When I was looking for an image of school for this article, I found only smiling faces of students fully engaged in the classroom or having fun on the playground, or smiling as they read their books.
These images of school can be misleading. The news is filled with stories of failing school systems, cities that can't afford their schools anymore, new programs that tend to marginalize even faster the lower tier of kids, declining competency at high school and college levels, violence and dropouts across the country, and increasing prevalence of depression, attention issues, and drug use among our school youth. Our kids are not all smiles in our schools.
Some experts are taking a longer view of schooling than we usually hear about. For example, John Taylor Gatto, who won accolades for his work in the New York State School System, has written extensively on how schools actually fail to educate our students. We have a serious disconnect between, on the one hand, our popular conception that a good education opens doors, builds leaders, and fosters creative and critical thinking and, on the other hand, a system of education which was developed over a hundred and fifty years ago to create obedient soldiers and was further refined a hundred years ago to create obedient employees to fuel the industrial revolution.
Today kids who have access to global information on their smart phones are less and less likely to take to the regimentation of conventional schooling unless they personally feel the specific training a particular class affords is something they really want. When books were hand-copied back when the first schools emerged a few thousand years ago, a few lucky kids were sent to academy to get the specialized knowledge of the professions. But the vast majority of children learned all they needed to know from their PARENTS. And even then not from instruction by parents so much as from being around them, helping them at whatever their own skill level was at the time, watching them closely, and being inspired by their maturity and skills.
Now many parents I talk with seem eager to send their children off to school and have delegated all that traditional educational responsibility to institutions that were ill-equipped from the beginning to fill the bill. Meanwhile the economy has forced middle class parents and even upper class parents to think they must both work in order to give their children the advantages they need to succeed in life. They assume that they must give up their children to these institutions.
We have no idea what the emotional costs are to this new pattern of family life. Many of the specialists studying these consequences have themselves delegated their parenting to these institutions, so they will have a bias against deciding that they and their children are suffering as a result. Today young mothers don't even know what they may be missing by going back to work so soon, because their own mothers did it too.
Such commentators as Ivan Illich and Henry Giroux and many others such as leading advocates of home schooling, John Holt and Robert E. Kay, have addressed these issues in great depth and deserve serious investigation. Giroux recently labeled schools "dead zones of the imagination."
Meanwhile, since most families will be sending their children to school, what are parents to do?
First, be clear where school ends and parenting begins. Avoid becoming the school enforcer at home. Be the parent and demonstrate life and living to your children by being with them and having them with you as much as possible. Ethics, courtesy, self-restraint, emotional processing, meaningful friendship, optimism, graciousness, kindness, healthy daily habits, strength of character and more are still best learned at home.
Second, be clear with your children that school is their responsibility. Don't intervene or check on grades unless asked by your child. Let them know that it is your decision to have them go to school and tell them why, in age-appropriate ways. It is better that they know that it is your decision than that they believe the state can force you, their parent who is in charge of their well-being, to do something against your will. If you want your child to believe she or he has control over their destiny, then you need to let them know you believe you have control over yours.
Third, don't quiz or test your child. There is already way too much of this in school. A few fascinating experiments with children have demonstrated that they learn more and retain more when not rated, compared, embarrassed, or put on the spot to prove they are absorbing information. Watch closely to check their growing competence without making them feel always on the block.
Fourth, honor your child's reactions to school events, academic and otherwise. Listen and suggest. Don't jump in with solutions unless sincerely asked for your advice. Children will come up with their own solutions if they have a caring, engaged, respected, and trusted listener who can affirm their ability to handle their own problems.
Fifth, protect your child's home environment and lifestyle. Make sure they get good food, good sleep, good relaxation, private space, time to play, good self-care routines, and caring supervision of their external connections - that is, social media and time with friends. These physical factors make a huge difference in whether they can weather the challenges of this rather strange institution we have invented called school.
Randy Rolfe's Take Home Tips: Don't be a substitute teacher at home. Remain the parent. Support your child in her or his activities away from home, including school, but only set safe parameters. Don't try to control or direct. Your job is to be the parent, to love, protect, set an example, guide, not to be homework cop or otherwise enforcer of school directives. When children realize school is their responsibility, studies show they are much more willing to perform what needs to be done to make it in school.