Madeline Levine is (mostly) right

A few days ago, in one of my posts on Slow Living, I mentioned a Times review of Madeline Levine’s new book, “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success”.   I’m assuming she chose that title because of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, but I wish it had been titled “Guide Your Children Well”.

Today in the Sunday Op-Ed section of the Times (which has recently been exceptional in its’ content; well done NY Times), Ms. Levine has an article titled “Raising Successful Children” where she discusses the dangers of overparenting.

For the most part, I agree with her.

She says, for example that “…the optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy.”

I’m not sure what she means by setting high expectations, which could be detrimental depending on how it’s done. “I expect nothing less from you than all A’s” for example, as opposed to modeling respect, motivation, passion and effort,  and supporting your child in doing the same without announcing it as an “expectation”.

Levine calls this type of parenting “authoritarian”.    Which would not be my choice of word, but it’s not my book.

Here are some of the things Levine advocates in parenting:

“…reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy and limiting interference results in better academic and emotional outcomes.”

“Once your child is capable of doing something…move on.  Continued, unnecessary intervention makes your child feel bad about himself (if he’s young) or angry at you (if he’s a teenager).”

“Hanging back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting… Under normal circumstances, an 11-year-old girl is quite capable of taking care of herself for a few hours in the company of her friends.”

“…children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering.”

“If you want your children to be able to stand up for their values, you have to do the same.  If you believe that a summer spent reading, taking creek walks and playing is better than a specialized camp, then stick to your guns.”

“Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling.  There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent.”

All good.  All the kinds of stuff life learners and unschoolers have been talking about and practicing for a long time.

There is only one section of her article in which I disagree with Levine.  Predictably it has to do with education and the role of a “good parent” in this regard.   She says:

“There is an important distinction between good and bad parental involvement.  For example, a young child doesn’t want to sit and do his math homework.  Good parents insist on compliance, not because they need their child to be a perfect student but because the child needs to learn the fundamentals of math and develop a good work ethic.  Compare that with the parent who spends weeks ‘helping’ his or her child fill out college applications with the clear expectation that if they both work hard enough, a ‘gotta get into’ school is a certainty…  In both situations parents are using control, in the first case behavioral (sit down, do your math) and in the second psychological (we’re applying)”

Levine believes that only the second type of control, the psychological, is damaging.  I’d argue that particularly when it comes to learning, both types of control hinder and do not help.

If being made to sit down and do your math developed kids who loved and were great at math while also having a wonderful work ethic, we’d have a nation of dedicated math geniuses.   The basics – the things you need to function in life – can be picked up in any number of more pleasurable ways than being forced to sit at a table doing bookwork.   Cooking, sewing, knitting, building…the list goes on and on.

So I give Levine a solid B for this article.  She got most of it right, stumbling only in the place most people stumble; her beliefs about how children learn “academic” subjects.   She is very perceptive about how children learn to walk, to be confident, to grow in autonomy and maturity and the parents’ role in all of that, but a “good parent”, in her eyes,  must still force their child to sit and do math homework.

It is thinking like Levine’s – much of it correct but still some off the mark –  that motivates me to advocate for unschoolers; for anyone writing about self-directed learning or life learning.   We’ve come a long way.  There is still a long way to go.



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