I hesitated to share this story for a few reasons. As a student and teacher of history, I know that people tend to view the past thru present lenses. Obviously, if a current teacher, to say nothing of a principal (!), acted today as Mr. Rivers did then, he would be fired immediately and his reputation would be irreparably damaged in the press and permanently so on the internet. Looking back, I would say that my mother acted the way most of my friends’ moms would have. And even if my mother was unusual, I don’t recall friends and neighbors being outraged by Mr. Rivers’ approach with me. (Hey, I wasn’t the only kid who chewed gum/soap that year. I mean, the man had the stuff stored and ready to go!)
There isn’t one principal today in 100 who would act as Mr. Rivers did then. That’s a good thing. There also isn’t one mother today in 100 who would act as mine did. That may not be such a good thing.
To be sure, Mom was old school, a proud member of the Greatest Generation who lost her father and both brothers to the cause of World War II. On that day, her message was clear, “Honey, I will always love you, but if you want to dance, you’ve gotta pay the fiddler. Maybe this experience can serve as a lesson about the way life works.”
Now I suspect that many folks will read this story and immediately start taking sides with or against my mother, with or against Mr. Rivers, perhaps even with or against me. For me, the whole point has to do with what I’ll call parental inclination. When I was up against it, my mother’s first reaction was to step back and let me handle it. From where I sit, today’s parents’ first reaction is to jump in and fix “it.” And I’m not talking about extreme issues like corporal punishment. I’m talking about everyday issues like athletic playing time, the grading of papers, and even whether or not teachers are praising their students enough. And it doesn’t stop at high school graduation. With two kids in college, I have been privy to a bird’s eye view on campus life and I must say that I am continually amazed by the extent to which parents are engaged in the daily trials and tribulations of their college-aged “children.” Suffice it to say that the current parental pain threshold for stepping in has got to be at an all-time low.
Perhaps you’ve seen the cartoon below circulating around on the Web. It captures the mood of where we currently stand relative to parental inclination.
When we step in and fix, we rob our kids in at least two ways. First, we deny them the opportunity to learn how to transcend their own troubles, a skill they will absolutely need in their adult lives. Second, we teach them to doubt their own problem-solving capabilities. Their doubts grow at the expense of their confidence.
So, when your child is up against it, consider adopting a new mantra, one in the form of a question: “Is this my issue?” And consider having your first, go-to answer be… No.
Give it a try for a few months. See what happens.
Onward, Malcolm Gauld