The Children are Watching

I began writing this piece as a reaction to the moral dimensions of the recent college admissions scandal. As I completed it, I saw the awful and tragic news of the terrorist attack in New Zealand that killed nearly 50 people. I just couldn’t help thinking how insignificant and irrelevant my missive on the admissions scandal had immediately become. Each morning before I leave the house, I open my son’s bedroom door to kiss his sleeping head. It’s a ritual and a reminder for me of the importance of what I’m about to do each day. My revulsion and horror at the acts of violence committed in the name of a deranged ideology were almost inexplicably balanced by the love and connection I feel to my child, to his future, and to all the children with whom I have the privilege of working. As I thought more about these topics, the earlier college admissions piece didn’t seem quite as irrelevant or insignificant. I now offer that to you, in humility and with respect.

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I’m guilty. Just ask my wife. While she will always take the extra moment to involve my son in household chores -- unloading the dishwasher, taking out the garbage, folding the laundry -- I inevitably rush to check off my list and just get the job done. What seems like service and support to my child (he’s so tired and works so hard, after all!) is of course more a function of the selfish desire I have to get things done quickly and move on to the next. My wife and I have an inevitable push-and-pull on each other in that dance we call parenting, and what I most appreciate about her is the intentionality with which she structures every interaction with our son. She knows intuitively that he is watching carefully everything we do, and that giving him responsibility for himself, for his work, and for his life is the greatest gift we can give him. In our parenting journey, we model, we scaffold, and then we take off the training wheels and let them go.

It brings me back to my experiences teaching in some low income communities in New York. The suit and tie I wore to work every day seemed strangely out of place. The fact is that I had just come from five years in the State Department and had a closet full of those blue suit uniforms we were supposed to wear. But the deeper reality for me was that I was trying to model for some of my students the things they might need to do to get access to success and power in a highly competitive world. It wasn’t so different from me when I arrived to college as a first-year student with a horrible Long Island accent -- I quickly realized the error of my ways, and by the end of September began speaking what I now recognize as Standard American English, and cringed in horror to hear my younger self say words like “water” and “coffee.” Perhaps you’ve seen My Fair Lady? Well, I had to be my own Henry Higgins, which was fitting for a young person obsessed with language and phonology!

It was the same for my students in New York. At school events, the boys began coming in with crumpled, oversized suits and asking me to help them tie their ties -- their fathers had never worn them and these were the days before you could learn anything you wanted on YouTube. I began to see the ways in which I was modeling and scaffolding, before the chance to send them off into the world. They’d ultimately have to make their own choices and decisions, and decide on how they would dress, how they would speak, and how they would carry themselves in the world. But at least they had a larger, more diverse toolkit than they had before.

In thinking about my son’s future, my wife and I often face the same moral dilemma. Is the only endpoint for a happy, successful life Harvard, Stanford, or MIT? As much as we know the answer (surely not!), we feel the inevitable pressure to be “good parents” and “prepare” our boy for “success.” But if we should know anything in Silicon Valley, it’s that following the standard path isn’t the only way to be successful or even change the world. What kind of terrible message would we be sending our child if we signaled to him that there was only one measure of success, that he wasn’t worthy of it, and that our only choice was to rig the system in his favor? What would we be telling him about his own value and worth? And what lessons would we be teaching about the importance of trying and failing, of being honest, authentic, and true to oneself?

The children are watching. Even when we think they’re not. I remember the first time I had a parent complain to me that their child was learning a lot of bad words at school, and did so -- somehow completely without irony -- through a stream of profanity. That’s when I realized how hard it truly is to be reflective as a parent, and how hard it is indeed to separate our sense of self from that of our children. Is it my child that really needs and wants to get into Harvard, or is it me? I remember a parent at school once berating her first grader in the hallway that he needed to get his act together -- that his father had gone to Dartmouth and Columbia Law School, and that he needed to live up to that legacy! These things sound crazy when we see them in other people, but they are massively difficult to confront in ourselves. I’m guilty.