School Is For Kids, Not Parents

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Sep 18, 2015

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School is firmly underway, so it’s time for the collective freak out about The Children. Our daughters’ schools recently hosted a parent night, where the teachers took pains to remind us of our importance to the learning environment before, at long last, directing us to various boards where we could volunteer. Volunteer to be in the classroom alongside our children. Volunteer to supply the classroom with items that the school should supply. Volunteer to join committees, working groups, and festival planning committees. Volunteer to sit on fundraising boards. Volunteer to coach teams. At the end, I commended the teachers for giving spirited presentations about the coming year. Because it’s about the parents, right?

When I was a kid, you essentially sorted out class yourself. If the teacher was a dummy, you dealt with it. For example, my science teacher in third grade did not understand the concept of measuring the volume of an object. My science teacher! Did I run home to my parents to summon a meeting with her? No. My friends and I did what any third-graders should do: We mercilessly mocked her for her lack of education. Of course, years later, it turns out she would be a cashier at the great American chain Wal-Mart, where knowledge is secondary to simply having a pulse.

It’s not that parents didn’t care or participate in our schooling. Rather, it was the exception, not the rule. We were expected to go to school and sort out projects, school politics, and daily life for ourselves. But those days are long gone. Today, parents get as much attention in return as they lavish upon the school. Often, one parent is at the school to have midday coffee with the principal, talk to the librarian, or to hatch various project schemes with teachers. All of it probably done with the best of intentions, but when do we give our children space to have an authentic experience of their own? In India, photos of parents literally scaling the walls to feed their children test answers went viral last year. It is a sign that parents continue to rob their children of an authentic opportunity to become themselves because they are too busy shaping their children into their own images, whether for monetary gain, personal glory or some mixture of the two.

If you work in a two-income household, where hanging around the school during the day in order to run into important school people is not an option, then you are out of luck. Most working parents cannot leave work to attend a midday outing with a teacher or administrator, or to brainstorm with other parents the best way to secure spots in coveted academic programs. Most working parents cannot meet with other parents just after school at the playground to widen their children’s social circle. And all parents today simply struggle to keep up with their children’s overscheduled lives, as the pressure to succeed  in academics, sports, and extracurricular activities is ground ever downward to younger and younger age groups.

But forget the parents — what of the kids? What of self-problem solving? Finding out how to navigate a poor teacher and still learn? Or figuring out how to be an independent thinker? I thought of these as I read a story in The Guardian about Perry Alagappan. Perry is an 18-year-old Indian-American student in Houston, Texas, in the twelfth standard. What has he done? Discovered a low-cost heavy metal filter that could revolutionize the cleaning of industrial waste across the developing world. How much is he going to charge for it? He’s going to license it to anyone who wants to develop the technology for free.

I don’t think one can raise a child like Perry by hovering over his or her every move. I assume Perry benefited from a supportive family and a safe and stable learning environment in the scientific town of Clear Lake, home to a large facility for America’s space agency, NASA. But for Perry to be truly creative, at some point, he had to think for himself. The result? He invents a novel approach to a serious problem facing the world.

We need to focus ourselves, as parents, on giving children space to breathe, develop, grow and even fail. Our schools need to stop letting the most aggressive parents run the classroom. This is the only way that our children are going to find life direction and perhaps, given enough space, solve the great problems we now face. Or not! Perhaps they’ll just simply grow into healthy, well-adjusted, self-confident adults.

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Written By Rajat Soni

Rajat is an Indian-American stay-at-home father of two girls, aged 7 and 3, one of whom was born in India. After working as a lawyer and raising his girls for several years in Mumbai, he moved to the U.S., where he became the primary caretaker for his daughters while his wife started a new job. He’s interested in exploring the role modern fathers play in the lives of their young children.

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