Monday, January 05, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - January 2009

More than thirty years ago, not long after I became RJJ’s president, I was told of an alumnus living in Greenwich, Connecticut who had struck it rich. It took some time to reach him by phone. He grew up in Borough Park and remembered Schick’s Bakery. When I told him that we needed alumni support and asked for a contribution, he laughed and said something like this: “I was going to Etz Chaim in Borough Park. My mother heard that RJJ was the “in” Yeshiva, as the best kids were going there, and so she transferred me. The first day, my rebbi smacked me. When I came home and told my mother about this, she hit me, saying that the rebbi had to be right. The pattern continued for the rest of the week. I told my mother that if she insisted on my going to RJJ, I would run away. She took me out and put me in public school. Some alumnus!” I responded, “For the privilege of one week in RJJ, what are you willing to contribute?” He laughed and promised a modest contribution, which he sent. That was our last contact.

The story came to mind while reading a New Yorker review essay on “overparenting,” a term referring to the excessive involvement of parents in the lives – and especially the education – of their children. Nowadays, if a teacher hits a student, there will be hell to pay and that’s a good thing. What isn’t necessarily good is the protectiveness of too many parents, their knowing too much about what is going on in their children’s lives, even as in certain and, at times, critical ways there is a lot that they do not know and should not know, including what is going on in their children’s minds and in their emotional lives.

Overparenting takes various forms, apart from the stereotypical mama’s boy or Jewish mothers’ syndrome where maternal love can smother a child’s healthy development into adulthood and the requisite independence that this entails. Putting aside bizarre or over-the-top illustrations of overparenting, as an example the New Yorker tells of parents of college students who buy another home so that they can be close to their offspring, what makes overparenting fascinating are the expectations that infuse the parent-child dynamic. Parents are now routinely expected to help with homework and this obligation frequently turns into parents doing the homework, writing assignments not excluded. Teachers say that when they assign a writing exercise to be done at home, what they are likely to get back is something written by the parents.

Another aspect of overparenting is the notion that school-age children must be provided with a range of extra-curricular activities, both to fill up their day and to enrich them. There is the tendency to know or want to know how the child is spending his or her day and to be able to control how the time is being spent. Of course, as many parents have learned, when the high school years hit – and even earlier – it is a difficult and perhaps hopeless task to keep tabs on one’s children.

A confluence of social changes has contributed to the spread of overparenting. These include technological developments that have profoundly affected social behavior, such things as the nearly universal availability and use of cell phones and the spreading use of text messaging. This creates at least the possibility of constant communication between parent and child. We are at once better connected and yet, as social scientists have pointed out, less connected than in previous generations. We have the enhancement of direct contact via voice and text and a diminution of emotional contact.

The critical social element in overparenting is the norm that this is the right way to act, that parents must be there for their kids and must even sacrifice so that their children are not deprived or do not feel deprived by the failure of parents to be either soccer moms or little league fathers or homework helpers. There is, accordingly, the keeping up with the Joneses factor.

One way of looking at the changes that have taken place is the role change from parents once being regarded as of a different generation with different values and interests to their becoming big brothers and big sisters. Where previously there was a generation gap and, at least in immigrant families there was also a language gap and often an educational gap, parents and children are now often in the same societal milieu.

One attitude that has gone by the wayside as the generation gap has narrowed is that whereas previously parents regarded teachers as authority figures who always or nearly always deserve respect, they now regard faculty as not on a higher plane but as individuals who can be routinely challenged. Whereas teachers were always right in the eyes of parents, nowadays when their own children are involved it is often the teacher who must prove that she or he is right. This is, of course, related to the overall societal change in how people are respected.

Admittedly, the excesses of overparenting are not universal, as they are linked intimately to the emergence of a middle class mindset. Socio-economic factors, as we know, impel people towards particular behavior and attitudes. For obvious reasons, poor families and even those that are lower middle class are less prone to overparenting than those higher up on the socio-economic scale.

In the elements that define “middle class,” the social factors are more compelling than those that are economic, which is to say that even families removed considerably from affluence cannot readily avoid a middle class lifestyle including the tendency toward overparenting. Families that attitudinally are in the middle class are apt to act as middle class, even though they are without the financial credentials that define middle class. Since American Jewry is in the aggregate clearly middle-classified, likely there is a greater incidence of overparenting among Jews than among Americans generally. This is especially manifested in the educational arena, if only because of the high value Jews place on formal education.

This brings me to the quite small world of yeshivas and day schools. I cannot say that overparenting is more pronounced in these schools than elsewhere in Jewish life. It may, in fact, be that there is less overparenting in our religious schools, if only because the chassidic and yeshiva-world sectors that constitute more than half of all American Jewish day school enrollment do not encourage and often do not allow parents to play the role in the education of their children that is par for the course in more modern Jewish schools. Fathers are expected to learn with their sons and mothers with their daughters, as well as to help out with homework. Direct involvement in what happens at school is not part of this expectation.

Yet, when it occurs the consequences of overparenting are probably greater in yeshivas and day schools. Our elementary schools and high schools are in the main small institutions. About forty-percent enroll one-hundred or fewer students. Furthermore, nearly all of our schools get by on thin administrative staffs, so that there is an absence of buffers that create what may be referred to as a bureaucratic wall separating principals and school administrators from the parent body. When parents have a problem, they go directly to the top, meaning the principal, and they may also go directly to the teacher. I know of teachers who are called by parents asking about a test or a report card grade or an assignment or some social issue that may arise in the classroom. I doubt that public school parents feel that they have the liberty or the right to pick up the phone and call their children’s teachers at home. Of course, the not inconsequential circumstance that public schools do not charge tuition and our schools charge tuition contributes to the notion that parents have the right to speak their piece whenever they want to.

Proper parenting is good and this entails a measure of emotional and other engagement in the lives of children. If the choice is between little or no involvement and excessive involvement, the latter may be preferable because it serves as a demonstration to children that their parents care, but excessive involvement exacts a cost. Parents do have a right to know, apart from report cards, how their sons and daughters are doing at school and teachers and school officials should pay heed when parents raise an issue, particularly when it deals with a home situation or another critical factor that may affect school performance.

Restraint is especially needed in yeshivas and day schools because of the lack of administrative buffers that I referred to and also because the dual curriculum in these schools creates the potential for a larger basket of issues that might arise in the education of children. There are students who do well in Judaics but not in academic subjects or the other way around and this may result in parents trying to pressure the school to adjust its educational program to meet the specific needs of a child. I am at times astounded to hear of parents who go to the school, meet with the principal and insist that the curriculum be altered because it is not tailor made to meet the needs of their children.

There are boundaries or limits and while they cannot be easily defined because each situation and each child is unique, common sense may serve as a useful guide. As in all relationship, those who are involved must know when to pull back. In an era when overparenting is the norm, parents must know when not to overparent. They must know that they are responsible for a single child while the school is responsible for a great number of children and a teacher for perhaps two dozen or more. Parents must come to understand, as is also true in all healthy relationships, that there are minor missteps that do not deserve any reaction, that at times it is best to be quiet.