That’s the question that occupied the thoughts of a sixth-grade Sunday school class at The Riverside Church, and who better to pose it to than one of the best scientific minds of our time, Albert Einstein?
We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men to try and have our own question answered.
We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.
He replied a mere five days later, sharing with her his thoughts on faith and science:
January 24, 1936
I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:
Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.
But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein
While the letter doesn’t reveal much about Einstein’s own personal views on religion, he brilliantly manages to capture the the sublime sense of wonder that science can evoke in a way that it’s possible to describe as “religious.”
Josh Jones of Open Culture commented, “I think it’s a moving exchange between two people who couldn’t be further apart in their understanding of the world, but who just may have found some small common ground in considering each other’s positions for a moment.”
Here’s an interesting Washington Post opinion piece from CSH Jr. Grace Isford, a former CSH Middle School student!
By Grace Isford, Published: December 27
Grace Isford is a high school junior in Greenwich, Conn.
The college hype machine is overwhelming. So I decided to bypass the sugar-coated information of tour guides, review books and even adults seeking to help — and instead harness social media to slice through the conventional wisdom.
As a tour guide at my high school, I know that tours convey only surface information.Adults exacerbate the problem by telling students which schools are best despite having limited information and relying primarily on institutions’ reputations. And books on collegesuse simplistic labels such as “party” or “suicide” schools, catch-all terms that attract or deter students for the wrong reasons.
Twitter is a good way to get a sense of what the general public thinks about a particular topic. So I searched tweets about a number of well-known schools and divided the results into three general categories: positive, negative and neutral.
The six schools I chose to study — not necessarily ones to which I plan to apply next year — range from large state schools to private research universities. Many have entrenched reputations that veer to extremes.
The results were surprising.
To tabulate my College Twitter Happiness Index, I compiled a pool of 100 unique tweets from public personal accounts mentioning each university. To calculate the percentage of happy students at a college, I added positive tweets, subtracted negative ones and discounted neutral tweets.
There is, to be certain, a subjective element in determining whether a particular tweet is positive or negative. But Twitter is not a medium known for subtlety, and the distinctions usually are clear.
The University of Chicago is often said to be a school “where fun goes to die.” Yet my College Twitter Happiness Index registered 70 percent happy for the university. As one University of Chicago student wrote, “I am seriously so in-love with this school. #UChicago.” I found a similarly unexpected outcome at Cornell University, which has a reputation for exceedingly pressured students and was the subject of media attention in 2010 for student suicides. Yet my calculations pegged the school’s happiness index at a robust 58 percent. My calculations for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school often stereotyped to have a less-than-vibrant social life, found the student happiness index to be 67 percent. Party on!
Conversely, universities with reputations for being “party schools” seemed to produce unhappier students. For example, the University of Southern California , where students bask in the Golden State sun, came in at 46 percent. One USC student tweeted, “So much studying #USC #Stressed.” Similarly, the University of Colorado had a 43 percent happiness index. And by my calculations, the University of Florida, a.k.a. Party Central, had a happiness index of only 39 percent.
Perhaps the University of Chicago, the place where fun supposedly goes to die, actually creates a much happier environment than do party schools such as USC or Florida. Students who attend the University of Chicago may be happier because they work harder at engaging subjects, or perhaps many of them merely use Twitter as a means of positive expression.
Whatever the reason for the disparities between public perceptions of colleges and the reality on campus, prospective students ought to be careful. Teenagers shouldn’t let the influence of the college hype machine dictate where they apply because a school cannot be accurately assessed from tour guides, rankings and know-it-all adults. It’s better to make decisions based on where students actually are happiest.
I’m only one high school student, but tools such as my College Twitter Happiness Index are a way to cut through the clutter.
SANFORD, Fla. — Before Haley Berg was done with middle school, she had the numbers for 16 college soccer coaches programmed into the iPhone she protected with a Justin Bieber case.
She was all of 14, but Hales, as her friends call her, was already weighing offers to attend the University of Colorado, Texas A&M and the University of Texas, free of charge.
Haley is not a once-in-a-generation talent like LeBron James. She just happens to be a very good soccer player, and that is now valuable enough to set off a frenzy among college coaches, even when — or especially when — the athlete in question has not attended a day of high school. For Haley, the process ended last summer, a few weeks before ninth grade began, when she called the coach at Texas to accept her offer of a scholarship four years later.
“When I started in seventh grade, I didn’t think they would talk to me that early,” Haley, now 15, said after a tournament late last month in Central Florida, where Texas coaches showed up to watch her juke past defenders, blond ponytail bouncing behind.
“Even the coaches told me, ‘Wow, we’re recruiting an eighth grader,’ ” she said.
In today’s sports world, students are offered full scholarships before they have taken their first College Boards, or even the Preliminary SAT exams. Coaches at colleges large and small flock to watch 13- and 14-year-old girls who they hope will fill out their future rosters. This is happening despiteN.C.A.A. rules that appear to explicitly prohibit it.
The heated race to recruit ever younger players has drastically accelerated over the last five years, according to the coaches involved. It is generally traced back to the professionalization of college and youth sports, a shift that has transformed soccer and other recreational sports from after-school activities into regimens requiring strength coaches and managers.
The practice has attracted little public notice, except when it has occasionally happened in football and in basketball. But a review of recruiting data and interviews with coaches indicate that it is actually occurring much more frequently in sports that never make a dime for their colleges.
Early scouting has also become more prevalent in women’s sports than men’s, in part because girls mature sooner than boys. But coaches say it is also an unintended consequence of Title IX, the federal law that requires equal spending on men’s and women’s sports. Colleges have sharply increased the number of women’s sports scholarships they offer, leading to a growing number of coaches chasing talent pools that have not expanded as quickly. In soccer, for instance, there are 322 women’s soccer teams in the highest division, up from 82 in 1990. There are now 204 men’s soccer teams.
“In women’s soccer, there are more scholarships than there are good players,” said Peter Albright, the coach at Richmond and a regular critic of early recruiting. “In men’s sports, it’s the opposite.”
While women’s soccer is generally viewed as having led the way in early recruiting, lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey have been following and occasionally surpassing it, and other women’s and men’s sports are becoming involved each year when coaches realize a possibility of getting an edge.
Precise numbers are difficult to come by, but an analysis done for The New York Times by the National Collegiate Scouting Association, a company that consults with families on the recruiting process, shows that while only 5 percent of men’s basketball players and 4 percent of football players who use the company commit to colleges early — before the official recruiting process begins — the numbers are 36 percent in women’s lacrosse and 24 percent in women’s soccer.
At universities with elite teams like North Carolina and Texas, the rosters are almost entirely filled by the time official recruiting begins.
While the fierce competition for good female players encourages the pursuit of younger recruits, men’s soccer has retained a comparably relaxed rhythm — only 8 percent of N.C.S.A.’s male soccer athletes commit early.
For girls and boys, the trend is gaining steam despite the unhappiness of many of the coaches and parents who are most heavily involved, many of whom worry about the psychological and physical toll it is taking on youngsters.
“It’s detrimental to the whole development of the sport, and to the girls,” Haley’s future coach at Texas, Angela Kelly, said at the Florida tournament.
The difficulty, according to Ms. Kelly and many other coaches, is that if they do not do it, other coaches will, and will snap up all of the best players. Many parents and girls say that committing early ensures they do not miss out on scholarship money.
After the weekend in Florida, the coach at Virginia, Steve Swanson, said, “To me, it’s the singular biggest problem in college athletics.”
The N.C.A.A. rules designed to prevent all of this indicate that coaches cannot call players until July after their junior year of high school. Players are not supposed to commit to a college until signing a letter of intent in the spring of their senior year.
But these rules have enormous and widely understood loopholes. The easiest way for coaches to circumvent the rules is by contacting the students through their high school or club coaches. Once the students are alerted, they can reach out to the college coaches themselves with few limits on what they can talk about or how often they can call.
Haley said she was having phone conversations with college coaches nearly every night during the eighth grade.
‘It’s Killing All of Us’
The early recruiting machine was on display during the Florida tournament, where Haley played alongside hundreds of other teenage girls at a sprawling complex of perfectly mowed fields.
A Sunday afternoon game between 14-year-olds from Texas and Ohio drew coaches from Miami, Arizona, Texas and U.C.L.A. — the most recent Division I national champion. Milling among them was the most storied coach in women’s soccer, Anson Dorrance of North Carolina, who wore a dark hat and sunglasses that made him look like a poker player as he scanned the field.
Mr. Dorrance, who has won 22 national championships as a coach, said he was spending his entire weekend focusing on the youngest girls at the tournament, those in the eighth and ninth grades. Mr. Dorrance is credited with being one of the first coaches to look at younger players, but he says he is not happy about the way the practice has evolved.
“It’s killing all of us,” he said.
Mr. Dorrance’s biggest complaint is that he is increasingly making early offers to players who do not pan out years later.
“If you can’t make a decision on one or two looks, they go to your competitor, and they make an offer,” he said. “You are under this huge pressure to make a scholarship offer on their first visit.”
The result has been a growing number of girls who come to play for him at North Carolina and end up sitting on the bench.
“It’s killing the kids that go places and don’t play,” he said. “It’s killing the schools that have all the scholarships tied up in kids who can’t play at their level. It’s just, well, it’s actually rather destructive.”
The organizer of the Florida event, the Elite Clubs National League, was set up a few years ago to help bring together the best girls’ soccer teams from around the country, largely for the sake of recruiters. At the recent event, in an Orlando suburb, an estimated 600 college coaches attended as 158 teams played on 17 fields over the course of three days.
Scouts were given a hospitality tent as well as a special area next to the team benches, not accessible to parents, to set up their folding chairs. Nearly every youth club had a pamphlet — handed out by a parent during the games — with a head shot, academic records, soccer achievements and personal contact information for each player.
While the older teams, for girls in their final two years of high school, drew crowds of recruiters, they were generally from smaller and less competitive universities. Coaches from colleges vying for national championships, like Mr. Dorrance, spent most of their weekend watching the youngest age group.
Despite the rush, there is a growing desire among many coaching groups to push back. At a meeting of women’s lacrosse coaches in December, nearly every group session was dedicated to complaints about how quickly the trend was moving and discussions about how it might be reversed. In 2012, the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association proposed rule changes to the N.C.A.A. to curtail early recruiting. But the N.C.A.A. declined to take them up, pointing to a moratorium on new recruiting rules. (At the same time, though, the N.C.A.A. passed new rules allowing unlimited texting and calls to basketball recruits at an earlier age.)
“The most frustrating piece is that we haven’t been able to get any traction with the N.C.A.A.,” said Dom Starsia, the men’s lacrosse coach at Virginia. “There’s a sense that the N.C.A.A. doesn’t want to address this topic at all.”
In an interview, Steve Mallonee, the managing director of academic and membership affairs for the N.C.A.A., reiterated his organization’s moratorium on new recruiting rules. He said the new rules on texting and calling were allowed because they were a “presidential initiative.”
Mr. Mallonee said the N.C.A.A. did not track early recruiting because it happened outside of official channels. He added that new rules trying to restrict the practice would be hard to enforce because of the unofficial nature of the commitments.
“We are trying to be practical and realistic and not adopt a bunch of rules that are unenforceable and too difficult to monitor,” he said.
Club Coaches in Key Role
The early recruiting system has given significant power to club coaches, who serve as gatekeepers and agents for their players.
One of the most outspoken critics of this process is Rory Dames, the coach of one of the most successful youth club teams, the Chicago Eclipse. In Florida, Mr. Dames kept a watchful eye on his players between games, at the pool at the Marriott where they were staying. As the 14- and 15-year-old girls went down the water slide, he listed the colleges that had called him to express interest in each one.
“Notre Dame, North Carolina and Florida State have called about her,” he said as one ninth grader barreled down the slide.
Another slid down behind her. “U.N.C., U.C.L.A. and I can’t even remember who else called me about her,” he said.
Mr. Dames said that he kept a good relationship with those programs but that he generally refused to connect colleges with girls before their sophomore year in high school, when he thinks they are too young to be making decisions about what college to attend.
Some colleges, though, do not take no for an answer and try to get to his players through team managers or other parents. After one such email was forwarded to him, Mr. Dames shot back his own message to the coach: “How you think this reflects positively on your university I would love to hear.”
He did not hear back. Mr. Dames said that when his players wait, they find scholarship money is still available.
Most club coaches, though, are more cooperative than Mr. Dames and view it as their job to help facilitate the process, even if they think it is happening too early.
Michael O’Neill, the director of coaching at one of the top clubs in New Jersey, Players Development Academy, said that he and his staff helped set up phone calls so his players did not miss out on opportunities. They also tutor the players on handling the process.
“You almost have to,” Mr. O’Neill said. “If you don’t, you can get left behind.”
Once the colleges manage to connect with a player, they have to deal with the prohibition on making a formal scholarship offer before a player’s final year of high school. But there is now a well-evolved process that is informal but considered essentially binding by all sides. Most sports have popular websites where commitments are tallied, and coaches can keep up with who is on and off the market.
Either side can make a different decision after an informal commitment, but this happens infrequently because players are expected to stop talking with coaches from other programs and can lose offers if they are spotted shopping around. For their part, coaches usually stop recruiting other players.
“You play this goofy game of musical chairs,” said Alfred Yen, a law professor at Boston College who has written a scholarly article on the topic and also saw it up close when his son was being recruited to play soccer. “Only in this game, if you are sitting in a chair, someone can pull it out from under you.”
Mr. Yen said that colleges withdrew their offers to two boys his son played with, one of whom ended up in junior college and the other at a significantly less prestigious university. Other players who made early decisions went to colleges where they were unhappy, leading them to transfer.
The process can be particularly tricky for universities with high academic standards.
Ivy League colleges, which generally have the toughest standards for admission, generally avoid recruiting high school freshmen, but the programs do not stay out of the process altogether, according to coaches at the colleges, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the topic.
Two Ivy League coaches said they were generally able to look at players with a grade-point average above 3.7 and a score above 2,000 on the College Boards — out of 2,400 — much lower than the standard for nonathlete applicants. Ivy League coaches can put their recruits on a list of preferred candidates given to admissions officers, who in turn help the process along by telling coaches in the summer after an athlete’s junior year whether the player is likely to be admitted — months before other applicants find out.
Fearing a Toll on Minds
At the Florida tournament, many players said they had given up all other recreational sports in middle school to play soccer year round.
A growing body of academic studies has suggested that this sort of specialization can take a toll on young bodies, leading to higher rates of injury.
For many parents, though, the biggest worry is the psychological pressure falling on adolescents, who are often ill equipped to determine what they will want to study in college, and where.
These issues were evident on the last morning of the Florida event, on the sidelines of a game involving the Dallas Sting. Scott Lewis, the father of a high school sophomore, said his daughter switched to play for the Sting before this season because her old team was not helping steer the recruiting process enough. He watched scholarship offers snapped up by girls on other teams, he said.
“Is it a little bit sick? Yeah,” he said. “You are a little young to do this, but if you don’t, the other kids are going to.”
A parent standing next to Mr. Lewis, Tami McKeon, said, “It’s caused this downward spiral for everybody.” The spiral is moving much faster, she said, than when her older daughter went through the recruiting process three years ago.
Ms. McKeon’s younger daughter, Kyla, was one of four players on the Sting who committed to colleges last season as freshmen. Kyla spent almost 30 minutes a day writing emails to coaches and setting up phone calls. The coaches at two programs wanted to talk every week to track her progress. Throughout the year, Kyla said, she “would have these little breakdowns.”
“You are making this big life decision when you are a freshman in high school,” she said. “You know what you want in a week, but it’s hard to predict what you’ll want in four years.”
Kyla said that when she told Arkansas that she was accepting its offer, she was happy about her choice, but it was as if a burden had been lifted from her.
I am a recovering mean girl. I was in a girl clique in high school, and I’ve regretted some of our habits (matching T-shirts, exclusive sleep-overs, incessant gossiping) ever since. That’s why binge-watching Pretty Little Liars over the last several months has been such a jarring experience: It made me remember why being in a clique was fun in the first place.
The show, which starts the second half of its fourth season on Tuesday evening, is among the most-watched series in ABC Family’s history: More than three million people tuned in for the summer finale in August. Nielsen SocialGuide reports that 637,000 people tweeted about the episode 1.9 million times. Liarsdoes particularly well with women aged 12 to 34, who made up about two-thirds of the audience for the summer finale; predictably, a good portion of that group was middle- and high-schoolers.
Why has the show struck such a chord with younger women? For one thing, it’s hard to resist the murderous plot twists and “OMG moments,” as the show’s creator calls them. But the inner world of the show also has an irresistible draw: It invites viewers to feel like part of an unfolding drama, an intimate circle of secret-telling, a group of people like them. (My roommate and I are constantly arguing about which one of us is more like Spencer, the slightly prissy, overachieving brainiac who is clearly the best character in the series.) Much like being in a clique, watching the show makes you feel like you’re living an “OMG”-worthy life.
Admittedly, this is a little alarming, considering how twisted the world of Pretty Little Liars is: Four teenage best friends—Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer—drifted apart after the murder of their best friend, Allison, but they reunite when they all start getting untraceable texts from someone who calls herself (himself?) “A,” ostensibly standing for “Allison.” This mysterious stalker somehow knows all of their deepest secrets, and as the four friends try to solve the murder, “A” threatens to reveal all of their lies and misdeeds. For a group of 16- or 17-year-old girls, they’ve certainly committed their fair share of sins. Aria secretly dates her English teacher; Spencer breaks up her sister’s engagement when she makes out with the fiancé; Emily lies to her parents about getting into college; Hanna seems to steal compulsively. “A” mocks the girls as they endure one dramatic incident after another: Getting trapped in a wooden box with a dead body and almost pushed out of a moving train. Being drugged and framed for digging up Allison’s corpse. Having to stab and kill a stalker after being kidnapped and chased through the woods. And, obviously worst of all, breaking up with a whole roster of love interests who fall prey to A’s vengeful pranks. (Before she died, Allison was undoubtedly the craziest of them all: She once threw a bomb into a neighbor’s garage, blinding a girl.)
The name of the show teases viewers with one idea of what the characters are like: deceitful, annoyingly pretty, malicious. But what’s remarkable about Pretty Little Liars is that the four “liars” aren’t one-dimensional mean girls at all—they’re sometimes kind, sometimes thoughtless, often generous, and often judgmental. Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer fall into the murky territory between mean girls and stereotypical “nice girls” (think Rory Gilmore), which makes the show seem much more authentic.
The four friends clearly care about each other a lot, and for the most part, they act like decent people. Despite their shortcomings, the “liars” mostly try to treat others well: Hanna goes out of her way to befriend Lucas, the school’s yearbook editor and prototypical nerd. Aria offers to babysit when her boyfriend/former teacher discovers that he’s the father of a five-year-old kid. Spencer hawks her sister’s wedding ring to buy her broke boyfriend a truck so that he can get a job. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t count.)
But they also fall into some of the hallmark patterns of clique-y mean girls. They’re collectively suspicious of kids who strike them as weird—like Mona, the nerd-turned-prep who desperately wanted to be friends with Allison. They throw occasional dramatic fits, like when Emily tells off Jenna, the girl who Allison caused to go blind. And most potently, the girls are guilty of overwhelming groupthink about the other people in their lives—they are deeply convinced that a different person killed Allison in basically every other episode.
Surprisingly, though, in a time when bullies get vilified on the Internet and weirdkidsare celebrated on television, Pretty Little Liars has turned a textbook girl clique into a group of heroines. Unlike Mean Girls, it’s not didactic—it doesn’t seem that viewers are supposed to conclude that the girls are mockably dumb or cruel for being part of an exclusive group. The show seems pretty self-aware, as the characters often poke fun at their own stereotypes. Yet it embraces the idea that girls can grow from having a tight-knit group of girlfriends—a somewhat radical stance for a post-Mean Girls world.
Pretty Little Liars’ portrayal of how girls talk to each other and think about their social experiences seems authentic, rather than defiant or designed to teach viewers a lesson: The girls are highly sensitive to one another’s feelings, and each is constantly checking on how the other three are coping with the various dramatic episodes in their lives. They build intimacy by trading stories about the minutiae of their daily lives, listening patiently and enthusiastically to even the smallest of their friends’ stories. And while it may seem mean-spirited to delineate a clear “us” and “them,” their relationships are strengthened by knowing exactly who their best friends are and aren’t.
The show also sidesteps stereotypes about high-school romance and its seemingly antagonistic role in relation to friendship. The girls are neither “too chaste” nor “too slutty,” neither too commitment-oriented nor too hookup-oriented. They churn through a lot of boys and girls—and how awesome is it that the show includes a non-stereotypical lesbian?—but one thing stays constant: Boyfriends and girlfriends are second-string to best friends. By later seasons, a few of the beaus band together to help the girls battle “A,” but their social lives revolve around the four friends. The “liars” are a magnetic vortex that reorients all social interactions toward themselves.
Sometimes, girls are mean. Sometimes girls lie. Much of the time, they’re also decent, likeable people.
Jealousy, of course, abounds: All of the characters seem to jump to nefarious conclusions any time they see a significant other talking to someone of the opposite sex. Relationships end quickly and a little unreasonably, although often under the pressure of A’s bullying. And, admittedly, there’s an element of glibness in how the three straight girls deal with their boyfriends, which could be characterized (perhaps unfairly) as a “pretty girl” way of treating boys: Hanna leaves her boyfriend alone during most of their homecoming dance because she’s out sleuthing for “crucial” clues to Allison’s murder; she doesn’t even show up to get crowned homecoming queen. Aria flakes on her boyfriend/former high-school teacher while they’re at a birthday party, a not-so-great way to thank the 24-year-old for showing up at social function for high schoolers.
Individually, though, these romantic relationships seem authentic—in both good and bad ways. The couples fight sometimes; implausibly, one of Emily’s girlfriends even tries to drown her—and that’s before they get together. For a show so focused on girls, it’s wonderful that the boys aren’t one-dimensional—they talk about their emotional conflicts openly and often. And perhaps that’s just another part of the slightly uncomfortable believability of the show: It captures what kinds of damage emotionally immature teenage girls can inflict, but without demonizing them.
None of this is to say that all gossip is good, that all pretty girls are in cliques, or that all dramatic girls deserve a break. But Pretty Little Liars reminds viewers that girls form cliques for a reason: They’re comforting, supportive, and fun. In a perfect world, all exclusive in-groups would be open, welcoming communities.
But the world isn’t perfect, and neither are the “liars”—that’s what makes them believable. Sometimes, girls are mean. Sometimes, girls lie. And much of the time, those same girls are also decent, likeable people who care about doing the right thing. It’s a sly trick for the show to offer up a defense of cliques in the guise of a murder-thriller, but it’s also smart—this layer adds depth to a show that’s all about evoking the “OMG.”
Thirteen years ago, when I was a relatively new teacher, stumbling around my classroom on wobbly legs, I had to call a student’s mother to inform her that I would be initiating disciplinary proceedings against her daughter for plagiarism, and that furthermore, her daughter would receive a zero for the plagiarized paper.
“You can’t do that. She didn’t do anything wrong,” the mother informed me, enraged.
“But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted off of web sites,” I stammered.
“No, I mean she didn’t do it. I did. I wrote her paper.”
I don’t remember what I said in response, but I’m fairly confident I had to take a moment to digest what I had just heard. And what would I do, anyway? Suspend the mother? Keep her in for lunch detention and make her write “I will not write my daughter’s papers using articles plagiarized from the Internet” one hundred times on the board? In all fairness, the mother submitted a defense: her daughter had been stressed out, and she did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.
In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.
While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.
The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.
I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories were pretty good — until I read a study out of Queensland University of Technology, by Judith Locke, et. al., a self-described “examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting.”
Overparenting is characterized in the study as parents’ “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In an attempt to understand such behaviors, the authors surveyed psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers. The authors asked these professionals if they had witnessed examples of overparenting, and left space for descriptions of said examples. While the relatively small sample size and questionable method of subjective self-reporting cast a shadow on the study’s statistical significance, the examples cited in the report provide enough ammunition for a year of dinner parties.
Some of the examples are the usual fare: a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater. Yawn. These barely rank a “Tsk, tsk” among my colleagues. And while I pity those kids, I’m not that worried. They will go out on their own someday and recover from their overprotective childhoods.
What worry me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the the authors, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”
This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.” One study participant described the problem this way:
I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.
These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.
I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.
I’m done fantasizing about ways to make that mom from 13 years ago see the light. That ship has sailed, and I did the best I could for her daughter. Every year, I reassure some parent, “This setback will be the best thing that ever happened to your child,” and I’ve long since accepted that most parents won’t believe me. That’s fine. I’m patient. The lessons I teach in middle school don’t typically pay off for years, and I don’t expect thank-you cards.
I have learned to enjoy and find satisfaction in these day-to-day lessons, and in the time I get to spend with children in need of an education. But I fantasize about the day I will be trusted to teach my students how to roll with the punches, find their way through the gauntlet of adolescence, and stand firm in the face of the challenges — challenges that have the power to transform today’s children into resourceful, competent, and confident adults.
“Hollywood dishes out too much praise for small things,” the great actor Jimmy Stewart once said. “I won’t let it get me, but too much praise can turn a fellow’s head if he doesn’t watch his step.” He was talking about the sick power compliments can have on a person’s ego: You hear enough times that you’re awesome and you start to believe that you’re the awesomest. And then you become insufferable.
A new set of studies shows that for kids, high praise can have the opposite effect on self-esteem: It can actually make some children feel worse about themselves. “That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful: The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children with Low Self-Esteem” found that when adults give excessive compliments to children with low confidence, the children were less likely to pursue challenges.
One of the studies involved 240 children who visited a science museum in the Netherlands. The researchers asked each of the kids to complete a self-esteem assessment to determine if they had high or low confidence. Then, the children were asked to draw a famous painting and told that a professional painter would evaluate it. After they finished their paintings, the children were given a card from the painter (who did not in fact exist) with one of three responses: “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” (inflated praise); “You made a beautiful drawing!” (non-inflated praise); or no comment about the drawing at all (no praise).
The researchers then tested the kids’ willingness to take on new challenges. They asked the children to make a new drawing and let them pick their subject: either a complex drawing or a simple one. It turned out that the students with low self esteem were less likely to do a complex drawing if they’d received inflated praise. “Compared to non-inflated praise, inflated praise decreased challenge seeking in children with low self-esteem,” the researchers wrote.
So it seems that the best way to improve kids’ self-esteem is to give them frank, straightforward praise. The only problem is, though, that parents and teachers often do the opposite. The researchers also found that adults are more likely to heap inflated praise on children with low-self esteem—presumably in a well-intentioned attempt to make them feel better.
Last month I wrote about how young teachers aren’t being taught how to praise students effectively. Teacher training programs emphasize rules and routines as the key to classroom management but often overlook the role of encouragement in creating a positive learning environment. The “inflated praise” studies only highlight the need for better training in this area. Adults are trying to boost children’s self-confidence, but their efforts are backfiring. Teachers trying to reach kids with low self-esteem need to know what works and what doesn’t.
The helicopter parent has crashed and burned. With millennials reaching adulthood it has become clear that this hovering style of parenting results in overly dependent young adults, plagued by depression or less satisfaction with their lives and anxiety, who cannot even face the workplace without the handholding their parents have led them to expect. The literature is now replete with indictments of over parenting and the havoc it creates. In her bookSlouching Toward Adulthood, Sally Koslow documented a generation so cosseted that they have lost the impetus to grow up or leave home. The over-involved parent has gone from paragon of caring to a figure of fun.
The pendulum has swung, and as is so often the case, it may have over reached its mark. Parenting pundits now argue for the benefits of natural consequences, for letting the world take it toll on kids as method of teaching them grit and life’s necessary coping skills. Failure has become the new success.
Time captured this zeitgeist with a cover story in which editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs explained:
Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher. We’re often the ones who hold them down.
This thinking was a reaction to a generation of hovering parents who cleared the way and smoothed over life’s bumps, who metaphorically swaddled their children in bubble wrap. But the reaction to this unfortunate method of parenting has perhaps been an over-reaction.
The antidote to heavy-handed parenting is not hands-off parenting. There is not a stark choice between doing things for our children and thereby disabling them, and leaving them to tackle challenges on their own. The middle ground, hands-on parenting, involves neither spoiling a child by clearing their path for them, nor stepping away and watching them fail.
Even as the parenting tide was turning away from helicopter moms and dads, there was a problem with the newfound orthodoxy. Less engaged parenting isn’t always better, and in the realm of education, an involved parent leads to better outcomes. As Gibbs noted in her Time story,
Many educators have been searching for ways to tell parents when to back off. It’s a tricky line to walk, since studies link parents’ engagement in a child’s education to better grades, higher test scores, less substance abuse and better college outcomes.
In a recent New York Times post, educators were asked how parents should cope with an underperforming teen, one who has previously shown ability but has become unmotivated and indifferent. Jessica Lahey, the teacher/author (andregular Atlantic contributor) who wrote the piece, acknowledges that this is the most frequent and difficult question that parents pose to educators. In this case the student in question is in ninth grade and struggling through the difficult transition to the increased demands of high school.
Making students care about school enough to give their best effort is an intractable problem for both parents and teachers. Research shows that many diligent, good students find a sharp fall off in motivation in the middle-school years.
Part of this is a decline in their desire to please their parents and teachers, and part is an increase in the distractions in their lives. For some students the step up to high school from middle school is a tough adjustment requiring study and organizational skills the student does not yet possess. For others, dating, the freedom that comes with driving, and their expanded social life simply prove too difficult to balance with schoolwork. Teachers and parents can find themselves at a loss when trying to reengage otherwise capable students who are underperforming in the classroom.
The educators who weighed in on the New York Times piece were unanimous in their advice. Back off, they urged: Despite a decline in attitude and performance in a student, increased parental involvement is not what was called for. One teacher argued for keeping positive and focusing praise on what effort is evident rather than what is not being accomplished. A professor suggested that parents find out where their student’s interests lay and that they should otherwise not get involved. The sensible argument was made that teens need to find their own motivation and that parents should back off because there will be consequences at school for poor academic performance.
This measured, considered advice is very much in keeping with the times, a reaction to the over-involvement that was recommended a decade earlier. The experts argue convincingly that parents should not smooth over their child’s failures, that they should not make what is wrong right.
This all presumes, however, that the consequences of performing poorly in school will be adequate, timely, and effective in convincing a child to change his or her behavior. It presumes that parental involvement will decrease a teen’s sense of personal responsibility, rather than heightening it. And finally it presumes that schools are teaching all the skills needed to succeed in the classroom, alongside the substance of the curriculum.
If the fallout from doing poorly in school were not so long-lasting, then letting teens find their way would set them up for adulthood. But that is not the case. If in the face of underperformance, parents focus on our children’s successes, seek out their passions, reward them with life’s luxuries, and allow the school to deal with the consequences, we have let our children down.
There are few lives that are not enhanced by doing as well as possible in high school. For kids headed on an academic path, doing well creates more post-secondary school options. For teens headed into the workplace, a degree opens more doors.
Some kids find true passion in the classroom, but for many the prescribed course load is filled with subjects that are uninteresting at best. It does not matter. As parents it is our job to teach our children that liking something or not liking something is an unacceptable excuse for doing poorly. Adulthood is filled with responsibilities we would all prefer to shed, but performing at a substandard level is rarely the best option. A parent’s job is to show our kids how sometimes you work hard at something that does not call to you because that is the right thing to do.
There is, I believe, a tacit understanding between parents and their teens that may need to be made explicit. Parents are willing to work hard, to sacrifice for our kids, and to give them opportunities in life. We will drive them to baseball; we will rent them musical instruments and invest in the technology they so crave. We will give them love and encouragement, and to the best of our abilities, a stable environment in which to grow. In exchange, children are expected to do their best. Not necessarily top of the class or best on the team…but their best. If teens don’t feel like living up to this deal, there are consequences.
Teens want phones and TV, friends to come over, and to be driven to dances. They want their favorite foods from the grocery store. They want new cleats or skates. They want to go to the movies with friends. The single worst thing that we could teach them is that they can have any of these things if they do not make good on their half of the bargain. So while it may be tempting to attribute a poor performance in school to the vagaries of adolescence we do our children no favors to teach them that they will get something for nothing.
While the notion of natural consequences is an enticing one, it can be an unrealistic expectation. How many schools are going to intervene when kids are giving 50 percent effort and getting by with passing grades? What are those consequences? An astute teacher might express disappointment, and offer the encouragement that she is really expecting more. An advisor might make it clear that honors classes will become out of reach, or that remedial classes are in the offing. But these are hardly consequences to a student who has discovered that Facebook is more interesting than physics.
Waiting for natural consequences may mean waiting until the situation is grim and even then, a shortsighted teen may fail to respond appropriately. Some will come around, others will delude themselves into thinking they have the situation under control right up until the moment that they find out that they don’t. Teens live in the here and now and often underestimate the time and effort an unpleasant task requires.
Students thrive when they feel they can master the task they are given, when they see the purpose of that task, when they are engaged in the work and when they get positive feedback from peers, teachers, or parents for their efforts.
Creating these conditions, and cultivating the motivation that will follow, may well require parental intervention. When teens begin to struggle in school, that is the moment for parents to become more attuned to their child’s academic life, it is the point at which they should step up, not step back.
Parents might need to help students with their review by quizzing them, helping them to find online educational resources or by encouraging them to seek out the teacher or a tutor. Parents may need to remove distractions, provide incentives or reinforce family expectations. Much of the social cred that came from doing well in school has faded by high school. But one thing that does not change is some need for approval from parents. Teens may play tough but are not entirely indifferent to the values in their homes and the friction that is incurred from ignoring those values.
While it is easy for adults to see the direct link between academic success and increased opportunity, those dots need to be connected again and again for teens who are naive about the world of work and higher education. Nancy Hill of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found in a study of over 50,000 students that relating academic achievement to life’s later goals is one of the most effective thing parents can do to help their teens.
Although the study showed that parents’ involvement in school events still had a positive effect on adolescents’ achievement, it did not rank as highly as parents conveying the importance of academic performance, relating educational goals to occupational aspirations, and discussing learning strategies.
Poor performance in high school has its consequences in life and, while a teen may know this intellectually, they may choose to ignore it. Many high-school kids struggle because of their lack of organizational skills. While they may be capable of mastering the material, they underestimate the amount of time required, the careful notes that need to be taken or importance of test preparation or homework assignments. These are skills that can be taught, and reinforced by a parent. They are essential skills that will be needed in any academic or employment situation.
But this involves closer monitoring by parents, rather than stepping away. It involves parents saying, “How much homework do you have?” Here there will be a long pause. “How much time will that take? When are things due? What is your schedule for getting that done given your other time commitments?” Parents can model the executive function thinking that teens can lack, showing them the thinking process that leads to accomplishing tasks in a timely manner.
Many educators suggest that these types of questions are nagging, and taking responsibility for something that should be on the shoulders of the child. As a parent, I have taken a different approach, believing that teens struggle in school because of the challenges posed organization, time management, and deferred gratification and that it is our job to help teach them these large life skills before sending them out into the world.
At one point, with a son who was underperforming in high school, I mounted a large white board over his desk. Every day after school he had to write down every task that he faced and then erase each one upon completion. This served the dual purpose of keeping me informed (without daily nagging) of how much work he faced and where he was in terms of completing it and he had to stare at this oversized to-do list on the wall above his computer. No progress on the list? No car keys, no Netflix, no computer time, and eventually no cell phone. In my very small, very unscientific study I have determined that a teen will do almost anything for a cell phone.
The argument against this internationalist approach is that it cannot be sustained, that working hard at something that is painful or boring because your parents are making you, is not a lifelong strategy for success. It could be argued that parents setting up extrinsic motivation will let a kid down once his life begins to separate further from that of his parents. Here is the good news. High school only last four years, and it is nothing like the rest of life. As soon as kids arrive at college, they are given some choice about classes, teachers, their schedule and the direction of their lives. If they pass into the working world, there is some choice there as well. By demanding that they do their best for four years in the face of the protests we will hopefully have taught them the value of delayed gratification, self-control, and fulfilling their responsibility. And in doing that, as parents, we will have done our job.