The Vanishing Parent

This is the first article is a series of SpinEdu posts on parenting and education.

I can’t stand the end of March.

Tens of thousands of mostly young people prepare for the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, Florida. The venue is a verifiable who’s-who of electronic music stars—and a festering pit of booze, drugs, sex and illegal behavior.

My heart sinks when I hear students explain how excited they are to attend this debauchery, which grants them a free pass to act irresponsible, immature and delinquent.

The event gets so out-of-control crazy that in a March 17, 2011 Miami New Times article, author S. Pajor wrote the “Ultimate Ultra Music Festival Survival Kit.”

“The music festival experience can be an arduous and often dangerous 72-hour trip into a deep, dancey heart of darkness,” Pajor writes. “And like any large-scale gathering of unpredictable human creatures, the whole thing has the potential to tip over into total chaos with nary a moment’s notice.”

In fact, “total chaos” is exactly what most attendees expect to get with the price admission, which can exceed $400. They even celebrate the absurdity of what transpires.

Last week, several of my students directed me to a YouTube clip of last year’s festival, featuring a heavily intoxicated semi-nude girl making out with a tree. The footage is too graphic to show here.

All of a sudden, it seems obvious. The problems with America’s education system seem a distant second to a sweeping parenting crisis. Who in their right mind would let their underage kids attend the Ultra Music Festival—much less buy tickets for them?

Regardless of polarized and heated ideas on education reform, we cannot hope to make change in the classroom without first addressing how we raise children.

I’m not a father, nor do I profess any firsthand expertise in what makes effective parenting. But after several weeks of researching current authorities, I read From Santa to Sexting, a great book on this subject by Brenda Hunter and her daughter, Kristen Blair.

Blair is an education writer, columnist and proud parent of an 11- and a 15-year-old. Hunter is a respected psychologist, concerned with today’s parenting culture—or lack thereof. They empower parents with the tools and knowledge they need to guide a tech-savvy generation into successful adulthood.

When I speak with this mother-daughter team, I notice a clear sense of urgency in their voices. They are passionate about spreading their message and stopping what Hunter agrees with me is a “parenting crisis.”

I respect that they don’t care about ruffling a few feathers.

“When we interviewed school personnel, principals, teachers, [and] guidance counselors what we heard repeatedly was that it’s the kid of the unaware parent that gets into trouble,” Hunter says.  “We also heard that parents today want to be buddies, and friends rather than authority figures…”

For many mothers, being a “buddy” also means buying their daughters skimpy clothing. Just visit Lu Lu*s or Nasty Gal, popular online shopping destinations that teen girls frequent.

Betsy Brown, editor of the popular fashion blog A Few Goody Gumdrops, believes that everybody can be fashionably dressed— regardless of age and budget. I admit my complete ignorance of anything fashion-related, but I’ve learned a lot from Brown, a proud mother of two college graduates.

Her site goes to great lengths to show that your can dress trendy and hip while maintaining a stylish and tasteful look.

“The biggest problem or challenge that I see is inappropriate teen dressing, many times fostered by the adult who is trying to be the child’s buddy rather then the parent,” Brown says. “When this occurs, the parent looses their ability to enforce appropriate behavior and dress code.”

I’m disgusted by what even some middle school girls wear when they’re out-and-about, with too little clothing that’s way too revealing. I can think of only one word to accurately describe parents who tolerate this sort of behavior: nauseating.

This behavior encourages males to treat girls as nothing more than sexual objects—while eroding important core values of decency, self-respect, and character.

For students who lack these anchors, educators face a difficult challenge.

In the Sept. 14, 2011 edition of The New York Times, education reporter Paul Tough writes an intriguing article, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”.

Tough explains how Dominic Randolph, headmaster at the Riverdale Country School in New York, one of the finest independent schools in the country, not only did away with Advanced Placement classes (which I approve of strongly), but also worked to ensure that students were learning and practicing character.

Tough turns to Psychology Professors Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson to define what traits are best associated with character:

The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

In the character-building department, teachers have a lot of slack to take-up. Still, there is tremendous disagreement as to whether educators should even broach this subject.

“It’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense,” Tough writes.

I appreciate both viewpoints. I strongly disapprove of teachers’ thrusting personal values upon impressionable young minds. Our job is to educate, not indoctrinate.

But if students lack character lessons from mature parents at home, how can they transfer what they learn in school to becoming better-grounded individuals? How could they hope to appreciate the trials and tribulations of characters in English and history class? Would they consider pursuing a career in medicine to help others?

Hunter and I discuss the disappearance of the American dinner table, and how with the growing economic crisis, many more mothers work late. When do parents have the time to teach character?

“There is 24-hours in every day,” Hunter says. “We choose how we spend it, and the children are entrusted to us, and their needs cannot be parked in some corner.”

I agree with Hunter, who urges parents to spend ten minutes of face-to-face time alone with each child every day.

I do know how hard many parents struggle to save for private school and college tuition, all in a loving effort to give loved ones better opportunities. How can anybody weigh the merits of this sacrifice against spending more time with children? This is a difficult question, and I’m glad that Hunter provides some much-needed advice.

Hunter says she has “fire in the belly,” and she’s fully dedicated to her mission.

“You cannot know your child if you don’t talk to that child everyday,” she says.

Interview transcript:

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Next week, SpinEdu will feature an article on parenting and technology.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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