Surviving Mommy-ville

Last week, I attended a conference on teaching pedagogy and strategy, which was generally uneventful and filled with such in-the-box phrases as “thinking outside the box” and “we must empower students.” During one panel, a tutoring center director spoke passionately and earnestly about college students who are “at risk” – presumably, they are at risk of failure, of flunking out of college, of spending their lives working at Target or living in their parents’ basements.

But this woman intrigued me. I was impressed by her lovely, multi-slide PowerPoint, filled with dense text and colorful graphics, but even moreso by her slinky black outfit and patriot-red lipstick. (Wow. I mean, I hope that I can look like that when I’m 60 too. Hell, I’d like to look like that when I’m 40.)

But I digress.

She described these at-risk students as kids who typically “lack a stick-to-it-iveness” (swear to God). They are also “non-persisters.” She was far too polished and professional to have typed “lazy fools” into her glittery PPT, so instead she wrote that they demonstrate a “tendency not to follow through with assignments and appointments.” That’s the next bullet point.

By the time her presentation ended (she cleverly allotted 20 minutes for Q&A – I almost asked her if she does pilates? Zumba?), every college professor in the room is in full complaint and distress mode. These poor students, these lost children of Generation Y, these Millenials who were never stimulated in high school and who were pushed through anyway, these kids who are struggling with part-time jobs and uncertainty about academic majors – what can we do to help them? I have a theory that almost every college professor, at least the ones in the Humanities – well, at least the ones in the Humanities whom I know – are Catholic school survivors. We’re always obsessed with how we are responsible for everything wrong in the world.

I keep quiet during the Q&A. I don’t want to rain on everyone’s liturgy. But in my head, I’m thinking: we’re a little late to save this essay. The paper deserves an F. you can get it to a C. Maybe. But not to an A. Because the only thing that could have done that, could have made sure that the non-persisters developed a “stick-to-it-iveness”, is solid parenting.

Oh, you’ve heard this one before? Well, let me explain my perspective. Humor me.

Let me say, though, that I’m not a Tiger Mom.  Remember her? Professor-I-Hired-a-Violin-Teacher-on-a-Family-Vacation-Thereby-Disrupting-Vacation? (Yes, I read the entire memoir, instead of just gasping about it. It took about four hours.) But, a confession: I thought, in the end, that she really was a dedicated mom, not a tyrant.  She wanted to make sure her kids were achievers, and that they understood that success is the result of hard work, not natural genius.

Here’s the opposite of the Tiger Mom, someone that many of you will recognize as a typical “mommy”: a few years ago, I walked into Borders Bookstore (God, do I miss Borders), and held the door open for a young mother pushing a baby stroller. An older boy, maybe 4 or 5, held onto her shirt. She perkily thanked me, and we exchanged that weary “Boy, isn’t mothering hard work!” look.

But then, as she entered a pool of sunshine on the sidewalk, she turned to her older boy and said, “Oooh! Look!  Look! Our friend the sun! Say hello to the sun, honey!”

Yes, I know.

And yet, seemingly used to obeying such bizarre demands, her boy dutifully called out, “Hello sun!” And he giggled. She giggled too, missing the fact that he never looked up into the clouds at his pal the sun. “Good job, sweetie,” she said.

What did he learn, then, from his attentive mom? That being cute is enough. Effort not required. It’s an example in action of the current mantra in American parenting and education, that “trying is half the effort.”

The problem is that, of course, it’s not true. “Knowing” is actually half the battle (according to what I learned from GI Joe cartoons as a kid).  Trying is nice. It’s necessary. But it’s the eventual knowledge and success that counts.

Kids are cute. They also try to get away with the craziest things. My son, who knows that the Wii is only played on Saturday mornings in our house, once tricked me: he turned off the volume and shut the door to the playroom while I was upstairs cooking dinner. I caught him and reprimanded him. He did it again the next day. The third time he did it, the Wii disappeared for a month.

Harsh? But that month was harder for me than it was for him, believe me. I had to hear, the first Saturday, that initial scream of disbelief: “What!? But… but… Mawwwwm! Pwease!”

Pause for ten seconds, then repeat.

My steady, soothing stream of replies included things like: Here’s a puzzle.  Here’s a ball and bat. Here’s your bike helmet. Have fun doing something else. But no Wii. This is called a consequence, honey: c-o-n-s-e-q-u-e-n-c-e.

He hated me. His five-year-old mind found me completely revolting and horrible. I wasn’t happy about that, but as I pitched him the ball and we talked, he was fine. At least, for an hour or so. But after a mere six days, he barely talked about it.  He’s followed the rules ever since. He will grow up, I hope, to be a persister.

My children do not say hello to the sun. Instead, they look at it to try to figure out what time of day it is based on its position in the sky – they think that the ancient way of telling time is “super cool.” I think it’s super cool that they think it’s super cool.

But then, of course, all children are intrigued by learning. To them, the coolest thing of all is whatever their parents are doing in that moment – if mommy is talking on the phone, they want in on the action. If dad is gardening, they want to yank out some weeds too.  If mom and dad struggle with something, but keep at it until they succeed, that becomes a habit too. Rewards for “effort” or accolades for being cute result in young adults who are “at risk” for coping with reality.