Archive for the ‘children and schools’ category

Support from the Sidelines

June 25, 2009

I spend a lot of time at youth sporting events.  Standing in cold ice arenas watching my daughter and her teammates skate down the ice in their bright yellow jerseys determined to put the puck in the net. Or sitting in the bleachers as my son and his buddies dribble and pass the ball around the court, trying to find the open player to take a shot.  Now that it is summer, you can find me most weeknights at one of the local parks, sitting in a lawn chair with the other parents, cheering on the neighborhood kids.

My children do other activities as well.  As Annette Lareau has pointed out in her book Unequal Childhoods, middle-class children participate in a great number and wide variety of organized, adult-directed activities.  My kids do music, art, chess club, and so forth, but it is sports that dominate our schedule and time on a regular basis. Game schedules often determine our meal times, our social lives, and even when my husband and I leave from work or whether we toil into the wee hours of the night because we had to take off early that day to get to a game.

No doubt there are times when we recognize the absurdity of it all.  In fact, all of us parents do. The other night another one of the parents told a joke to the group of 11 year old girls after a softball game: “How many kids who play sports does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The girls looked up waiting for the punch line, but really did not get it when it came: “One, and the rest of the world revolves around her.” The parents, of course, got the joke and let out exasperated, but knowing groans.  Indeed, in Unequal Childhoods, Lareau argues that middle-class families are harried and stressed out by their children’s schedules.  Bill Doherty, Family Social Science professor and director of the Families and Democracy Project at the University of Minnesota points out the problematic nature of today’s “excessive parenting” that he sees as parental over-involvement, the intensification of youth sports, and a displacement of other important family practices such as shared family meals due to demanding athletic schedules. Psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld also offers his critique of what he calls “hyper-parenting” of “the overscheduled child.”  (Although for evidence to the contrary see Cohen’s “The Myth of the Overscheduled Child” in the current issue of Contexts).  So, when we head to the ball field tonight will we be contributing to our family’s stress level and reproducing a kind of warped, pressure-filled childhood over-directed by adults?  Probably, at least to a certain extent.

But we will also be doing something else. We do this because we see it as a way to show our support and interest in our kids and their efforts. Showing up at our children’s games has become a part of the carework that we do as parents. I am not suggesting that it should be, and there are certainly problems associated with it as Doherty and others have pointed out. But in our contemporary culture, especially among middle-class families, becoming a parent-fan is an expected way for parents to express their care and love for their kids.  Just yesterday, my daughter confirmed that she viewed our attendance at her games as an expression of care. “I love to see the parents at the games,” she said. “It makes me feel support.”

And although it may make us rush around to get the kids to the games on time, it also, ironically, becomes a way that we take care of ourselves and each other. In truth, once we manage to get there, going to the games gives us all a chance to unwind and socialize with some pretty fun folks. We can escape our jobs, housework, and the general worries of life and just relax. We build community and connection. We exchange good books, phone numbers of trustworthy mechanics, as well as an odd variety and frightening quantity of flavored sunflower seeds. We also share our troubles or offer a listening ear to those who need some support.  Last night one mom vented her frustrations with her ailing mother’s medical team. Of late, many have told stories of job loss and financial worries.  And we jointly cheer on all the children, creating for them a “village” of perhaps “excessive parents.”

It is likely that this phenomenon is largely associated with class and culture. But there are some signs that it has become embedded more generally in our expectations of childrearing. Earlier this week I was analyzing transcripts for a research project of Hmong adolescent girls talking about their parents.  These girls were talking about how they felt their immigrant parents did not show them as much affection or love as they thought American parents did. This is a familiar theme among Asian American second-generation youth as has been pointed out by sociologist Karen Pyke. These girls used the example of their parents’ absence at their sporting events as a sign of their lack of affection.  As one girl recalled “I played badminton and I always asked my mom, are you going to come? ‘But do I need to go?’  Of course you don’t need to go. But I will always ask her to come see. Come with me.  ‘Do I need to go?’ you know.  Of course you don’t need to go.  But I want you to come.  Every other American kid’s mom is there, you know.”   Another girl concurs “I used to be really sad. Look up and not see any one Hmong person. All their parents show up. And parents getting involved shows the kids that they care. Encourages them.”  While their poor and immigrant parents had not yet taken on this cultural expectation that they needed to demonstrate their devotion through coming to their children’s sporting events, it was clear that their daughters had.  If this becomes expected of parents in a general, parents whose work schedules or other caregiving obligations prevent them from having the flexibility, time and resources to go to games or enroll their kids in sports may limit their access to being viewed as, or viewing themselves as, good parents.

The other night one of the other parents rolled her eyes as she approached a group of parents at the playground.  “Why are we here?” She asked. “Why do we keep showing up?”  Our critical view and self-questioning about showing up is healthy, I think.  It keeps us in check and from becoming one of those crazy parents who flips out over a referee’s call or who yells at the kids.  But despite all the real problems associated with youth sports and “excessive parenting,” we show up because we care, and we want to make sure our kids and communities know it.


Teaching Empathy

April 12, 2009

Did anyone see that piece on empathy in the New York Times last week?  Middle school administrators talked about how you can’t have “kids saving Darfur [in the classroom] and isolating a peer in the lunchroom.”    But some students questioned how much the school should be allowed to interfere, and others said you can talk about empathy all you want, there are still going to be mean girls and bullying boys.

Is empathy teachable?  Is it appropriate for schools to teach it?

The three schools I studied for my book were very different from each other in their empathy curriculum.  The two public schools sometimes talked about character education, had a few posters about treating others with respect hung up on the classroom walls, but generally did not get too involved in kid culture.  But the third one — a private, progressive school — considered children’s empathy as important as math.

They had annual events devoted to raising children’s awareness about particular kinds of difference.  They incorporated varying cultures in festivals and art.  But empathy was a priority on more than just a few special days a year.  Teachers considered it their job to build a collaborative culture in the classroom.

One teacher told me:  “There are days when the kids come in from recess, and I was planning to teach math, and they’ll come in and say “Hey Jimmy said this or that to me, called me a name,” or whatever and then I’ll think to myself “whoops, there goes math.”

Did their empathy curriculum work?  Well, yes and no.  It did seem to work for the sorts of differences that are easier to celebrate — racial/ethnic background, sexuality.  Kids at this school were more empathetic in these areas, the school seemed like a friendlier, safer place for kids, and many of the kids there also seemed more aware of the political dimensions of these differences.  But social class differences were challenging — harder for the school to mount a concerted campaign about, harder for people to find ways to celebrate such difference, harder for the community to talk about explicitly.  In the meantime, some parents did report to me instances of teasing based on class differences.

Still, the empathy curriculum worked, where it was being applied.  And it gave me some skepticism about the middle school discussed in the New York Times article, where administrators and students argued about whether or not the school could ban the wearing of special sweatshirts commonly given out after Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, wearable party favors displaying the names of all those who had been invited.  If your school community cannot agree about whether or not those sweatshirts are appropriate for school wear, then you do not have an empathy curriculum that is working.


(This is the logo for the Mosaic Project, a Bay Area organization that brings kids of varying backgrounds together and helps them navigate difference safely).

What does this have to do with kids’ consumer culture, which is ostensibly what the book is about?  As it turns out, everything.  Kids’ anxieties about difference fueled their consumer emergencies and shaped their relationships with each other, with their parents, with themselves.

To call this “character education” diminishes the fundamental import of this issue, makes it seem more optional, makes it seem as if schools don’t bother with it, then the matter will just lie there, dormant, waiting for a teacher to have time outside of test prep and NCLB mandates to pay attention to how kids treat each other.

But actually, the kids in the classrooms with the posters and not much other guidance on this issue learned their own lessons about the social world and the knife edge of difference, in the sort of Lord-of-the-Flies fury that resulted when kids’ culture went unremarked upon.

Teaching empathy matters, not only for how kids turn out, but the nature of their daily lives right now.  Empathy curriculum honors difference, and as kids will tell you, we are all the Other at one point or another.