Insights – the importance of “struggle time”

Dear Community,

This time a year ago I had the privilege of hearing eminent educational theorist, Sir Ken Robinson, speak at the National Future Schools Conference. As a prompt he presented a perplexing image of a multi-story brick building with many open windows. At each of these windows there were a number of adults balanced precariously on window ledges clinging to the window frames and looking inside the building. Robinson explained that the image was taken in Bihar in India and illustrated the extraordinary lengths that local parents will go to throw answers to their children in order to help them in the university entrance exams. While the audience found the image quite shocking, it is no less so than the stories that are now emerging from the College admissions scandal that has recently broken in the United States.

Some of the more bizarre details that have emerged there includes the story of a parent who not only paid for someone to take on his child’s identity to sit an entrance exam but also deceived his child into thinking that the exam was a sit-at-home one and the father then acted as a fake invigilator so that his child would think that they earned their corrupt entry through their own merit.

There are many disturbing lessons that emerge from these two episodes from very different cultures. One is that the parents seem to have lost sight of the educational purpose of schooling in favour of gaming a system to advantage their children. Another is that it seems to be illustrative of the phenomenon of “lawnmower parenting” which is known in the United States as “snowplough parenting”. This involves a parent removing any potential obstacles or challenges from their child’s life so that they won’t have to experience the gamut of negative emotions that can come from failure.

This is, of course, manifestly short sighted. It robs their children of the opportunity to develop coping skills and a toolkit of strategies to apply when things do not go their way. In a recent article in The New York Times entitled “How Parents are Robbing their Children of Adulthood”, Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich decry this phenomenon. They explain that in order to ensure that a child has a fret-free and smooth childhood, some parents are adopting strategies that ensure a more difficult adulthood.

Miller and Bromwich explored College dropout rates and discussed examples that were linked to a lack of coping skills and strategies. They explained: “One came home because there was a rat in the dorm room. Some didn’t like their roommates. Others said it was too much work, and they had never learned independent study skills. One didn’t like to eat food with sauce.”

The last example related to a student who had never liked her food doused with sauce. Throughout her childhood her parents intervened to prevent her having to face the prospect of eating sauce-covered food. They called her school, summer camp providers and her friends’ parents to ensure that any meal or snack would be sauceless. Unfortunately, when their daughter arrived at College, there was no one to advocate for her and she could not cope with the food options which clearly were too saucy.

In this lesson we see that intervening too hard on a child’s behalf disrupted their opportunities to adjust their perspective and learn to accept the imperfections in the world.

Parenting is never easy. There is indeed a delicate balance between the counter-intuitive prospect of stepping back and allowing our children to experience discomfort, or even hurt, and facing the ramifications of their being ill equipped for adulthood.

At a recent Year 4 assembly when the students were highlighting their learning, they spoke of the importance of “struggle time”. This is a message that we try to ingrain in our students from early childhood. They should view mistakes as opportunities and struggle as a necessary component of learning.

Modelling, through our language and behaviour, that there is more than one pathway to achieve success is far more likely to benefit our students than trying to remove obstacles to force success.

I am certain that adopting such approaches and the growth mindset that develops from them are great markers for the healthy maturation and holistic development of emotionally robust adults.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light

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