Tuesday, March 7, 2006
What are we telling our kids when we dress up their reports with fancy borders in Microsoft Word or create detailed Excel spreadsheets that document the timeline of the industrial revolution? When their California missions look like the work of a professional artist, what are we teaching them about responsibility, individual creativity and, even, failure?
How much help is too much?
As a mother and a manager, I face this question daily and I'm acutely aware that the decisions I make with my children influence the type of employees they're destined to become.
My take on it is to train, guide and let go. But a recent article in Fast Company magazine indicated I'm a Gen X-er in the minority. The "millennials" (those born between 1978 and 2000) who are on my staff, or will be, are accustomed to help from their Boomer parents completing their homework, making decisions for them and giving them a sense of being invincible. As the mother of two millennials, I'm now asking myself, "Am I contributing to this, too?
At the beginning of the school year, my daughter's fifth grade teacher lectured her over-involved parents about letting go. This was the year, she said, that our children had to learn for themselves. She advised us that it's their responsibility to do their homework. We weren't to remind or cajole and we certainly shouldn't correct the work. This was our kids' crash course for middle school after five years of Mommy and Daddy checking and double-checking assignments.
I found this task liberating and frustrating at the same time. It was great to ask my daughter if she did her homework and receive confirmation it was done. It was agonizing to review it and comment that half the problems were done incorrectly. Therein was the test for me. She would say, "No, they're fine, that's how my teacher wants them done." I would say, "But the answers are wrong and you didn't show your work." The silence would hang like thick fog between us. Until she'd say, again, "They're fiiiiiine, Mom," stretching the "i" in "fine" like it pained her to answer me. At that point I would take a deep breath, uncurl my fingernails that were digging into my palms and say, "OK" through clenched teeth.
Then, I would wait until the homework or test on the subject came home. I was usually right and the teacher would leave comments on the work about taking more care, asking my daughter to show how she came to her answers and other suggestions. That was my second test - how do I respond when I'm now proven right? Luckily, I didn't have to do anything because this teacher's technique worked. Because, in exchange for giving the children freedom to do their homework on their terms and their timetable, she expected good, careful work. And, when she didn't get it, she let them know in the notes she wrote to them and the grades she gave them. That got my daughter's attention better than any cajoling I could have done.
These choices, to let go when we should and be quiet when we don't want to, are some of the hardest we have to make as parents. And if we don't make the choice to let our children be independent, what becomes of them when they enter the workplace and are expected to perform? It's not necessarily a pretty picture. According to the Fast Company article, millennials have been known to demand feedback and buck authority, seeing hierarchy as a waste of time, completely dissatisfied with the status quo. Feedback and criticism are often poorly received because who ever told them they were wrong before? And, when it comes from a professor or a boss, they're as likely to ask their parent to join them at the review of their work as they are to ignore the criticism.
On the plus side, these young people who grew up with the Internet, video games and cell phones, are risk takers and excellent at multi-tasking.
So, as the late millennials and post 2000s grow up, I wonder if the parents of today are preparing their kids for a workforce that is currently led by Boomers and Gen X-ers?
In my everyday life, I see glimmers of hope and examples that cause my eyebrows to raise so high I'm afraid they'll stay that way permanently.
From my archive of bad memories, I offer these examples. Attending an event with a large group of children and telling them they are straying too far away from the adults and getting blank stares and no movement. Repeating myself, this time explaining that an adult is talking to them and I expect them to move, now! This time, they reluctantly move a little bit closer.
Going shopping with my daughter and her friends and explaining that everyone is allowed to choose one treat after lunch. One child announces that she has her own money and she is using it to buy several different desserts. I patiently explain that while she's on my watch, she may choose one. She continues to assert that she has her parent's permission and I can call them if I want to. This was one of those moments when I'm sure my eyebrows rose at least an eighth of an inch.
Then there is the experience that gives me hope for this generation, some proof that children do thrive in an environment with boundaries as long as they can find adults courageous enough to enforce them.
Recently, my daughter's teacher had to leave her job due to a family emergency. It was all very sudden; one day she was leading the class, the next she was driving across the country. My daughter was more surprised than sad because it all happened so fast. I knew this wasn't her favorite teacher in her elementary school career, but I would venture to say she was the one she most respected.
On her teacher's last day, my daughter told me that her teacher was strict and hard, but she and her friends knew she was like that because she was preparing them for the future. She wanted them to be ready. My daughter said she would miss her.
With those words, I felt this generation would be OK.