the class, then ask them questions from that week’s lesson. If four of the six students gave correct answers, then everyone in the class received points. Yes, I learned my A&P, but I learned something more important: we are each responsible for the success of the group. Every person has something she can contribute that benefits the class, the school, and society as a whole.

Jarasa via the Minimalist Parenting blog: One learning memory that has stayed with me all my life is my mother’s mantra: “There is always something you can learn from everyone you meet. What are you going to learn, what behavior are you going to adopt, from this teacher/friend/enemy/acquaintance?” One learning memory that I wish I had learned as a child in a family where academic success was always the top priority, but am only learning now as an adult, is that “People may not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

As you consider your own learning trajectory, note how long and varied it is (and that it’s far from over). Just keeping this in mind may help you dial back some of the worry that you must find the needle of a perfect school in the haystack of choices out there.

That said, your kid isn’t you and may have a different trajectory to follow. There are basic academic skills every kid needs to learn, and there is college and a future career to consider. Of course this is true. But we would argue that focusing your attention not on the educational system but instead on your family’s unique values and priorities will better prepare your child for a world full of competition and choices.

If your kid is safe, engaged, and generally happy, he’s learning, no matter what the stats or the test scores or the educational experts say. There’s plenty of time to learn skills, but only a few years of childhood to develop a foundation of confidence, problem-solving ability, and flexibility that will make learning those skills (and operating in a fast-changing world) that much easier.

Think about it like this: not so long ago, typing was a major skill taught in school. Knowing how to skillfully operate a typewriter was a benefit when looking for a job. Now, typing is part of the “unofficial curriculum” for the toddlers who are playing on their parents’ iPads. The skills will come—it’s the wherewithal and creativity to use them that kids need to practice. And they can practice building those muscles in all sorts of environments.

Cultivate a Culture of Curiosity

So where does your newly expanded educational vision leave you? Doesn’t Minimalist Parenting call for the narrowing of options, not expanding them to include everything? Indeed it does. We’ll focus on mechanics in the next section. For now, rejoice in the knowledge that just about everything constitutes learning, not just the “educational” stuff!

We love our Sesame Street as much as the next parent, but the reason it’s such an enduring educational tool is because kids love it. Which means that Looney Toons is also educational, in a totally different way for a totally different kid. Embrace it all (if it fits with your values) and enjoy seeing what comes of it with your kids.

I was a big fan of the animated series Super Friends while I was growing up. You know: Superman, Wonder Woman, and the gang? My favorite Super Friend was Aquaman: THE GUY COULD COMMUNICATE WITH FISH. Looking back, Aquaman was the beginning of my fascination with ocean habitat. When I outgrew Aquaman, it was Jacques Cousteau, then sea-themed books and art projects. I now drag my family on tide pool quests at every beach we visit in part because of time “wasted” watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Follow up on your curiosity, and encourage your kids to exercise theirs. The subject doesn’t matter as long as you’re excited and engaged. Model a hunger for learning and a willingness to get creative and dig a little to find an answer.

• Explore corners of your town you’ve never seen before.

• Serve novel foods for dinner (even if they don’t always get eaten).

• Read the newspaper comics together—some of our best family conversations start there.

• Hang out at the library; check out books that look interesting. Schedule family reading time, even if that means flipping through picture books for fifteen minutes.

• Listen to different types of music.

• Walk, ride your bike, hike. Anywhere.

• Decide which weeds in your backyard are interesting enough to leave alone and let grow.

• Cook a meal with your kid.

• Grocery shop together.

• Give your kids household responsibilities and praise their effort (even if the results are questionable). Then expect a bit more.

• Insert anything that interests you HERE.

The goal is to give your kids a chance to get comfortable working to find an answer, whether it involves words, numbers, the physical world, or ideas. Mental tenacity is the foundation of learning at every age.

This is a good time to mention extracurricular activities: the myriad classes, camps, workshops, teams, and groups available to modern families. Assuming you have the budget and the transportation, many of these classes offer a wonderful way to expose kids to new things . . . within reason. The pull toward “more, more, more” is strong when it comes to after-school activities. Because of that, we devote chapter 10 to the role extracurriculars can play in a minimalist family life.

Encourage Responsibility and Independence

Another piece of the education puzzle is a kid’s understanding of his own competence—the fact that he can, indeed, accomplish good, useful, world-changing things (even if his “world” at the moment is his very messy room). By giving your kids household chores at an early age, you show them that their work matters, and that they are part of a larger system (their family) that relies on their participation.

Chores are a crash course in problem solving (if I put the books away first, my room takes less time to clean), delayed gratification (if I finish my chores I get to watch TV), and skill building (I know how to make my own lunch!), all blocks in the foundation of school and life success. If you let your imagination spin out a few years, you can picture a kid who knows how to operate the washing machine, cook dinner, manage his money, and mow the lawn. Not a bad helper to have around the house, and one who’s on track for a smoother transition to adulthood.

We talk specifically about chores in chapter 3, but it’s worth mentioning their importance here because they translate directly to schoolwork. It may be hard to see it when kids are young, but soon enough they’ll have homework to do, and the more accustomed to independent work they are, the more they will assume homework is their responsibility, not yours. Take it from us, when that conversation happens after school is in session, it’s a much harder sell.

Consulting Your Family’s Educational Compass

Many parenting experiences bring one’s own childhood memories smack dab to the forefront, and school’s a biggie. As we approach our kids’ school years, we bring along a suitcase full of hopes, fears, expectations, and assumptions. Now that you’re looking at education with bigger eyes, it’s a good time to examine your unspoken assumptions to see if they fit your minimalist vision of family life . . . and if they make sense for your kid.

Zeroing In on Your School Assumptions

Take a few moments to recall your own school experience and the familial expectations surrounding it. (This is a good time for your notebook and pencil.) Answer these questions:

• Did you enjoy school? Did you enjoy some years more than others? Why? Why not? Be as specific as you can—your answers will tell you a lot about your school-related preconceptions.

• Did you find teacher approval, grades, and other forms of evaluation motivating or intimidating?

• Regarding school friends: Did you have any? One or two close friends? Lots of friends? Were peers a source of pleasure or resentment? Was peer pressure an issue?

• Regarding your parents’ reaction to/involvement with school: What were your parents’ attitudes about learning and school performance? Did they care about your grades? Your happiness? Were they involved? If not, did you still feel supported? (This is important: parents don’t necessarily need to be actively involved to be present and supportive of their kids’ educations.)

• Were you labeled a “good kid” or a “troublemaker”? (Labels aren’t always accurate, but they can have a big effect on a kid’s self-perception.)

• Did you prefer following your curiosity or getting the right answer?

• Was school an important part of your overall place in your community, either neighborhood-based or otherwise?

• Looking back, would you characterize your school years as “the glory days” or “doing time till real life began”?

As you think about your answers, check in with your inner bus driver (the one you met in chapter 1). What’s she telling you? To look forward to and be excited about your child’s transition to school, or to worry, be suspicious, and protect?

Your answers—and your assumptions based on your experience—are extremely important tools as you map out your priorities for your child’s education. You may uncover a surprisingly positive reaction to strict academics and grades. Or you may discover that most of your school learning was social in nature—the memory of the academics recedes in importance. Your assumptions are unique to your upbringing and environment, and can inform you as you begin to make educational choices.

Identifying Your Family’s Educational Priorities

Now that you’re aware of the educational assumptions you already have, it’s time to turn your gaze outward toward your hopes for your child’s education. What is an educated person to you? If your kid comes out of his school years with one or two things, what do you hope those would be?

Is your priority creative problem solving? A global perspective and a foreign language? A strong work ethic? Exposure to art and music? A grounding in the neighborhood? What about your partner: Are his or her values different than yours?

Honor these values and your understanding of your child as you familiarize yourself with the educational landscape. Trust your child’s resilience; most of the time, she will adapt to whatever environment you choose. (Not always . . . but there’s always time for course correction, which we’ll talk about later in the chapter.) Educational philosophies are as subject to fad and fashion as anything else, so don’t be afraid to stick to your priorities as you explore school options . . . there are many paths that lead to a thoughtful, curious, well-informed adulthood.

To my father, “an education” meant earnest, devoted attention to schoolwork with a focus on the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, and history; respect for authority figures; and an eventual college degree. He grew up in India so didn’t have much interest in alternative forms of education or creative expression. My mother grew up in Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s, so her school memories were vastly different. Peer pressure colored her experience of those years, so her concerns spanned school performance and the social environment.

Whenever I needed to ask my dad’s permission to attend a social engagement, his response was, “A book is your only true friend.” Oh, the irony. I was so eager to fit in with my peers (given the racial and socioeconomic differences I felt so palpably) that I found myself steering away from academics and the “book is your only true friend” mantra (I became a B-/C+ student in high school as a result) because I didn’t want to fit the brainy Asian stereotype. This—and my career 180—colors the way I view my kids’ education. Of course I want them to do well in school (though mostly because I remember how confusing and painful it was to “not get it” in the classroom), but more importantly, I want them to find what excites them, whether it be science or the arts or something else (as of this writing, Laurel wants to be a cake artist when she grows up).

Factoring In Practicalities: Money and Time

Much as we might like to choose a school based solely on the educational environment, it has to fit into our actual lives. Long drives, high tuitions, and faraway friends can add enough stress to the family system to cancel out whatever benefit the school offers.

As you’re looking at your child’s school options, consider the independence, exercise, and neighborhood grounding that comes with walking or biking to school. The close-to-home connections and friendships at the local public school are so valuable when your child gets old enough to assume responsibility for his own social life (think: running over to a friend’s house to play). Assuming the local school is safe and of reasonably good quality, you can be assured it’s filled with a variety of good and bad teachers, programs, and opportunities . . . as is every school.

Choosing a School

You’ve identified your family’s priorities, values, and practical capabilities. Hopefully this has allowed you to narrow down your list of potential schools. If you’ve reduced your choices to a single school, congratulations! You can skip this section and go make yourself a cup of coffee! But if not, the $64,000 question remains: Which school do you choose?

Good news: there’s likely no wrong answer. Each school (including the ones that cost $64,000 per year) has its strengths and weaknesses, its rock star teachers and its duds. You’ve already done the work of figuring out what’s important to and possible for your family—now all you have to do is choose the school that seems most promising. It’s really that simple. As you move through this process, try to make room for some new beliefs.

Don’t Feel Obligated to Research Every Option Available

Do some Googling, talk to friends, and go on some school tours. When it comes down to it, the final call is best made via your gut (the preferred signal of your inner bus driver). Sending your child to the school that feels best is more important than choosing based on test scores or community reputation. Think about it: you’re trusting the school and its teachers with the care and well being of your child. That relationship must begin with a feeling of trust, or it’s bound to be tense right out of the gate.

I felt like a loser when I found out that other moms spent months researching and visiting preschools, interviewing teachers, getting their kids on waiting lists, etc. We visited two or three schools then chose the one that felt right. A stroke of luck got our kid a spot in a small, home-based preschool, but looking back now, I know, had it not worked out, he would have been happy and well cared for at another school.

For me, Laurel’s preschool choice was rooted in logistics several years before she became a preschooler. Because I was returning to work, I needed a school that offered infant care, which is definitely harder to find, and I wanted to minimize transitions (ideally, an infant care center that continued on up to preschool). As I considered the pros and cons of the prospects, I thought, “These options are all fine. They are clean, safe looking, and it looks like there are plenty of things to play with inside and outside.” The school we ended up choosing runs programs from infant to pre-K.

Just before Laurel started preschool, several families transferred out because they wanted a more “rigorous curriculum” (the day care adheres to the learn-through-play philosophy). I remember thinking, “Man, I have no idea what that even means for a three-year-old.” I don’t know how those kids are doing now—whether their rigorous curriculum has delivered its promises—but I do know Laurel grew and learned so much there and does very well in school now. It has been so great to return to this same day care with Violet.

No School Is Perfect

Every school has its burnt-out teachers, less-than-stellar programs, and classroom troublemakers. Some years will be better than others, both academically and socially. This is good. Ups and downs are part of the learning process and help build resilience and tolerance. Ultimately, variability sets kids up for a happier life.

Sam once had a teacher who was strict to the point of inflexibility. He gave fantastic, well-structured assignments and held his students to high standards, but his delivery was pretty stern. As a result, Sam often bristled at his requests. I know that a gentler approach would have worked better for Sam. But I also know that this teacher is extremely skilled—it showed in the quality of the instruction and the assignments. Sam and I had many conversations about how to work with someone whose personality doesn’t “fit” yours. He learned about the concept of “wiggle room”—with some teachers you’ve got a little, and with others, you don’t. Rael and I listened to his frustrations and sympathized with the difficulties of operating within tight boundaries, but we never tolerated disrespect toward the teacher. While I believe that his motivation may have suffered as a result of the tension with this teacher, Sam learned more about his capabilities than he had in any year previous.

The Importance of the Family Support System

We’ve talked about how everyday learning plays a huge role in kids’ development. And so it follows that the environment and support that parents provide their kids (not to mention whatever the kids are going through in their lives socially, emotionally, and academically) can be just as influential as the kids’ formal curriculum and instruction (probably more so).

Given Jon’s and my experience, I now believe that the way parents/mentors help shape a child’s journey and the child’s own readiness/motivation are better predictors of school “success” than school ranking is. I went to a first-rate public high school but I was an unmotivated student. I only got As in music; otherwise, my grades were totally average. It wasn’t until I got to college that my academic spark was lit—I was inspired by my professors and the material, and motivated by the fact that I had to put myself through school starting sophomore year. I went on to earn a master’s and a PhD, and to finish a postdoctoral fellowship at a trio of Boston’s finest academic/medical institutions.

In (initial) contrast, Jon attended a less prestigious high school where he graduated at the top of his class. He went to a top Boston-area college and proceeded to earn two master’s degrees. I often joke that our starting points were so different yet we ended up at the same place.

These experiences were critical in framing our approach to Laurel’s schooling and to choosing where we lived. Boston is an academic hotbed. People will sacrifice a lot financially in order to live in towns with the best school rankings. But given that Laurel did not appear to have any special learning need, Jon and I felt confident that wherever Laurel went to school—so long as it was clean and safe—would be fine.

Just before Laurel started kindergarten, our lease was up and we were ready to put down roots. We ended up settling in a community ten minutes outside of Boston, where the schools are not ranked as highly as the higher-income surrounding towns. When we told people where we were moving, several asked if we were worried about the schools. But housing was less expensive and we loved the diversity of the community. It has worked out wonderfully. The parent community is amazing, and the neighborhood is incredibly friendly. Laurel is learning and thriving. Her school has more than enough to offer.

The take-the-good-with-the-bad approach to school helps everyone. Your kid comes to learn that she’s strong enough to handle a variety of situations, including those that are less than ideal. Your child’s teacher will have a partner in you, rather than an adversary. And you can relax, knowing that the natural fluctuations in your child’s school experience are building toward her Education with a capital E.

Assessing School “Fit”

Hopefully, your child’s school years will go smoothly and the inevitable bumps will be infrequent and relatively small. But what exactly does “going smoothly” mean? Sometimes it’s hard to tell because the worlds of home and school can be so separate. Surely, we want more from our kids’ school years than for them simply to go by without incident—we want our children to thrive. How do you know what “thriving” looks like when your child’s week-to-week and year-to-year experience of school varies so widely?

The answer lies in knowing which problems are symptoms of temporary discomfort and which signal a deeper, more persistent problem that requires action. It’s a maddeningly moving target, and it requires paying close attention to both your child and your gut.

Evaluating Academic Progress

We all know that kids learn and develop at different speeds. One kid weighs forty pounds on his fifth birthday, while another hits that mark at age seven. One kid begins to read in preschool, while another takes until second grade to hit her stride. The same is true with social skills, maturity, and the ability to sit still, follow directions, and hold a reciprocal conversation . . . these skills develop at different times for different kids.

But somehow, in school, it’s almost impossible to resist comparing your kids to others the same age and then worrying when you see differences, especially because comparison and assessment is part of what school’s all about. Kids are supposed to hit certain academic “benchmarks” at certain times, and variations in social skills, when far enough from the norm, can prove complicated in the classroom setting (and set you up for more one-on-one time with the principal than you might want).

Think About the Long Term

Put school’s academic and social benchmarks into a longer-term perspective. Just because your kid isn’t reading at the end of kindergarten or sitting quietly during story time doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem or a bad fit with a teacher or a school. It may be a simple matter of letting your child’s natural development take its course.

Talk to—and Trust—the Teacher

Here’s when maintaining open, friendly, trusting communication with your child’s teacher really pays off. Not only can you check in with the teacher when problems arise, you can collaborate on a solution. Teachers have the great benefit of watching many kids go through the system, and can provide valuable perspective not only on your child’s development, but on differences in behavior between school and home. It’s wonderful to know another caring, knowledgeable adult’s eyes are on your kid’s well being.

Mira is a conscientious student, and she loves her teachers. When she misses an assignment, it’s not due to apathy—it’s because her still-developing organizational skills aren’t consistent. I take a fairly hands-off approach to my kids’ homework—I offer support and structure to get it done, but I leave the work to them. So when I read on Mira’s progress report that she didn’t turn in an ongoing assignment, I let the teacher know that I was aware of it, and that I’d remind Mira once, but would leave it to her after that. I showed Mira how to use a calendar to remind herself about upcoming deadlines. I gave her a stack of Post-it notes to use as visual cues. We’ll see if the assignment gets done. Either way, the teacher supports my prioritizing Mira’s independence, and Mira will learn something useful from the experience no matter how it turns out.

Ultimately, Go with Your Gut

Comparing your child with his peers can help you identify potential problems if you’re already feeling that something’s off. It’s crucial to keep tabs on your gut here, because you’re the one who knows your kid best. You have to walk the fine line between supporting your child, modeling respect for the school system, and advocating for your child if necessary.

Teachers, like everyone, have their biases, and so tend to see “problems” through their own experiential lenses and will respond (and report) accordingly. For example, where one teacher sees a “behavior issue,” another teacher will see an anxious child in need of support. Teachers are also constrained by their time, and must attend to the needs of every child in class. Because of these other demands, through no fault of their own, they may miss subtle signals of trouble brewing.

If the teacher insists things are normal but you can’t shake the feeling that something’s off with your child, don’t ignore it—even if you feel intimidated or you worry that you’re hovering. We can’t stress this enough. Kids are often embarrassed to ask for help. They may not even know how to identify their problem. Think of your intuition as your child’s benevolent watchdog, keeping an eye on the situation and assisting when it senses a disturbance.

Involve Your Child

Most of the time, when given the tools and a little direction, kids and teachers can partner to solve problems themselves. Help your child practice advocating for himself—to ask respectful questions, to make reasonable suggestions, to seek out the teacher’s help before and after school, and to meet with the school counselor.

If Necessary, Bring in Extra Help

Sometimes your child will need a little more help, either from you or from a school specialist, doctor, tutor, or therapist. Don’t be afraid to bring in the help she (and you) needs.

If School’s Not Working

What if, despite everyone’s best effort, school’s just not working? How do you know if the problem is the school, the teacher, your kid, or you? How do you know if it’s better to bet on an additional year of maturity and development, next year’s teacher, or a new educational setting?

Now’s the time to depend on your inner bus driver to lead, because there’s no fact-based way to ascertain the “right” answer. The path forward depends on your intuitive understanding of the situation and the state of your child. What’s right for most kids may not be right for yours, and embracing that takes bravery and confidence. Few among us can resist the desire to fit in, especially when we’re used to following the advice of friends and authority figures, and when the alternatives are unfamiliar.

Sam’s early school years were full of struggle. Teachers, friends, and medical professionals all told us that the situation would right itself with structure, maturity, and time. But over the years we watched him sink further into depression and hopelessness. We finally accepted that the usual methods that work for most kids weren’t working for him, and we were running out of time. We had to trust ourselves—and Sam—when we made the decision to homeschool him. It was frightening to go against the advice of the authority figures in our lives (including some family members), especially because we had never considered homeschooling an option. But that’s where our inner bus driver was pointing. After eighteen months of home-based education, Sam was happier, healthier, stronger, and more confident than ever, so much so that he decided to return to public school and has been thriving there ever since.

Know that, if a particular school isn’t working for your child, there are many options for her education and that no choice has to last forever. Course correction beats perfection every time. What’s not right now might be right later, and you can make a change should that ever become the case.

Education is so much bigger than school. In the end, the goal is a happy, well-grounded adulthood, and there are many “right” paths and adventures on the way there.