Last week I took a freshman English class. It was the graveyard slot: the last period of the last day before Spring Break so I expected to be given a run for my money. Instead, the students worked diligently on the work set until the bell rang. But that wasn't the most surprising thing about the lesson. What stood out for me was when a young girl took a call from her mother. (Phone use in U.S. classrooms is a whole separate blog post!). Over the next few minutes the girl quietly wept and begged her mum to listen to her. The call ended and she continued to cry, then hyperventilate and then tell me that her mum was going to kill her. Panicking a little at this point, I tried to comfort her - taking her to one side and reassuring her that whatever had happened, it really couldn't be so bad... 'But it is!' she sobbed. "I got an F in a test!"
How we parent our children is a deeply personal thing comprised of our own experiences, beliefs and attitudes and of course, cultural background. And this is startlingly obvious in the differences I'm seeing between American and British parenting styles.
The things that shape my own parenting of my two teenage boys are of a potent mix of my history of depression along with being a bullied, high-achieving student and the first in my family to go to university. Despite the best efforts of my extremely loving parents, I did not always cope well with the resulting pressure and so, years later, as I navigate my way through my sons' school years, exams and university choices, I know that my judgement (and my expectations) at times have been clouded by my own memories of stress and anxiety. Maybe I over-compensated - maybe I made them feel too relaxed when it came to school work. Perhaps I should have pushed harder. That said, with Son#1 holding his own at university and Son#2 winning at life as a cross-culture kid, I'm seeing two resilient and fabulous young men taking shape before my eyes despite, rather than because of my own experiences.
My sixteen-year-old son recently paid me the biggest (albeit unintentional) compliment. We'd been discussing the difference between American and British parents - he had observed that many of his American friends (all delightful kids) were often punished (grounded, allowances withheld, phones confiscated etc.) for poor grades. Even a B in a test could result in a rebuke. This is something that didn't seem to happen with such regularity among his British friends and he went on to say that he thought we were 'much cooler' (high praise indeed!). Punishment for failure was not, in his view, an effective way of getting the best from a person. In the same way, he noted that American parents seem to be far less trusting of their teens - bags searched for alcohol, strict curfews and chaperoned events. Our position has always been that we will trust our boys until they give us reason not to. Here, however, parents seem to expect the worse and keep a tighter rein on their teenagers. It got me thinking that perhaps I am too naive in my approach. But if trust is something that is earned, surely we must give our teens opportunities to earn it?
Nonetheless, the more I see and hear about parenting styles here, the more I'm questioning myself as a mum - am I too naive/lax/easy-going. Of course I know that I'm falling into the trap of judging others and judging myself - therein lies the danger of generalising and making assumptions based on very little information. I shouldn't assume that all American parents are strict authoritarians, nor should I doubt myself for being more lenient and permissive when I obviously also have high standards and clear boundaries in my parenting armoury.
Furthermore, America doesn't have the monopoly on stressed-out teens and the issues both here and in the U.K. aren't just parent-related. Being a teacher in West London provided me with far too many reminders of the pressures of a deeply flawed education system. Too many broken teenagers sat across the desk from me and poured out their worries, fears and stress along with their tears. Too many disclosed unbearable pressures and expectations forced upon them, too many of them just couldn't cope. Did I want my kids (my own and my students) to do well at school? Of course I did, but more than anything, I just wanted them to be happy. My Husband shared my views and his own educational experience was proof that not everyone follows a traditional path. His career success has not been as a result of early academic excellence, but of gaining life experience, skills and maturity before finding and focusing on his passion.
The main problem I see is that, as long as education systems favour a 'one-size-fits-all' model, parents who want the best for their kids will fall into the trap of pushing for academic excellence over everything else. And whilst that might lead to a top grades and scholarships, it may well come at the cost of a child's mental health.
Maybe my parenting style should have been more Tiger Mum and less Bagpuss (a bit too loose at the seams), but what this last year has shown me is that ultimately, there is no one perfect way to parent. Whether we punish our kids for getting poor grades or shrug our shoulders and say never mind - believing that there is a right way and a wrong way to parent is maybe the biggest parent trap... after all, aren't we all just doing our best?